After discovering her ‘secret ingredient’ for skincare—rosehip oil extract—in 2002, New Zealand entrepreneur Sarah Gibbs worked with her sister Catherine de Groot to develop and expand her Trilogy Advanced Natural Skincare brand. It was bought out by Ecoya for $20 million in September 2010 and now has around 4000 stockists across 20 markets including Australia, New Zealand, US, Japan, Korea and the UK. While Gibbs is still on the board, she also finds time to mentor businesspeople, and was named emerging international business leader in the New Zealand International Business Awards last year. Looking back, she reveals the trajectory of turning a cottage company into an international success.
TRADE EXPRESS: When you first started exporting, did you spend time choosing which country to target, and what type of retail store was right?
SG: We launched in Australia and New Zealand at pretty much the same time, and while we always had our eye on the world stage, we understood we needed to build a base—and a brand—in this part of the world first. We did a lot of work at the outset to understand who our customers were and where they shopped to make sure we were targeting the right retail and distribution partners.
TRADE EXPRESS: There are around 25,000 skincare brands in the world, so how did you convince US companies to sign up your brand?
SG: It was all about preparation. We knew our brand positioning, we knew who our customers would be and we had invested a great deal of time and effort in making our products exceptional. We also had a strong marketing strategy and a commitment to making it work for all parties.
TRADE EXPRESS: Any tips when it comes to packaging?
SG: Trilogy was built with a strong commitment to environmental, cultural and ethical sustainability. We believed—and still do—that even the little things make a big difference. So whether formulating a new product, designing packaging or working out how to get our products around the globe, we focused on our mantra and mission: maximum effect on your skin, minimum effect on our environment. That still stands at Trilogy.
TRADE EXPRESS: Was overseas travel essential to build your business during the first five years?
SG: We did as much as possible from the office. We were a fledgling business trying to make a profit and international travel is expensive. However, nothing beats face-to-face, especially for strategically important negotiations. We’d try to block-book as many meetings as possible into any international trips. Online has come a long way over the past decade though, with video calling and online meeting facilities making life a lot easier.
TRADE EXPRESS: Did you find you had to be on-call 24 hours a day, especially when overseas buyers called you at 3am?
SG: There were definitely a few nights of disturbed sleep, but when it’s your own business and you’re working hard on it, that’s all part of the fun. We weren’t so much on-call, as we had distribution partners in our international markets, but we did have to make ourselves available.
We also spoke with Stephen Sinclair, CEO of Trilogy, for his perspective.
After Ecoya bought Trilogy for $20 million in September 2010, chief executive Stephen Sinclair has taken on new ventures—repackaging the brand, opening concept counters called Trilogists and expanding the US and Asian markets.
TRADE EXPRESS: Why was Ecoya confident in buying Trilogy?
SS: The brand was already performing well in both countries, but we believed—and have seen this belief borne out—that there was plenty of room to expand the business in New Zealand and Australia. Trilogy also had a good foothold in the UK and Ireland and a fast-growing presence in Japan, all of which we’re focusing on developing while pushing out in other markets like South Korea, Thailand, Singapore and the US.
TRADE EXPRESS: The Trilogy range is being repackaged this year. Is it important to say it’s made in New Zealand?
SS: Yes. Firstly, it’s a legal requirement to include the country of origin on all cosmetic products. Secondly, it’s a useful marketing tool, especially in countries like the US, UK and Japan, where both New Zealand and Australia have a reputation for their beautiful natural environments and fresh, innovative thinking.
TRADE EXPRESS: Why are you developing the Trilogists concept counter?
SS: We opened our first stand-alone concept retail pop-up in the departures lounge at Auckland International Airport last year to see how people responded. We’ve seen a positive response to this concept and will continue to review our strategy to raise the profile of our brand.
TRADE EXPRESS: Any advice when exporting a product to the US?
SS: Do your research and set your strategy before you get there. Look at the market you’re exporting to, decide your brand positioning, identify your competitors and define your point of difference.
TRADE EXPRESS: A responsible logistics provider is a key player in your exports. Is it important to build a personal relationship with a transporter?
SS: Definitely. We move a significant amount of product around the world and our logistics manager has to have a high level of trust and confidence in our freight partners. Our business relies on the stock being in the right place at the required time. And if it’s not—a very rare occurrence thankfully—communication and responsiveness are critical to getting things back on track in the shortest possible time.
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