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
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
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
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,
"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
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
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
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."