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Elave range of cosmetics and skincare products on the UK market

JUNE may have been marked in many people's calendars as the most important of the year because of the World Cup - but for Joanna Gardiner the month is special for another reason.

This month will see the launch of her company's Elave range of cosmetics and skincare products on the UK market. The range goes on the shelves in Boots from June 22 - a date Gardiner knows is a milestone for the company.

"This is our first ever move into a new market with a branded range," says Gardiner. "It is a pretty amazing to get into Boots. I just felt we had to go for it and we did. We are also going into independent pharmacies throughout the UK over the summer."

An industrial estate on the Coes Road in Dundalk is probably as unlikely a setting as you will find for a company that plans to take the international cosmetics industry by storm, but that does not seem to have deterred the 37-year-old Co Louth woman.

After all, five years ago, her company Ovelle had virtually no products in the branded skincare and cosmetics market. Now it is the market leader in Ireland.

Ovelle's story is one of success, struggle and regeneration. The firm was set up by Gardiner's grandfather in 1934 as a back-of-pharmacy business to supply pharmaceutical skincare products.

Her father Sean and uncle Gerry took over the running of the company in the Seventies and established a strong business supplying the likes of Unicef and the UN as well as NGO aid agencies with skincare pharmaceuticals such as antiseptic creams and cleansers for disaster relief areas.

But in the Nineties competition from low cost-base economies such as Malaysia, India and Eastern Europe began to hit home.

"The business had got into difficulty, mostly because our exports started to falter due to pressure from low-wage economies," explains Gardiner.

This was when she entered the picture. She returned home to Louth from an advertising job in Dublin. Taking over the reins from her father, Gardiner realised the firm couldn't continue in its current guise and change was inevitable if it was to survive.

At that stage the company made two branded products for treating sensitive skin under the Emulave name. As a mother of young children, Gardiner could see that skincare problems were becoming a major issue in youngergenerations.

Over-washing combined with warmer, more comfortable homes with double glazing, central heating and carpets has resulted in essential oils and minerals being drained from the skin. On top of this, most branded cleansers and skincare products contain colours and chemicals that only aggravate the problem. In the past couple of generations, eczema in children has risen from three per cent to 23 per cent.

It was then she hit upon the idea of expanding Ovelle's range to supply a brand of colour, chemical, alcohol and soap-free products to address the growing skincare issues. Gardiner says it is the only product in the market that is free of the cheap foaming agent sodium laureth sulphate which is linked to skin irritations. Coming up with a new business strategy revamp is one thing, implementing it is another.

Taking over the old man's job might seem like a cushy number by some, but Gardiner says it was far from easy, especially as it involved major restructuring of a business which was in danger of going under. In fact, starting a company from scratch might have been less daunting, she says.

"To start trying to turn the big dinosaur ship around and set a new direction is very difficult," she explains. "There was probably more work involved restructuring, changing the culture internally and recruiting the right people.

"The big area was restructuring sales. It was slow and painful. You need different kinds of people to sell brands and there was a complete restructuring of how we were managing new product development," she says.

The management team was beefed up from two to seven and reporting structures were changed. "Flattening out the structure and making it a more team-based firm doesn't sound new to the world but it was new to Ovelle."

The restructuring also required cash and Gardiner secured outside investment in 2000 which enabled the company to invest in product development and marketing. The company's products became familiar to radio listeners from the ad in which the mob gangster talks to his boss about sensitive skin. Inspired by the popularity of TV show The Sopranos, it seemed to stick in people's minds.

But just when she got the ship sailing in the right direction, Gardiner hit another snag. As she eyed the export market, she realised she couldn't get a community wide trademark in Europe for Emulave. It was a question of rebranding or running a second brand. Gardiner opted for rebranding.

In a clever remake of the mafia ad, Emulave was consigned to the witness protection programme and the name changed to protect the sensitive. Elave was born.

"We couldn't run two brands. We are still a small company. Big multinationals might be able to manage that and it's very common they would have slightly different brand names across Europe.

"I felt we had to have the same name. It was risky but I didn't think it was a silly risk. I also felt our customers could handle it."

It also made sense to have one name for internet sales, an area the company is increasingly targeting. More than one brand name would cause confusion, she says.

Concerns over skincare products are now starting to resemble those that started in relation to food 10 years ago, according to Gardiner. Much as people became concerned about additives in food, they are worried about what they are putting on their skins.

"The FDA in the US is thinking about putting cigarette pack-type warnings on major brands of cosmetics and cleansers because of the amount of chemicals they contain," she says.

"We treat Elave like we do a medicine. We could set up another Elave factory and just churn it out. But we really place a huge emphasis on our raw materials and auditing of our raw materials. We put in a new water purification plant last year at huge expense and our water is independently tested every day.

"If our water isn't right, the whole batch is rejected. We use the same quality assurance standards that we would use for medicine."

Gardiner realises that entry into the UK market will invite competition from companies whose resources dwarf the 1.38m gross profit Ovelle recorded at the end of 2004. And there is always the chance that the company's success could make it a takeover target from one of the big boys.

"They will probably see if they can crush us first," she laughs. "No, we are not for sale."