With the growing promise of access to luxury hair care at home, the need for high performing and sustainable products has grown. Today we talked with Frederic Fekkai, who talks about buying his business back, and managing a consumer brand through a time of uncertainty for traditional hair salons.
Frederic Fekkai: [00:00:01] I was giving away my baby. I knew he was in a good place, but I didn’t know if the parents would nurture it.
Sam: [00:00:14] How do you achieve both professional and sustainable hair care at home? For almost three decades, Frederic Fekkai has shaped the international beauty landscape. In 1989, Frederick started his own salon and product line, which he sold in 2008 but stayed involved with. In 2016, in a nod to his birthplace, Aix-en-Provence, Frederic and his wife, Shirin,founded Bastide. And in 2018, he bought back Fekkai brands. At both brands, the focus is clean ingredients and sustainable practices, in addition to development and innovation. Frederic, it’s a pleasure to have you on the show with us today.
Frederic Fekkai: [00:01:17] Well, it’s an honor to be on your podcast and delighted to be here.
Sam: [00:01:24] So Frederic, Fekkai brands, when you sold it in 2008, and Fekkai today are similar, but also very different. Tell us a little bit about what’s stayed the same and what’s changed.
Frederic Fekkai: [00:01:39] Well, thank you. You know, just to give a little quick background: I built my business around my craft, which is a hair styling and hairdressing. And as you said, in 1989, I opened my first salon and then created in 1995 the first luxurious luxury haircare collection. And when I did that, it was just basically a demand for my customer. I realized back then that the health care industry were basically a commodity and it was very important to me to address my customer, to have hair care at the same level of skin care. Skin care had much advanced innovation and was much more luxurious. So I used those basics to create a luxurious haircare collection. This was back then. Then, the business took off and I sold it to a P&G in 2008 and staying out of the business was making me very antsy, very, very, you know, anxious, so my wife we wanted to get back to beauty again and we both bought Bastide in 2015. And Bastide was a brand that really reflected our way of life. It was about product that is 98% natural, that is eco-friendly, sustainable and made crafted by local artisans in the south of France. So this already gave us, you know, a great vision for beauty and well-being to be relevant in the world of today. And then I got fortunate enough in 2018 to have the option to buy my namesake brand Fekkai back, and by doing so, I wanted to make sure that it would reflect again our way of life, which was really about living well, being respectful to nature and making sure that every ingredient and every product was safe and cruelty free. So when I acquired a brand, the first project was to reformulate the product, to repackage the product, to make sure that the product where the packaging was sustainable and we used you used 95% of recycled plastic and the bottles are 100% recyclable. And we formulated our haircare, which was a huge challenge. We formulated hair care to be toxin free – So no parabens, no sulfates, no phthalates, no silicone and so on and so on, which is a huge challenge in care.
Sam: [00:05:24] You’ve always had such a great instinct, Frederic, for both where the industry is going, but also what your consumer needs, and it sounds like that’s exactly what you’ve reflected in the reformulation.
Frederic Fekkai: [00:05:35] Yes, it was very important to please the customer of today and today the customer has no age. Sometimes I get frustrated when people are targeting generations like Gen Z or so and so on to me. The customer has no age. I find myself, you know, being a baby boomer, I still have the same desires that the millennials have. I want to make sure that the planet is better. I want to make sure that the products are clean and I think I’m not the only one. So today it was important for me to make sure that our products were relevant to the world of today. And we were lucky enough that we were small enough to do that, you know a big company has much more of a big challenge to do that because they are already anchored and making a lot of revenues with their with their established brand. So for us, we took a bet. We took a lower risk, but it was very important to make sure that Fekkai invested where in being a more modern, contemporary, and customer-friendly brand.
Sam: [00:07:01] The hair salon industry, Frederic, was valued at 47 billion dollars this year, but of course that figure has changed a lot given recent events and the promise of hair care at home is more enticing than ever. Tell us a little bit about how some of your earliest experiences running your salons have shaped the brand.
Frederic Fekkai: [00:07:24] This is actually a very good question because it’s a fundamental question to the history of Fekkai and why it became a success. So when I said I introduced luxury haircare collection I also introduced luxurious hair salons. It was very important to me to give my customer a very different experience than the salon industry at the time. It was important that, you know, the customer felt they would come to a place where there would be credibility, authority of style and professionalism, but yet with great comfort. It was very important to me to make sure that the customer had the sensation that they could trust the brand and they could trust us. And so back then, I introduced services that didn’t exist, none of those other salons we know we had what we call a one stop shop. We had a beauty institute, we had a hair salon where we were doing color styling. We had what we call first a spa, which is waxing and nails. And we had, at the time, it was the first beauty counter the Beauty Lounge, and to me, it was very important that the customer felt it was more than just a hair salon, it was a place where he or she could get great advice, feel great, and come back with a style and a look that felt like themself. And the experience of the salon was very important and that’s what anchors the philosophy of the brand.
Sam: [00:09:42] I remember the salons, they were a super special experience and they were unlike any other.
So, Frederic, you launched your own line in 1989, you left in 2008 and returned in full force to the industry in 2016. Tell us about that interim period of being somewhat involved with Fekkai, of buying Bastide, but not having it be as much of a full time gig, as this has been again for you since 2016 and then prior to you selling the brand.
Frederic Fekkai: [00:10:27] You know, it’s interesting, you know, when I sold the brand in 2008, I felt a little bit like an orphan-
Sam: [00:10:38] You were giving away your baby.
Frederic Fekkai: [00:10:40] I was giving away my baby. I knew he was in a good place, but I didn’t know if the parents would nurture it or take care of it the same way as I did. So it was concerning and certainly difficult for me. And then, you know, we wanted to exist by creating something, you know, especially me, I’m an entrepreneur. I didn’t want to lose that status. I didn’t want to lose that pleasure of creating a brand. So when we found Bastide at a time was called Côté Bastide, we bought back Côté Bastide to transform it into Bastide and make sure that we were going to do things that we care about. Because I believe one thing is that I will never do is a brand just for the marketing – I want to make sure that it’s a brand that really aspires to all the values that I have. It has to be something that I believe in. Otherwise, it’s very difficult to do. So it was important for me to make sure that, you know, we will seek the right talent, the people that would have the same vision, the same interests as we had, people who cared for nature, people cared for quality, people cared for people. So this was a time where it was about just research, finding the right people, the right manufacturers, the right suppliers and then when I saw later on that Fekkai was shifting away and new leadership to the values that I had, I was really sad. And this is how. I was always trying to figure out how to get on a ship of Fekkai.
Sam: [00:13:16] So 2020 by the end will have been a year unlike any other – hopefully 2021 doesn’t turn into more of that for too much of it. Tell us a little bit about the challenges of managing a consumer brand through a time when the traditional salon business had to close for a few months. It’s open again, but you’re dealing with several different constraints and restrictions. The nature of the entire business has to have really shifted during this time. Tell us about some of those changes.
Frederic Fekkai: [00:13:50] You know, I have to say, it’s been a very challenging time and challenging for all the obvious reasons, but to me and I will get more granular in a minute, but to me, the challenge was not that we got basically a pause in business. It’s also because we didn’t know what tomorrow would be. And that is, to me, the most concerning.
Sam: [00:14:23] That is the biggest challenge. You’re absolutely right. We all have no idea when this will end. So it’s total uncertainty.
Frederic Fekkai: [00:14:30] Yes. Look at Europe now. I mean, you know, Bastide, we’re doing great this summer. And also to now there’s a lockdown and we have the boutique clause. You know, people are not allowed to go out. It’s really, really difficult. And to me, you know, this year has been one of the toughest years because we had to close the salon for three months. We had to stop selling in our brick and mortar, which is Ulta – 1200 stores in the states all shut down. And we are not a digital native brand, so we are doing OK, but not great. The positive of it is that it forced us to be much more sophisticated and much more performative in our dotcom, you know, all around Europe as direct-to-consumer, but also in our communication, we needed to be much more direct, much more transparent, much more informative and certainly much more entertaining.
Sam: [00:16:04] Yeah, absolutely. It’s also been such a challenging year in terms of interacting with consumers and in some ways not redefining, but communicating clearly the values of a consumer brand at a time when there is so much unrest on a number of different social issues in the US, but equally in Europe. How have you thought about that and what would you know, what’s your learning and advice being through this time? You know, should a brand tread into some of these social issues? Should it just avoid them entirely? How do you strike the right tone in prompting a discussion on some of these topics?
Frederic Fekkai: [00:16:55] It’s a very good question and certainly a sensitive question at a time. As a brand, you want to do the best you can for everyone. And when you know there is social unrest and people basically divided, it’s so important to not be not taking one side or the other, but to be who you are and not try to…how would I say…to take advantage of the situation for your business’ benefit. But I think it’s all important to make sure your brand has a great voice that is about being respectful, being human and also showing vulnerability and being humble and also, you know, and this is a lesson I learned is not about trying to be perfect in admit your weaknesses and expose them – you know, this is what it is. And if people don’t like it, that’s what it is. At least you don’t have to be a fake and try to pretend.
Sam: [00:18:35] To try to be somebody else. Yes. Absolutely. So, Frederic, let’s shift gears a little bit. Tell us what do you feel has been your most effective method of selling product and growing and scaling the business?
Frederic Fekkai: [00:18:58] Well, another excellent question because I think it’s so important to be in really good direct communication with your customer. And to listen to them. And to communicate in a healthy way. So selling our product is to show that you care, that you are innovative, that you are listening to your customer a lot, but we especially with this time, we realized that it was very important to be on the forefront with our social media and so on to expose who we are, the history of the band, the story of the brand, the code of the brand, what we stand for, what we wanted, what we want to do, and also explain to people. I use very often an expression called ‘baby spoonfeeding’, because we think that we can’t assume that the customer knows. You need to explain everything. You need to explain why you’re not using silicone. You need to explain why you use sustainable packaging. You need to explain why you create a certain product and when is that coming and make sure that the customer follows your journey. It’s not about selling product, it’s about selling your story. People love to hear your story. They want to know what they’re buying, what is it and what you stand for. So, you know, of course, by being sustainable, we wanted to make sure that we were also going to support people, organizations that are cleaning the planet, the ocean and so on and so on. So a customer loves that. They want to be part of the brand and they want to be proud of the brand.
Sam: [00:21:39] 100 percent. I also think the need to communicate is all the more greater because much of the way that consumers are taking in information nowadays is through social media. But then you have to communicate the same thing multiple times for the people you want to really see it. And then for that to embed as a brand value as something particularly core to the brand in their minds.
Frederic Fekkai: [00:22:06] Exactly. I always refer to it’s almost like – you know, I grew up in Europe, so I use soccer as an example. But, you want your customer to wear almost a jersey of your team in here. In this case, you want your customer to be proud of taking the shopping bag with your brand logo and carry on with pride throughout the street.
Sam: [00:22:33] So true. Frederic, it’s atypical, but not unusual for couples to work together in a business. How do you allocate responsibility and work together with Shirin as well as other people you really rely on in terms of the top members of your team?
Frederic Fekkai: [00:22:55] It’s very interesting, you know, I was very, very cautious and afraid to work with Shirin, my wife to not have to discuss our business of ours, and I realize it took us a while to adapt. But one of the best things was to make sure that she would work on a project and with her team and that she would be empowered to do it without any reserve and without worrying about me. So it was very important for Shirin to be, you know, working with the team and to be excelling and working in an environment that she relates to, which is creativity, innovation, social media and so on and so on. And it has worked very well as long as, you know, we do not discuss business, at lunch, dinner or weekend.
Sam: [00:24:20] How do you two resolve conflicts if you have them or disagreements?
Frederic Fekkai: [00:24:25] Well, you know, it’s always a lot of these dissidents. We agree to disagree and we leave it to that. And thank God we have people who are responsible for both brands. So then they would have to decide.
Sam: [00:24:43] Excellent. I like that resolution mechanism leads to maximum peace at home. Frederic, what keeps you up at night right now?
Frederic Fekkai: [00:24:53] You know, I have to say. A lot of stuff keeps me up right now, because when you realize, you know, this is a tough year and when you know that you cannot predict anything anymore, think about it. We couldn’t predict in 2016 the election of Donald Trump. We couldn’t predict a Brexit. We couldn’t predict many things, Black Lives Matter and so on. So it is nerve wracking that, you know, every day you don’t know what tomorrow will be. And what really worries me is this shift in culture. And the clash that there is between, you know, between people for race, opinion, political, financial and so on.
Sam: [00:26:06] The polarization is so extreme.
Frederic Fekkai: [00:26:08] So extreme and, you know, the gap being so huge all the time. I think it’s going to deepen and make it more difficult for civilization to live together in harmony. So to me, the difficult part is that we don’t know tomorrow. What else is happening, and I’m not talking about, you know, there’s so many issues we’re dealing with, you know, political, financial, climate and so on, so you never know what is it that that’s going to, you know, basically disrupt our business.
Sam: [00:27:02] Yeah. Total uncertainty. Where do you see yourself and the business three years from now? In an ideal world, assuming we get through the current state of pandemic, polarization crisis, where would you see yourself in the business in three years?
Frederic Fekkai: [00:27:22] You know, my vision and my goal today is really to establish a trustworthy brand, with greater awareness and the number one effort today is really about eCommerce and digital branding/marketing. Because we know that long term, this is the only sure way to get a clear message and a clear understanding of your customer and also once you start to gain data and really communicate with your customer. That’s how your business will grow in a healthy way. So the focus is let’s grow the brand without and I say that to my team – let’s not run, let’s walk, let’s walk. And then speed up, but not the other way around. So today, I want to make sure that we grow our brand that gives a great legacy later on, but certainly that brings and leaves credibility, authority of style and so on.
Sam: [00:29:06] Well said, last question, Frederic. If you were advising an entrepreneur starting out today in a consumer brand space, what would your advice to them be? What are kind of the two most important things that they should always center their thinking around for their company?
Frederic Fekkai: [00:29:32] Well, you know, I believe that a business is about a strong story, a strong proposition and every entrepreneur needs to have that. Let’s not just do a project, because it’s a trend – that is to me the biggest danger, and once you have that is to make sure you are prepared to have not just financially but mentally all the resources you need. Because it’s a long journey out there and that is the thing that, you know, we need to realize because building a brand and it’s different for tech company, you know, where they can build very fast and make no revenue and still have a great valuation. In a consumer good brand it’s a different game, you need to make sure you are really prepared to invest. And be patient. And be solid, not distracted, and, you know, just believe in yourself, even to the work you do on your product and one day at a time.
Sam: [00:31:11] Good advice. Here’s something else you should know. A study shows that if all products came in reusable packaging, it would cut the beauty industry’s emissions by 70%. Thanks to Forbes and Ibis for the data used in today’s episode, Frederic we’re inspired by your career in hair care and beauty because it shows how dedicating yourself to your passion leads to amazing things. Thanks so much for being with us on the show today.
Frederic Fekkai: [00:31:39] Thank you. Thank you for having me.
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