Back to basics
Sue Ismiel became famous for waxing off her daughter’s moustache on television. She is also well known in Australia for being one of the country’s most successful female entrepreneurs, building her home-based business, Nad’s, into an international success.
Revenue in 2004-05 was $28 million and in 2005, she needed a break. She took 12 months off to return home to Syria, appointing a new chief executive who planned to take Nad's to the next stage, including a name change, an overhaul of the supply chain and logistics, and consolidating operations.
But the strategy moved the company away from the 'Sue Ismiel and daughter' story that had made the company so successful. Revenue fell and staff were retrenched. Ismiel tells SmartCompany how she is returning to basics and her plans for the future.
Amanda Gome: You were a medical records officer and started your business in 1991 with a long service leave payout of $5000, and made home-made wax from honey and sucrose after you saw there was a need for a hair removal gel.
Sue Ismiel: It’s a famous story that has gone around the world. I’ve embarrassed my daughter on national television telling the whole world that I had to solve her problems,
Well I was in my early 30s. I had my three beautiful daughters before I was 25 so they were all very young girls and they witnessed the highs and the lows of building that business brick by brick with very limited skills and experience or financial support.
What was one key mistake?
There were plenty of mistakes and there’s always a lesson and a gift as a result. I think being naïve and not knowing the world of business and sometimes being confronted with the realities of the business world was the downside for me. It was a big, big learning curve.
You know, most people go through financial difficulties when they set up. That definitely was not my case. I was able to just invest the $5000 that I had and basically allow my business to grow organically and never had any difficulty with finance.
But there were other challenges such as the cultural background: I come from a background (Ismiel is Syrian) where women’s defined role is carers and mothers and nurturers only, and then all of a sudden you’re a business leader. Well how do you convince the people around you that it is OK to be a business leader? It is OK to be successful? So you know, there is a lot of pain there.
In these early days, how did you market the product?
I had no idea how to sell anything. I’ve never sold anything in my life and when I had this green goo in a jar I didn’t know what to do with it. I knocked on the doors of everyone and the doors were slammed in my face.
I had no selling skills whatsoever but I started at the local markets and I demonstrated the product there. When there was obvious success, I tried the shopping centres and then I ended up on television presenting the product on national television. It was an instant hit and that was the turning point. I advertised the Nad’s brand for four years on national television in Australia, selling direct to the public. People picked up the phone and ordered the product and I sent it to them wherever they were, and then we entered the retail sector in 1997.
You recently appointed a chief executive. Now this is the dream of all entrepreneurs, isn’t it – to grow the business to a certain point and then say, ‘I’m going to hand this over so you can focus on something else’. But what happened? The chief executive had big plans, a board, and new lawyers and big expansion plans …
Well you know, after 14 years of hard work I felt that I was due for a well-deserved break. I took 12 months off and stood back and watched the business that I put my heart and soul into building it, with no skills and really witnessed the manifestation of every creative thought that I had turn into reality and unfold in front of me.
Being away from it and having someone else direct it differently, was an enormous … it was painful for me. But, nonetheless, it was an experience that I had to go through and I can tell you that it was the biggest experience of my life.
What mistakes were made so other people can learn from them? Was it too much change too soon?
This is an entrepreneurial business and entrepreneurs intend to find a solution in every negative situation. Your entrepreneurial mind is always creating creative thoughts, so that we don’t think of going out there and really spending big to make money. What we do is we do it in an entrepreneurial way and obviously people come on board thinking that you’ve got to spend to achieve and that’s fine. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with it but if the strategy is right then you have every confidence in what you’re spending in.
The marketing strategy that took the world by storm, which was the 'Sue Ismiel and daughter' story, obviously – every woman or every person appreciates how this Australian woman came up with … the story from rags to riches.
And they moved away from it in my absence and instead of building on the success of that story, a new strategy was introduced and lots and lots and lots of millions of dollars were invested in that. I had to come back and say, ‘Back to basics’.
Was the aim of the CEO to professionalise the business? What was the thinking?
The intention was to invest in rapid growth and there’s nothing wrong with it, but the strategy has got to be measured and monitored and based on reality rather than wishy-washy, wishful thinking.
Had there been a lot of damage done to staff morale and to the brand?
You know, as a business leader and the owner, you have the take the responsibility to bring on board the right people. You have to bring on board the right people with the right skills that your business requires and it is really up to you to understand your business culture: what does it stand for and how do you protect your values and your business culture and, you know, a family business, a family-oriented business with openness?
What did you have to do when you got back? Did you redo the business plan? Did you have to let some people go?
How did you put it back on track?
You’ve got to let non-performing people go. That’s the first thing that you need to do, and then bring on board the people that you feel do share your vision. And they are travelling in the same direction that you are travelling so life and business becomes a lot easier? It’s so much easier to work when there is positive energy around you and people really respect what you do and who you are, and understand the proven success that you’ve had in the past and build around that proven success.
How long did it take you to get it back on track?
My entrepreneurial skills are being tested right now.
I know that’s scary but it’s a good feeling.
It’s an absolute thrill for me. I know now that no matter what happens, even if everything is taken away from me, even if the currency collapses, even if there’s a Third World War or whatever it might be, I know that I will attract wealth and that is an extraordinary awakening for me and if I didn’t go through this experience, I would have taken this gift that I have for granted and I thought to myself, everyone can do it.
So how much revenue did you drop?
It was just a year wasn’t it?
Look, it was more than that on a part-time basis, but I actually walked away completely from the business and came back to it after 12 months.
Looking back, I mean surely entrepreneurs can find a CEO and have that time out to do something else. What would you do next time?
This is not something that’s going to stop me from doing the things that I want and bring the right person on board who has the skills and the talent. What I failed to do and I always point a finger at myself, was really search for the proven success and the achievements of the person that you are going to bring on board … to look at their credentials and look at what they’ve done in the past so that you are confident that, you know, this person can take it to the next level.
To check they have done it before: well, that’s what I failed to look into and I owed every business owner who’s worked so hard to build a business to really understand what the business needs and the kind of people that their business require and that skill that the business required.
Gosh, it has been a big learning curve for you.
A huge learning curve.
Now what’s next for you. You’re going into retail?
Well, that is a very, very exciting business venture for me. Now over the years the Nad’s brand has earned the reputation of the hair removal experts, not only in Australia but around the world. We really wanted to capitalise on this reputation and recognition.
Laser hair removal is becoming increasingly popular and my daughter Nadine, being the head of research and development, has researched this laser hair removal technique big time. We decided to not only sell quality products to our consumers but also offer the best hair removal services that include everything: the waxing and gelling and Nading and lasering and so on, so we’ve opened our very first Nad’s hair removal clinic, which is state-of-the-art.
Where is it?
Well it’s in Parramatta and you can actually look at it on Google at nadsclinic.com.au and you’ll see how amazing it looks. We’ve got trained beauticians and clinicians there using the most effective and affordable methods of hair removal.
And are you going to expand that overseas as well? What’s your overseas operations like?
We are going to prove the concept here in Australia first. We are going to expand the clinics in New South Wales first, obviously, and then we will travel around Australia and, yes, the goal is to have a Nad’s clinic in every major city around the world.
Well, good luck with it all and let’s hope that entrepreneurs can spend some time off their businesses, bringing the right people in.
Without a doubt. Just make sure that you have the right people in and have a big heart and enjoy life. It’s certainly too short.
This is an edited transcript.