Export story: Jemma Kidd Make up School

Success is more than skin-deep for cosmetics business


The Jemma Kidd Make Up School didn’t plan on exporting so early, but is now seeing the majority of its sales come from overseas

Launching their make up company in 2005, Jemma Kidd and Grace Fodor had relatively modest ambitions for the first three years. Its high-end make-up products were launching in Selfridges, which the pair would use as a test bed before thinking about expanding at a later date.

A year down the line and the Jemma Kidd Make Up School’s, products were being sold in New York, Dallas, Sydney and Hong Kong. What’s more, the business plan bore no relation to the company’s incredible rate of growth.

Every good businessperson knows the value of rigorous planning. But they also know the wisdom of snapping up a good opportunity when they see it. It was basically this principle that the Jemma Kidd Make Up School followed to see exporting become such a successful and important part of its strategy.

The first unmissable opportunity came up when US department store Bergdorf Goodman saw how well the cosmetics were selling in Selfridges and wanted to be part of it. “We weren’t necessarily set up to do it,” says Tom Watson, the company’s chief finance officer. “But we were told: ‘Bergdorf won’t ask twice.'”

By March 2006, the Jemma Kidd Make Up School was exporting to New York and saw its products being sold stateside. “We justified it to ourselves because it was one store, and we knew we could manage it from the UK,” recalls Watson. “It suited our long-term goals and was achievable.”

Neiman Marcus Group, the company that owns Bergdorf, took note of the young business’ performance after a month in the US store, and decided it wanted the products in three of its outlets, too. With the business only six months old, “it was here that a pre-defined strategy really became a hostage to fortune”, says Watson.

This development forced major change. The team decided they needed people on the ground in the US, for example, and hired a local PR agency. Commercially, it made a lot of sense. “They made it very easy for us,” says Watson.

It wasn’t long before other retailers saw what was happening in Bergdorf – in particular Mecca Cosmetics. Soon the Australian store was stocking Jemma Kidd Make Up School cosmetics in seven of its outlets, and Lane Crawford in Hong Kong. Watson notes the cultural similarities with Australia as a plus point for exporting there, making the process relatively straightforward. But then the lack of cultural similarities with Hong Kong didn’t seem to prove too daunting, either. “Business does work differently there,” he says, “but you have to work with them, not against them.”

Anyone who doubts the value that being well connected can bring to a business should probably talk to co-founder Grace Fodor, whose background is in the cosmetics industry. After a particularly productive trip to New York, she returned and propositioned her colleagues with a new opportunity, warning them: “If you had just got back from New York and said to me what I’m about to say to you, I’d say you were crazy.” US department store Target had asked her if they could also stock the company’s products – in 1,500 of its stores!

Before then, roughly 20% of the business’ sales were international. This new development – requiring another round of capital funding – suddenly meant the US accounted for the vast majority of sales. The £5m-turnover business has now put more resources into America, and Watson says: “Now we’re all used to jumping on and off planes as needs be.” After some time to draw breath, though, the Jemma Kidd Make Up School is again venturing into new markets closer to home.

“Europe can be relatively saturated in terms of cosmetics,” Watson explains. “Indigenous brands hold great sway and the cost of entry can be quite high, so it doesn’t appeal unless it’s with the right partnership. We have that with our retailer in Benelux.

“Circumstance and opportunity has defined our strategy,” he sums up, but a willingness and capability to capitalise on opportunities has been the key to success.

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