The Wax Appeal
22.01.15 | Posted in People I Love
Sue Ismiel turned her kitchen into a laboratory to create a wax that would solve her daughter’s problem. More than two decades on Nad’s has an annual turnover of $40 million. Emma Isaacs finds out how she did it.
On her third day of school in Australia, after immigrating from her birth country of Syria, a 15-year-old Sue Ismiel was attacked on the bus to school. “I was assaulted, bashed up and humiliated – all I could see was myself flat on my face. I went to Fairfield Girls High School in Sydney, and after the attack I learnt that I was beaten up by that group of girls because I couldn’t speak English,” Sue remembers.
Even now, 40 years on, talking about the experience stirs uncomfortable feelings for Sue. And with hindsight, she can see that how she dealt with it was a glimpse into her future. “If I really reflect on that moment and connect the dots, I didn’t know this back then, but the way I handled the situation was quite entrepreneurial. I thought if I’m going to go back to school I am not going to be beaten up every day, so I did something about it on that very same day. I actually put an end to it. I asked my uncle to take me to one of the girls’ houses who I knew lived in the neighbourhood. I knocked on her door and with my uncle translating, told her parents what their daughter did.
“Looking back now I didn’t realise that this was actually an entrepreneurial feeling – I was a problem solver.” Sue also showed her leadership capacity by marching down to the headmistress’s office to tell her what happened too. “She promised that they would protect me and that was it; the girls left me alone, they never even came near me – and then I was able to focus on learning English.”
And Sue wanted to learn fast. “I blocked the world outside and focused, focused, focused, and in three months’ time I was able to read, write and communicate. There are so many people in the world who live the rest of their lives victims to bullying and that’s such a sad thing, but for me it was my fuel.”
Sue was born in Syria in 1958, the eldest of five children. Sue’s father worked at the local school as a cleaner and farmer and her mother, as did the majority of women in Syria, cared for the family.
Although Sue was raised in a tiny village of 600 people, her dreams were big. “I always had high expectations of myself. My mum and dad always wanted me to be the best at everything. So while we lived a humble life, in the back of my mind, I just knew that I was going to become someone and achieve something worthwhile.”
Sue’s parents must have known too, because they decided to migrate to Australia to give their children a better life. “Mum’s only sister had moved to Australia and that pushed my dad to take that leap of faith and leave the life he lived back in Syria. He took a big risk, sold everything and arrived in this country with only $2,000 and a suitcase.”
Sue finished school and followed in her mother’s footsteps, meeting her husband Sam and becoming a mother to three girls by the age of 25. Sue raised her daughters and worked as a medical record keeper at a western Sydney hospital until a problem of her daughters began to consume her thoughts. “Natalie, my middle daughter, wanted to be a model. She was very pretty, but unfortunately because of our Middle Eastern heritage, had thick black hair on her arms. Even though she didn’t really talk about it, I think because I had been bullied, I was afraid that she might be bullied too and became obsessed with solving her problem.
“I tried all the methods that were available and was frustrated that nothing would satisfy her needs and that’s when I thought, OK, – I’m just going to create something for her.”
Sue turned her kitchen into a laboratory and for more than a year experimented with formulations until she had a product that worked. “Looking back I didn’t really care about all the negative people that looked through the door and saw all the pots and pans. They told me that I was crazy and that I didn’t know what I was doing; I wasn’t educated enough; I wasn’t skilled enough; I was wasting my time. None of these comments really mattered to me,” Sue says.
Soon the word spread and friends and family were putting in orders for Sue’s magic green goo. Her first foray into selling the Nad’s product (named after her daughter Nadine) was at the Sydney Markets in Flemington. “I had no idea how to sell my product when I first got to the market. I actually stood there for three frustrating hours. I was about to pack up everything and go home before I decided, well, it’s really up to me to introduce my product to all these people. Instead of standing behind the display, I walked to the front and asked people to come and have a look. I started shaping eyebrows in the middle of the market and when I sold out in less than an hour after I started engaging with people, I knew I had a winner.”
Sue sold the product at markets for 12 months as the business started to take off. “I’d never seen so much cash in my life! I thought if I can do this in one market, then I’ll have my mother in one market, my sister in another. I started scattering people around all the markets across Sydney.”
From her initial success, Sue had the capital behind her to invest in shopping centre demonstrations and at one point had 50 people around Australia doing demonstrations for Nad’s. “It was really tough for me as I had to do a lot of travelling. I had to leave my young daughters at home and I felt guilty. I thought there must be an easier way to sell this product – and the idea of selling on television popped into my head.
“I had no idea how to do that, though – whatever I do I just throw myself in the deep end and hope for the best. I don’t have any books I learn from. I just close my eyes, search my soul and say this is what I’m going to do.”
Sue picked up the phone and called Network Ten’s Good Morning Australia and spoke to the producer. Days later she was at the studio ready for her first time on air. “All those demonstrations I did at the market, of course I didn’t realise it, but I was actually preparing myself to present on TV.” After Sue’s first appearance, the telephone lines rang off the hook; everyone wanted some of Sue’s magic green goo.
Nad’s was a phenomenal success on its own through the direct marketing medium, but the obvious next step was to have the product on shelves in retail stores. “Once we decided to put our product in retail stores, we had to create a range; one product on its own would get lost. We had to compete with Veet and Nair. The Nad’s Eyebrow Shaper went on shelves in 1997 and then everything else spun from that: the strips and the creams and the moisturiser.”
At around the same time they entered the US. “During my time on Good Morning Australia from 1993 to 1997, I was really building equity in the Nad’s brand One day I received a message from this direct marketing guru in the US who’d heard about little Sue from down under who’d taken Australia by storm. He wanted me to come over and talk to see if we could replicate the success in the US. We turned that four-minute ad into an half-hour infomercial for the US which went to air in 1998.”
The segment became one of the top 10 infomercials within a month of launch and then became the number-one TV campaign in the US; Nad’s won Hallmark’s Advertising Age Marketing 100 Award which Sue had to fly to New York to accept. “I had reached the pinnacle at that point. When I picked up the phone and spoke to the distributor who helped me build the market in the US. The first thing he said was, ‘You’d better sit down’ – and when he said that we were number one, I got such mixed feelings. It was exciting, it was rewarding, it was unbelievable, but then there was a touch of sadness there, thinking where to next?”
A FAMILY AFFAIR
Sue’s husband Sam left his job and joined the company early on. “He was working as a process worker at a factory. He was already familiar with production lines, assembly lines and that was a big strength for me to add to the business,” Sue says.
Sue’s daughters have also been involved from the beginning and now as adults they play significant parts in the leadership team. “Back then Sam and I didn’t know that we were raising and nurturing leaders. There’s nothing more exciting than watching your children become extraordinary people with dreams and aspirations of their own.”
In 2000 Sue appointed a CEO for the business to allow her to step away for a short time. “After building a business from the ground up, I thought after 15 years I deserved a break and decided to take a one-year sabbatical. I brought someone on board and it didn’t go well and I have no one to point a finger at but myself.
“The person really didn’t have a proven track record of running a business. I brought that person on with trust more than anything else, rather than expertise and skills. It didn’t work out because running a business is not about relationships. It’s about leadership. It’s about knowing what to do. It’s about knowing how to spend your dollars wisely. You’ve got to make the right decisions for that business, you have to have heart, you’ve got to care for the people, for everything and all of that was absent during that year.”
With three young daughters myself, I can only dream that they’Il grow up and want to work for Business Chicks – and Sue assures me there’s more good things than bad about working so closely with family. “The best part of working with your family is the connection that you have, the learning that you get from each other. I am proud to know that I’ve been a role model for them; I’ve empowered them to become highly successful young women. I think the worst part is that we can never stop talking about business, even at the dinner table. But we have fun. I think if you can sometimes separate business conversations, especially tough ones, from family gatherings, then there is really nothing bad about working with your family.”
Sue hopes Nad’s will always be a family business and is looking at listing on the stock exchange in the future. “The IPO (initial public offering) option is really attractive to me because I can retain shares and I can still be hands-on. Since I started my business 22 years ago, I’ve always wanted to give back to the country, to the people, that have helped me achieved so much success. And I remember even with just one product I was thinking about how to make this business public so that I can give people of Australia an opportunity to invest and own part of my business. I know it is not easy to start a business and make it a success. Research tells us that 300 businesses in Australia collapse every year. So, I want to give women an opportunity to own part of the brand.”
Nad’s generated $40 million of retail sales globally in 2013-14 and now, with her daughters heavily involved day-to-day, Sue is occasionally able to take a break. “I love looking after my grandkids, they bring so much joy to me,” she says. She also loves doing yoga. “It was actually a wake-up call for me in the early days when the US market took off dramatically. With travelling and the guilt of being a woman leaving your family behind and also watching your husband working 24 hours a day, seven days a week, we were at breaking point. While I was turning my business into a multimillion-dollar corporation, I knew my life was imbalanced. So I had to redefine what success meant for me; I knew if I was going to be successful I had to take care of all areas of my business as well as my life, and I turned to yoga. Yoga is such a big part of my life now that I can’t live without it for a single day.”