When Sue Ismiel floats her family business on the stock exchange next year I hope she keeps the name Sue Ismiel & Daughters Ltd.
There are plenty of “& Sons” around, but not too many “& Daughters”, in fact I can’t think of one. It would definitely make a nice change to the male-dominated ASX lists for the word “daughters” to make it into a public company name.
There are three Ismiel daughters -- Nadine, Natalie and Naomi -- and they’re all in the business, but it’s definitely Sue’s company -- for a while anyway.
Oh, and there are no hairs on this business, except on the head. The brand name is Nad’s (after Nadine) and the product is hair removal.
Sue started it 22 years ago and she now sells $40 million worth of hair removal stuff in the US, Australia, New Zealand and the UK, plus some products for the removal of nits, all of it made in Sydney.
And her story is one the best I have ever heard in family business land.
Sue emigrated from Syria in 1974, aged 15, no English. Eventually she married Sam Ismiel and they had three daughters, all of whom, like most Middle Eastern kids, had a little too much dark hair not to stand out in blonde, sunny Sydney.
The problem was that Natalie, then 6, had very sensitive skin, so the usual waxes left her red and sore.
In desperation, Sue took to the kitchen. She’d heard of an old Syrian recipe for removing hair -- sugar and lemon, cooked into a sticky ball and then rolled on the skin, ripping out hairs along the way. It was excruciating for poor Natalie.
So Sue started experimenting. To cut a (very) long story short, she found that a combination of fructose, molasses, honey and lemon juice worked well, although it took a long time to get the right consistency -- boiling it into a gel that could be troweled onto the skin and then lifted off gently with paper.
She put some green food dye into it and, bingo!, she had a green goo consumer product that didn’t have to be heated like wax -- it just worked on the body’s own heat.
She bought and appeared in some cheap three-minute “infomercial” ads on TV, during which she ate some of the product to prove that it won’t hurt sensitive skin, and some money started to roll in.
Having built some brand equity on TV, Sue approached Woolworths and then Coles and they gave her good shelf space. More money rolled in.
A direct marketing guru in the US saw one of the commercials and suggested she bring it to America. He helped her make a half-hour infomercial for cable TV. It won the Advertising Age award for best infomercial. And lots more money rolled in. And of course with direct marketing on TV, the customers pay up-front over the phone, so it’s a beautiful cash business.
Pretty soon Sue and Sam were sending a 40-foot container full of Nad’s hair removal gel to the US – EVERY DAY. And Sam and his nephew Eddie were cooking it all in a garage on a residential block in Kenthurst.
The neighbours complained of course, not about the smell, which Sue says was quite nice, but the endless stream of semi-trailers in the street.
It was time to find a contract manufacturer. That was quite challenging because there was no formula written down -- just Sue’s eyes, hands and tongue.
That was 15 years ago. In the years since, Nad’s has grown into a $40 million a year business, half domestic and half export, and 70 per cent of the turnover is still the original Nad’s green goo.
One by one Sue’s daughters came into the business. Were they ever going to do anything else.
Nadine, now 36 and the eldest, is a biochemist who heads up R&D and will become CEO when Sue steps down (although she says she is in no hurry to do that).
Natalie, 32, is head of marketing and Naomi, 29, is the graphic designer.
The company is fully owned by Sue and Sam (now retired), and the intention with the forthcoming IPO is for the family to retain about 30 per cent, although that’s not final.
Sue and her daughters are also very active philanthropists. Funding research into women’s health, supporting women’s charities, sponsoring 101 children in Ethiopia and raising money for Westmead Hospital.
Sue Ismiel’s achievement, from arriving in Australia at 15 unable to speak a word of English, is not only remarkable in itself, but also especially significant at the moment because of the arguments about gender, in particular within Islam.
“As a woman from the Middle East,” she says, “where women are not supposed to be able to succeed without a man, it’s been very important to me to show that gender has no relevance to business success.”