She has built up one of the world’s top luxury cosmetics and skincare brands — Space NK — and now Belfast-born entrepreneur Nicky Kinnaird is joining the board of Northern Bank. She spoke to David Elliott about her latest venture
Getting the chance to interview one of the most successful business women in the world isn’t something you turn down in a hurry. Throw in the fact she hails from these shores and has been on the Business Month cover story wish-list since the inaugural issue and there’s little that would get in the way of a 30-minute slot on the night before deadline.
So it was that your intrepid reporter was sat in front of the illusive Nicky Kinnaird in the boardroom of Northern Bank’s Donegal Square office in Belfast only hours before this magazine went to print. I say illusive because the Belfast-born founder of upmarket beauty retailer Space NK has been hard to pin down and it’s only because she’s joining the board of Northern Bank that we havew managed to steal a few minutes with her.
The reason we’ve been so eager to speak to her is not the editor’s penchant for beauty products but more the fact Kinnaird’s company has succeeded in a hugely competitive market, not just here but in the hotbeds of the beauty world such as London and New York. In fact, although there are two Space NK shops in Northern Ireland — one on Royal Avenue and one on the Lisburn Road in Belfast — they came after the first shop was set up in London’s Covent Garden in 1993.
Since then the empire has grown at quite a pace with 61 stores in the UK and 19 in the US, not to mention a couple of spas. But there’s no time to dawdle the locations of them all because we’ve a deadline to meet.
As it turns out, Kinnaird proves the ideal interviewee for someone in a hurry: direct and to the point with carefully chosen words which waste little.
The first question is obviously why join the board of a bank just after the sector has gone through one the most turbulent periods in its illustrious history?
Self-effacingly, Kinnaird initially offers up qualities she can give to the bank first, such as hands-on retail experience, before revealing that she believes the opportunity will help her further her own education in the business world. That and the fact she’s very keen to be involved in something rooted in Northern Ireland.
While banking may be the new string to her bow, Kinnaird is happiest when taking about the company she founded. This despite the fact that having built Space NK into a serious global retail presence, she sold the majority of the company to private equity firm Manzanita Capital in 2008.
She has since acted as president and remains heavily involved. It’s not as if she wouldn’t have confidence in her equity partners: the head of Mazanita is Bill Fisher, whose parents founded US clothing company GAP.
And this arrangement seems to be paying off.
The company bucked the gloom on the high street earlier this year with like-for-like sales climbing 5% and profits climbing £400,000 to £1.4 million. The outlook for 2012 is positive too and Kinnaird reckons the attention to customer needs is paying off.
“The customer wants to be able to choose how to shop whether on the high street or at home. It’s not just about bricks and mortar, you’ve got to have the online piece as well.”
This mix has worked well for Space NK and while Kinnaird admits the website is its biggest shop, she believes the ‘bricks and mortar’ shop remains essential.
“The two will always go in tandem. Bricks and mortar will always be important because there’s certain things you can do in store which you can’t do online.
‘Take fragrance. You can’t send smell down the internet. The same goes for makeup. You are only as good as the colour rendition on customer’s screen. A computer doesn’t tell you about density or texture on the skin.
“You’ll even find a lot of people do research online and come in to the shop to buy. You need to have a good mix of the two.”
And indeed, maybe consider a third. For Space NK that means television and at the end of October it will be starting a retail show on QVC offering a “multi-brand proposition”.
Of course, having all these means of buying from the company is all very well but ultimately it’s product that will keep people coming back. So how does a company which offers a 100ml pot of cream for £100 keep ahead of the curve?
Travel, it seems, is essential.
“We’re constantly pounding the pavements all over the world to see what’s resonating. We might come across something in South East Asia when it comes to skin perfecting tools or application brushes, while in Japan we learn a lot about product textures and the French are way ahead of the pace when it comes to fragrances and from a botantical stand point,” she says.
And adding value to the product by educating the customer is also key.
“The customer really wants to make her hard earned cash work to the best of her advantage. It’s not just about making someone look great in the shop but it’s about making sure she knows how to replicate that in the comfort of her own home and that’s why all our staff are constantly trained so they can offer the best advice.”
As a business woman Kinnaird certainly knows her market and you cannot help thinking that having her know-how can only help Northern Ireland’s economy.
With that in mind, Business Month was off to the men’s section of Space NK to see if they’ve anything for sleep-deprived eyes.
CV: Nicola Kinnaird
Education: Victoria College Belfast and University of Reading
Work: Space NK apothecary 1993 to present, founder and president Started the first Space NK store in Covent Garden in 1993. Expanded the base to include 61 stores in the UK and 19 stores in the US. Space NK is now recognised as one of the most iconic sources of the world’s best beauty brands. A portion of the equity was sold in 2008 to Manzanita Capital (headed by Bill Fisher of the legendary GAP retailing label). Kinnaird has been retained as president of the company and is now heavily involved in expanding the retail base into other parts of the world while at the same time searching for both creative talent and other health and beauty products.
Awards and achievements: Member of the Order of the British Empire, New Year Honours 2009 Cosmetic Executive Women (USA) Achievers Award 2009 WWD Beauty Biz Award for the Most Innovative Marketer of the Year, Prestige Person Category 2008 Queens University Belfast, Honorary Doctorate in Economics 2006 The Irish TatlerWoman of the Year Award 2006 Invest Northern Ireland Female Entrepreneur of the Year Award 2006 The Save the Children Woman of Achievement Award 2005 Cosmetic Executive Women (UK) Achievers Award 2003
Interest and hobbies: Tennis, gym, Pilates, yoga, art