The Co Down man who went from gutting fish to creating a top make-up brand ...and says his late dad inspired it all
Ahead of an appearance on RTE's Dragons' Den tomorrow, Annalong man Brendan McDowell, the brains behind leading cosmetics company BPerfect, tells Una Brankin how his construction worker father gave him advice that set him up for a life in business
He started work aged 11 with the unpleasant task of gutting fish. But now the boss of his own BPerfect cosmetics company, Brendan McDowell has been tipped as one to watch in the new series of RTE's Dragons' Den, starting tomorrow at 9.30pm.
Described as "a brilliant seller" by presenter Richard Curran in a preview this week, Belfast-based Brendan can be seen demonstrating his unique semi-permanent eyebrow kit in front of the panel of business experts, which this year includes pharmaceutical company owner Chanelle McCoy, wife of the legendary Northern Ireland jockey Tony.
If successful, Brendan, a former Living Daily Social sales representative, stands to win an €80,000 (£69,221) investment for his BPerfect cosmetics company, which he started up three years ago with just £500.
"Cara Delevingne had brought the focus back on eyebrows, as had Kim Kardashian," Brendan recalls.
"I had always worked in sales and I saw a massive gap in the market for an eyebrow kit.
"No one else was providing one, so I created some semi-permanent make-up that solved the problem.
"I ordered 1,200 units, and sold them at wedding and country shows - the Balmoral Show is really good for sales, funnily enough."
Along with his sister, Leanne (31), a former social care worker, Brendan went on to sell at trade shows in Dublin and all across the UK, attracting a celebrity following, including reality stars from Towie and Geordie Shore.
Last year, BPerfect Cosmetics turned over £266,000, a remarkable success Brendan attributes, in large part, to the example shown to him by his father, who passed away 12 years ago.
The late Brendan McDowell senior was only 43 when he broke his back in a digger while working in his construction business.
He made a full recovery from his injury but, tragically, died from MRSA contracted in hospital.
"Dad was a very hard worker and always said, 'You don't get nothing unless you work for it," Brendan recalls.
"He always worked for other people, but about four years before he passed away he had just gone out on his own and started his own business.
"He always wished he had done it sooner, and I always knew I wanted to do my own thing and make my dad proud."
Brendan also credits his mother Ann, a former civil servant, for giving him advice about cosmetics along the way.
He grew up in Annalong, Co Down, with his sister, who "has a passion for make-up", and now works with him at BPerfect.
It's a rather more glamorous business than Brendan's first job in a fish factory, where he worked during the summer and after school for £1.80 per hour to save up for his first horse - a hobby that later became a real passion.
After attending Shimna Integrated College, he got a GNVQ in construction and progressed to the University of Ulster to study building engineering. However, he dropped out after three months, realising very quickly that construction wasn't for him.
Selling was his real forte and he excelled in several such roles, including daily deals.
It was working with globally successful beauty brands at Living Daily Social that inspired him to travel to a London beauty trade show to see what the trends were.
There, he saw a gap in the market for a quality eyebrow product.
"I got a supplier at the show and bought 50 off-the-shelf eyebrow kits," Brendan explains.
"Then, I bought a table from B&Q and booked a stand at the Kennedy Centre in Belfast. I sold out of each product by closing time.
"I knew then I was on to a winner and I knew I could do better than the standard kit I was selling. I wanted an eyebrow make-up that was oil and mineral-based, so it would be water-resistant and smudge-proof."
Having secured a recommended supplier in Asia, Brendan set about sourcing easy-to-use eyebrow pencils that would complement his product.
Designing the brand came next and Brendan worked closely with his supplier and designer.
Since his first order of 12,000 products, the business has expanded to include mascara, self-tan, a skin primer, mineral make-up foundation and perfume.
The company now sells its products online and through 103 stockists in Northern Ireland, 126 in the Republic of Ireland, 41 in England, seven in Scotland and one in Wales.
Given such impressive figures, Brendan's appearance on Dragons' Den tomorrow should not come as much of a surprise.
He says: "It was about a year ago at a show in the Waterfront Hall when a lady bought the eyebrow kit and mascara at our stand and someone said to me, 'Do you know who that is?'
"Sure enough, it was Eleanor McEvoy from Budget Energy NI, one of the Dragons from the RTE series. She bought the products, but she didn't say who she was.
"I went home and Googled her and filled out an application for the show about nine months ago. I had forgotten about it, but a few weeks ago they contacted me and I got a good feeling about it."
After meeting the producer, Brendan went down to Dublin to film the pitch with the Dragons. "I didn't know Chanelle McCoy," he admits. She liked the product. I was nervous at the start when I was preparing behind the scenes, but once I got started with the pitch I wasn't nervous at all.
"I did a demo with a friend who came down to model for me and got a good reaction from the panel. I've always loved the show, but I never thought I'd be on it.
"The Apprentice, on the other hand, isn't for me. I already have a brand."
After a year of selling the eyebrow kit, Brendan spotted a gap in the market for a complementary eyelash product.
He worked closely with his supplier to develop a mascara made from beeswax that acts like a gel and has brush-on green tea fibres to create the false lash look without the hassle of false lashes - no glue; no mess.
This product quickly became a top seller and a firm favourite with key celebrities and others across the UK and Ireland.
The BPerfect self-tan is one of the more recent products developed by the company in an already competitive marketplace.
"I collaborated with a company in the UK to make sure that it was a product that was safe and easy to use, looked natural, with no unpleasant smells and that could be used by men and women," Brendan says.
"Since then, the tan has become a top seller and has very strong online sales.
"We've recently launched a new deeper colour tan in watermelon, which sold out within four weeks of hitting the shelves."
BPerfect fans include former Miss NI Leanne McDowell, leading Irish blogger Suzanne Jackson, the team from My Sister's Closet, and acclaimed make-up artist Louise McDonnell of LMD Hair and Make-Up in Magherafelt, who is working with Brendan on a new eyeshadow palette of her favourite colours.
Aside from his incredibly hectic work schedule, Brendan is about to move into a new house with his partner, Tony Benson, who works as a researcher at Queen's University in Belfast.
"He's been very supportive and understanding," he says. "I've been away quite a lot building up the business, two or three weeks at a time in the UK.
"We're going to be busy this year too with two new products coming up. And in five year's time, I really hope to have make-up counters in pharmacies and department stores all across Ireland and the UK."
Dragons' Den, RTE One, Sunday at 9.30pm. For further information about BPerfect, visit www.bperfectcosmetics.com