Sue Ismiel famously started toying around with hair removal formulas in her kitchen in 1991, looking for a product her young daughter could use. In the two decades since those experiments, she has launched the Nad’s hair removal brand, taken it overseas, generated millions in sales, and established herself as one of the nation’s most successful entrepreneurs in the beauty space. Her daughters Nadine, Natalie and Naomi are all involved in the business.
Ismiel recently featured on SmartCompany’s list of Australia’s top 30 female entrepreneurs, where it was revealed her company, Sue Ismiel and Daughters, now turns over $42 million each year. The business may be 26 years old, but the founder says it’s now entered a growth phase and the goal is reach $50 to $100 million in annual turnover.
Sue Ismiel spoke to SmartCompany about imprinting business acumen on your children, and how important it is for company founders to take time away from their businesses.
I’ve been telling the Nad’s story for over a quarter of a century now, and I’ve been telling it in so many different ways.
What really resonates with people throughout the world is the mother’s love for her daughter at all odds. That story connects with the world, and we continue to use it today. It’s that love, it’s that determination.
For us today, the name itself, Sue Ismiel and Daughters, is so unique — it highlights the value of the daughters. If you’re looking for deep emotions [with this business story], it’s that love.
Obviously now my daughters are on board, and their roles today are significant and I rely on them. If you like, they’re returning that love and that connection, and that’s our point of difference.
The conversations I would have with them during the experimentation stage, though [when they were younger] … well, it was more of a silent thing, like being a role model.
I guess I was teaching them persistence, by the fact that I went back to that kitchen night after night, that I just went back.
Without sitting there and telling them to be disciplined, I was showing them that.
It wasn’t like I had a degree in selling or marketing, but I think I taught [my kids] how to do a back of the envelope calculation that made sense. If I was planning to advertise on TV, then I had to work out what the return on investment was. I had to work out if I sold that many [products], we’d be making that profit. And I’d often speak to them about, “Oh, we only got this number of units, we have to try harder”.
I think entrepreneurship is not something you can teach, but you do have an impact on others. And the girls have always heard me verbalise these crazy ideas. But a lot of the time I have proved it and I have turned these ideas into realities.
I think the consumer is very smart today, and organisations cannot afford to put out products that don’t work, that don’t live up to their promise. Businesses will be crushed to the ground if the consumer is not happy.
We’re always monitoring our reviews, and we’re always so happy when people are happy. The consumer is very smart, very alert, and they think, “What’s in it for me?” They have so many choices and so many companies.
I think Australian businesses would like to think that they are innovating and they know the importance of it, but what is really missing is that people need to be pushed.
I’ve actually flexed my muscles against multinational competitors and if I didn’t innovate, I couldn’t have survived. I thrive on creating things. We instil this spirit within the organisation, encouraging people to innovate. Even with things like finance, [we’re] asking, “how can we can provide reports that provide things that we don’t already do?”
We reward those who come up with innovative ideas and there’s always something in it for them.
Not every person knows how to innovate. If they did everyone would own their business. But it’s up to the top person [at the company] to develop them, to show them what the consequences are if there is no innovation, and you really need to be on top of it.
While the competition is fierce, it’s actually healthy, and it keeps every one of us on our toes. It’s about making sure we bring the consumer world-first items. I think our eyebrow shaper has been something that competitors never thought of. When I first invented the gel, I was listening to the consumer on something they wanted. We came up with a mascara-like facial wand that’s been copied many times over.
While it’s heartbreaking to see your product copied, it’s rewarding to know you’re ahead of the game.
Being an entrepreneur, being someone that’s always looking for problems to solve, it’s my way of, well, it’s how I live.
But you are no good to yourself and your business if you are unhealthy. When you push yourself to the limit, the consequences are big.
Many, many years ago, when I started building the US business and supplying the huge demand, we went 24/7. Everyone was exhausted. The business was growing, and we were listed 11 on the BRW fastest growing companies list.
I was financially healthy, but my own health was deteriorating.
That’s when I thought, “that’s it, I have to take care of myself”. Let me tell you: yoga, meditation, they revolutionise your life.
You’ve got to stop. You’ve got to take a breath and look inside and understand why you are doing what you’re doing. And to forgive yourself when things don’t go the way you’d expected them to. That’s what yoga does. Even the 45 minutes of yoga I did this morning is just so, so important.
The plan now is to grow and to expand through distribution. We’ve just appointed a distributor for the UK and Europe, [and] we’ve just acquired another one in South Korea.
Listing on the Australian Stock Exchange is exactly where we’re heading. We’re consolidating the business, we’re making sure we have the right strategies and structures so when the time comes, Australian will be as proud as they have always been of the company.
I would always retain the majority share [upon listing]; Nad’s is in our DNA — there’s no way I’d release the majority share. But what we could do with the funds, with the capital, is further growth and expansion, and acquiring new brands that are struggling, and there are many of them.
It’s heartbreaking for me to know that business founders would rather bury their heads in the sand than face reality and consolidate their business. There are many brands I’d love to turn around.
I have a big vision, and about a year ago I appointed a chief executive officer who is incredibly talented and treats the business like his own. I have handed the day-to-day over to the CEO and I’m focusing on my philanthropy and obviously wanting to help people.
What I see for the business is phenomenal growth, to be honest.
We’re looking at a $50-100 million business in the next three to five years. That’s the focus, that’s where we’re heading. That’s where we’re driving the business to get to and we’re working with the people who ensure we achieve our vision.
We have goals, we have a three-year plan, the vision is big, and the daughters are on board.