Three generations of women – Elizabeth, Marion and Margot – share in running Elizabeth Grant International Inc., a Toronto-based manufacturer of luxury skin-care products.
Elizabeth Grant, 91, founded the company in England in 1958 after developing a cream to help heal her own skin, damaged by a bomb blast in the Second World War.
The privately-held company was re-launched in Canada in 1998 by Ms. Grant and her daughter-in-law, Marion Witz, as president. Originally from South Africa, Ms. Witz, 60, is a former voice coach who came to Canada with her husband and three children in 1986.
The pair began by marketing their skin care on TV shopping channels, first in Canada and then internationally – 72 per cent of their sales are in the USA, UK, Germany, Australia and Asia.
Over the past 16 years, they’ve grown the company into a business with annual revenue between $15 and 25 million. With a three-year revenue growth of 78 per cent and over 110 full-time employees, the company recently moved into a new 200,000 sq. ft. facility in Scarborough, a far cry from how they started in the basement of Ms. Witz’s home.
Ms. Witz’s daughter, Margot Grant Witz, 28, is creative vice president and an on-air company spokesperson. She does much of the company’s social media as well as promoting her own product line, The Socializer, which is skin care geared to a younger customer.
Elizabeth Grant products are sold at a premium – a renewal night creme sells for $130 on the company’s website and a day serum for $90 – but they’re currently the top-selling skin care line on Canada’s Shopping Channel as well as a top beauty brand on American and European shopping channels.
Why take the shopping channel route?
Marion: Elizabeth used to watch the Shopping Channel every single day, and when the Shopping Channel went live, we decided it would be the right place to sell our product. It was the best thing we ever did.
When we first went on, our initial order was for 300 units. We had five half hours to sell them and we sold out after four half hours. Well, that was the most exciting thing we had ever done in our lives. It took us a week to pack those 300 units because we had no idea what we were doing. It was a big learning curve. Today we’d sell 20,000 or 30,000 units. It’s a different beast.
At that stage we were having it manufactured in small batches but not doing our own manufacturing. Within two years, as the business grew, we opened up our own factory and started manufacturing it.
What’s the key to selling skin care products on TV?
M: The person watching doesn’t necessarily know you so they have to like you and believe in you. When we first went on the shopping channel, Elizabeth was the presenter of the brand. She’s very confident with a vivacious personality. Her first words to the women of Canada when she went on television were, “You don’t know me, you’ve never seen me, but I have the most incredible product for you, which is Torricelumn. Trust me and believe me.” And they did.
That’s not easy when they can’t touch the product. Exactly. But shopping channels offer a 30-day money back guarantee.
What’s the story behind Torricelumn?
M: After Elizabeth’s skin was damaged in a bomb blast during World War II, she read about this substance [a kelp-based compound which is the company’s secret ingredient] in a medical journal in her doctor’s office – it had been used it on soldiers at the front for burns. She had a chemist make it into a serum cream form for her and it started to repair her skin. She refined the formula more and called this compound Torricelumn.
Elizabeth never intended making the cream as a business, but when she went back to work as a makeup artist – for famous stars such as Vivien Leigh – clients said they loved her skin and wanted the cream, so that’s how she started selling it. From there, she built up the company. After getting married, she moved to South Africa, where she and her husband continued developing the company. Then Elizabeth retired. When her husband died, she left South Africa and came to Canada.
What’s it like working with your mother-in-law?
M: When I was younger, she was my mother-in-law, but as we started working together, it wasn’t like a mother-in-law/daughter-in-law relationship any more. In personal terms, she’s one of my best friends. In business, she’s very much been my mentor.
Why don’t you sell your line in retail stores? A lot of women don’t watch the shopping channel.
M: You’re right. There are different sectors in the economy and the shopping channel is one, but the market is bigger than the shopping channel. Our strategic plan was to introduce and grow the brand globally across shopping channels because it was one way we could start the business, but in the next two years we’ll be taking Elizabeth Grant retail internationally. We don’t have a marketing plan at this stage but it’s in development. However the plan we started with was the right decision for us.
Up to now, you haven’t done any advertising. Will that change when you go retail?
M: Of course. This is why we’re spending time until we’re absolutely ready for retail. Then we’ll hire a company to assist us.
What’s your approach to selling in other countries?
M: Different countries like different things. Our biggest account is Germany and we had to really learn what the German customer wanted. We thought we could just transport what we do here to there but that doesn’t work. We had to identify what they wanted the product to look like and what consistency they wanted the cream to be. Because we have our own manufacturing and lab, we were able to work on this and turn it around very quickly. Consequently, we’ve grown in Germany.
Do you have staff in Germany and other countries?
M: No. Because we deal with shopping channels, we deal directly with the channels and send the goods to QVC in Germany. But we have an outstanding person in Germany who sells for us on television.
What about the Asian market?
M: QVC has partnered with a company in China so we’ll be going on the shopping channel on QVC in China next year. We’ll be doing China before we go to India.
What’s been the biggest learning curve with the company’s rapid growth?
M: Cash flow. The most important thing I learned was that you had to have a good relationship with your bank. Banks are there to assist you if you can give them a solid plan and if everything is up to date. I hired a CFO so we had someone who could talk the same language as the banks. Because we were able to present our figures in a more solid way to the bank, we’ve always had the help we needed. But cash flow can kill a company.
The other thing I learned is I had to let go. I had to understand that the people we had employed in different departments needed to be able do their jobs. I had to move away from being a momma and poppa store philosophy.
How do you do that?
M: As an entrepreneur, you always feel no one can work as hard or be as good as you. But as the company grew, I started to look around and realized I had hired really good people. Entrepreneurs need to recognize that by hiring the right people – and understanding that you always want to hire people better than you – you then have to hand it over and watch them. When they do well, you have to acknowledge it, but on the same basis, move away and let it run the way it should run. I have to be confident that the people who lead their teams are leaders. That’s good leadership.
Is Elizabeth still active as the CEO?
M: Yes. One of the messages people get when they watch Elizabeth is, grow old, yes, but don’t be old. You have the choice to take care of yourself. Get dressed in the morning. Look after your skin. Put on make up. Go and get a nice dress. Enjoy your life. Life doesn’t stop because you’re 75 or 80. Another thing I’ve learned from Elizabeth is to always move forward. Don’t get stuck in the negative because it’s very easy to do that. Rather, look at how something works and figure out a plan to make it better.
What’s your advice to entrepreneurs?
M: It’s so important to have somebody who understands accounting as part of your team because building that relationship with the bank is going to be the most important thing you do. Banks don’t support dreams. They support a logical approach to a business. You don’t sell the dream to the bank, you sell reality.