Jan Wood & Tim Cunningham. Picture / Babiche Martens.

All in the Family

Every day is Mother’s Day within these three very different beauty businesses.

JAN WOOD & TIM CUNNINGHAM

“For as long as I can remember, Mum has always been heavily involved with work. When I was little it wasn’t the norm for mums to be involved in business and running companies,” says Tim Cunningham, head of The Beauty Collective.

His entrepreneurial mother Jan Wood is sitting across the table at the Takapuna office of this family company you may never have heard of.

There’s a good chance, however, that you will have used some of its products, ranging widely from hair pins and brushes to nail files and scissors, makeup bags and much more. They’re sold under varying brand names in pharmacies and department stores, with The Beauty Collective a key local player in the beauty accessories sector.

Jan practically invented the category in New Zealand and now Tim has taken what they make to the world, with deals to supply Boots and John Lewis in the UK, the TJX Companies with their 6000 stores in the US, David Jones in Australia, and Asos online.

She’s little and live-wire, he’s lanky and laidback. Perhaps it’s because he learned to be adaptable at an early age. Her workers often doubled as his caregivers. Both are chuffed that some are still with the company, which now has 30 staff, including a nimble design team of six.

Ten years ago, there was just the two of them working from home in seaside Milford building up the business again after a buy-out. Boxes piled to the ceiling ruined the million-dollar view as they formed aisles from the lounge to the front door.

“I still come to work, but I don’t really have a role,” says Jan. “We gave mum the title as our innovation manager,” counters Tim. Her strengths, he says, are in understanding production and what women want. His, she says, are in dealing with people, from staff to customers. “He’s a good boss.”

It originally started way back in the mid-1960s with hair ties. Jan, then a long-haired university BA student, decided something had to be done to replace the rubber bands and hand-sewn elastic ties women used.

She had the idea of attaching a couple of beads to an elastic. Bankrolled by her father to the tune of $300 she had a tool made to begin production herself, later using outworkers, and then a plastics factory.

She was initially too young, at under 21, to register a company, but had the foresight to approach an advertising agency and soon rounded up three girlfriends to appear with her on a black and white television commercial to boost the fledgling business. Down the track she got a young Rachel Hunter to model for her.

Jan spotted the scrunchy in New York and made a big-selling version here.

She also worked with leading British hair company Lady Jayne, designing and distributing under that name. She then won the distribution for Australian-based Manicare.

As well as learning about manufacturing, Jan was pioneering retail display, encouraging pharmacies to move bobby pins and the like out of drawers and on to her specially made units.

At her firm’s height, she had 4000 SKUS [stock-keeping units] in the warehouse.

A UK private equity firm looking to bundle beauty businesses together offered to buy her out in 1998. Tim, who was nearing the end of high school, remembers the discussions.

Jan took the money, but a few years later she was encouraged back into business by companies she had worked with previously, including Manicare, because the bundled businesses had fallen apart. The only problem was a restraint of trade clause. “The scenario was no-one in our family could touch a hairbrush,” says Tim.

The Cunninghams regrouped, in partnership with contacts in Australia, with a factory in China and new lines to distribute. Later, Jan started Via, a salon brand of hair tools and accessories, which has now been extended to retail sales. Tim worked for the business in Australia for a while before returning to help with logistics and marketing and, in recent years, steer an expansion into contract manufacturing.

“It was great having mum involved and her name still had a lot of strong goodwill in the industry. And for me, being quite naive, it was great having her there to talk to and offer guidance. She’d say to me, if I thought I’d come up with some great idea: ‘We’ve tried that and it was a disaster’.”

With changing fashions, hair accessories are much less of a focus nowadays, with the QVS beauty accessories brand doing well and the toilet bag business growing fast. The company has just bought out Gainsborough, its biggest local competitor in bags, although it plans to keep the long-established name along with its own TL+C and Caddy ranges.

Skincare and haircare pharmacy brands using trendy ingredients such as argan oil have been started, umbrella and costume jewellery lines added, and a new lip balm range is about to launch.

The diverse operations were pulled together under the umbrella name The Beauty Collective last year after the Cunninghams bought out their Australian partners.

Tim, who is keen to drive further expansion, says the biggest challenge is retaining an innovative fashion edge. Jan knows that fashion is cyclical, so her 70s leather hair ties and square wooden bobbles might live again.
“It’s exciting for us that we are sitting in a little office in Takapuna on the North Shore doing this,” says Tim who moved the boxes — and himself — out of home long ago.

Tim says there’s no “it has to be done this way” moments, and the male-female, mother-son dynamic works really well.

“I have a pretty fortunate set up, I live in the city, I grew up on the Shore. We’re a really close family, my aunty and uncle live next door to my parents, we grew up with my cousins. I get the best of both worlds, I come to work and get to see my family every day.”

Ann Porter & Victoria Porter-Andrews. Picture / Babiche Martens.

ANN PORTER AND VICTORIA PORTER-ANDREWS

“I’d love it if Nellie Tier continued and the children were involved,” says the boutique brand’s Victoria Porter-Andrews, whose mother Ann Porter co-founded the company.

With family of Ann’s long-time business partner Sara Sadd living overseas, the matriarchal Porter line looks best placed to carry on the business — should the next generation be so inclined. Already 20-year-old Kushla Porter, Ann’s granddaughter and Victoria’s niece, works at Nellie Tier as office and online manager.

Victoria’s daughters Luka, 12, and Clover, 11, help out during the school holidays, donning hair nets and pouring bath salts. “At the moment one wants to be a teacher and the other a vet, but wouldn’t it be lovely ... They’re always very proud of seeing our stuff in the shops,” says Victoria.

“What are you working on now, grandmum?” is a frequent question, says Ann. So, says Victoria, is being asked what it’s like working with family. Plenty of people have told her: “I could never work with my mother.” Victoria insists it is “delightful” and says the pair have always been close.

The mother and daughter share smart bobs and easy laughs. Victoria rings Ann daily at 7.30am. She came on board as sales and marketing manager when pregnant with Clover, just after her mother had decided to turn a kitchen-table hobby making hand cream into a business venture. “I could see how passionate she was.”

The women were encouraged by then-neighbour Jo Leggat, who was setting up the Isabel Harris gift store and placed a first order for six jars of green tea and geranium hand cream after “the gin testing on Friday night”.

These quickly sold out and Ann realised she needed to develop more products. She persuaded Sara, with whom she had run Masterworks Gallery for several decades, to turn her hand to soap-making. Within a few years, Ann and Sara sold the gallery to focus fully on Nellie Tier, which is named in tribute to Ann’s grandmother.

Eleanor (Nellie) Tier, was a pioneer settler in Motueka who died aged 27, leaving nine children, some of whom made their own lotions and potions. The names of these resourceful women — and more recent female Porter arrivals — feature on the background of the product labels. Lest you think Sara is missing out, her family members are listed also.

To keep growing families happy, labels are updated and boys’ names have been added to some of the more unisex products.

Both Ann and Victoria say they do not want the company to grow too big, for fear it will lose the family feel. Accordingly, exports aren’t a big focus, although they are pleased with expansion into luxury lodges, boutique hotels and day spas.

“We always saw it as a small thing,” says Ann, “like you make pots of jam and give them away.”

Nellie Tier has eight staff, and products are still genuinely handmade in a small factory near St Lukes, not too far from Victoria’s home in Mt Albert. Ann lives on Waiheke, but spends several days a week in the city. She is in the factory on Mondays and Tuesdays and then works from home, where she formulates essential oils.

“In terms of developing the fragrance, no-one could do as well as mum,” says Victoria.

When Ann, who had made a face oil for herself, wanted to get into skincare, Victoria was dubious, figuring the market was too competitive. “She came to me with fish and chips and a bottle of red wine, in the end I figured we could give it a go.” Face care is now the fastest-growing part of the business.

Does mother know best then? Victoria says they talk things out. “We can tell each other openly when we are driving each other insane, but it’s not very often.”

If they’re not in the office together, the early morning call is supplemented by others during the day. Being in such regular touch means Mother’s Day this Sunday won’t be a big deal. “Every day is Mother’s Day around here,” says Victoria.

Janelle, Carol, Jacinta and Fiona Priest. Picture / Ishna Jacobs.

CAROL AND JANELLE, JACINTA AND FIONA PRIEST

“It can be a bit intense at times, we’re quite individual, but we do complement each other,” says Janelle Priest, of working with her mother Carol and sisters Jacinta and Fiona at Plantae skincare.

“Carol is the key person and we really rely on her,” says the eldest daughter, citing the wealth of experience her mother brings to the role of managing director of the Nelson-based company. It is just four years old, but Carol has been involved in the natural skincare sector since the early 1990s, helping move it from cottage industry creams to a more professional footing.

Her science background working as a technologist in pharmaceutical laboratories and an interest in plant-based ingredients happily came together when she was a young mother living in Palmerston North. The keen gardener was also involved in an organic food co-operative, meaning her three daughters were brought up grounded in making healthy sustainable choices. They remember school classes visiting the factory their parents set up to manufacture Carol Priest Natural Cosmetics.

Fast-forward more than 20 years and Carol’s passion is undimmed. She moved on from having business partners — although her name lives on in the original range — to found Plantae. Her vision not only included the rigorous step of becoming certified organic to BioGro’s highest level, but also of pursuing export markets and a legacy.

“I wanted it to be a multi-generational company.”

To that end, she invited Janelle, then working in Wellington, to put her business degree to use on the home-front to plan sales and marketing. Youngest daughter Fiona, who trained in fine arts before graduating as a spatial architect, also moved from the capital where she was working in retail merchandising to help with Plantae’s design, point of sale and the website. Six months later Jacinta joined the family as office manager putting her finance and marketing training to good use. Their father runs production.

“We all learn from each other,” Carol says, adding that as a mother it takes adjustment to having your children uncover your weaknesses. Hers are in IT and spreadsheets, theirs on the science side. Carol says other mothers will know if they could work with their own children, but in her case it has been a boon, with a bond of trust and honesty.

“Bringing up children as children is very different to getting to know them as adults. I’ve seen a completely different side to them.”

They bring energy to the business and “have the ability to work synergistically,” says Carol, who says in turn they are learning to be entrepreneurial.

Janelle says working with her mother has strengthened their relationship, because she too has come to see her in a new light. “We really admire her, she’s a great role model, very calm and collected, but passionate as well — although she’s a bit bossy.”

The girls, now all in their mid to late 20s, are getting the sort of job opportunities that would be hard to replicate outside a family firm. “They really appreciate what we do as well,” says Janelle of her parents, who have given them vested shares.

Carol hopes Plantae will be going strong as a global brand in 25 years, but she is philosophical about whether all three of her daughters will choose to remain with it.

“We have huge debates, it’s an open-door policy; in our house if they are happy to stay that’s great, if they want to leave that’s awesome as well.”

If Janelle and her sisters are going out the door anytime soon, it is likely to be with their mother, off to enjoy the Nelson cafe culture they all love. Handily, they even have a pit-stop on-site at their purpose-built factory.

Work talk is likely to be on the menu because, as Janelle says: “I just need to steal more of her time, to learn more.”

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