Brendan McDowell of BPerfect Cosmetics tells Emma Deighan about building a beauty empire
Co Down businessman Brendan McDowell is a bit of a contradiction in the retail world.
The chief executive of cosmetic brand BPerfect, which has eight stores and counting, began his retail career in e-commerce, only to end up launching high street stores just as the sector started to face its most challenging era yet in the pandemic.
BPerfect Cosmetics has become something of a cult brand among Instagram-savvy makeup lovers.
It was set up in 2012 when Brendan invested £500 in a batch of eyebrow kits he bought at a trade show in London.
Today the company has more than 400 separate products and 600 in development.
An abridged balance sheet for BPerfect for the year to March 31 2020 shows net assets of £4m, up from £2.3m the year before.
When interest in his expanding range soared at the beginning of his business journey, Brendan began stocking cosmetics in high street chemists and beauty salons.
He built his empire online, and today sells products in virtually every country in the world across 2,000 retailers.
But starting online before moving into stores isn’t the route we’re used to hearing about.
“We are the online brand that came offline. We flipped it about,” he says.
“The thing is the high street is not going anywhere. But it is undergoing a change and that has been fast tracked by Covid.
“What that change means is our city centres will be more experience-led and that’s what we offer.
“BPerfect stores are unlike anything that has been on the high street before. They’re totally experiential and have a real nightclub vibe rather than the typical corporate style set-up you would see in the regular make-up stores.
“What I wanted to do when I came offline was to make this Instagram brand into real life with a concept and a vibe.”
Its first cosmetic megastore in Belfast’s CastleCourt Shopping Centre opened in October, while his most recent Northern Ireland store opened in Londonderry in April.
The megastore in Foyleside Shopping Centre was met with a “buzz” he says. And there are more in the pipeline, he says, including in Dublin.
Glasgow is home to his biggest store — which opened a few weeks ago — while airport kiosks make up the rest of his “offline” store portfolio.
There are also BPerfect Mega Pro-counters at Medical Hall pharmacy in Newry and Shaws department store in Limerick.
The business recently moved to bigger headquarters in Lisburn, and now employs 80 people altogether.
But it all started from very humble beginnings, says Brendan.
The former building and engineering student says: “I worked in sales for a long time, including a company that dealt with a lot of beauty businesses, and I saw a real gap in the market for an eyebrow product.
“So, my mum and I went to a trade show in London and bought a stencil-style eyebrow kit in a batch of 50.
“We brought them home and sold them in a pop-up shop in the Kennedy Centre in west Belfast. We sold out on our first day.
“We purchased 100 more and they went just as quickly so we decided it was time to make our own kit with our own ingredients and added an oil which made the product waterproof.
“After that we added a tanning product and then a mascara.”
Brendan spent two years on the road attending exhibitions and pop-up events.It was a schedule of trade meetings with salons in Ballymena that prompted him to set up online.
“Out of eight of those meetings in Ballymena, five took a £500 order each and I thought this was the best time to go into wholesale. I then pitched to (pharmacy chain) Medicare and off the back of that deal, Gordons Chemist came onboard.”
In 2017, BPerfect launched its first exclusive counter at Medicare Pharmacy in Forestside Shopping Centre in south Belfast.
Medicare also stocks the BPerfect range across its other 50-plus outlets. But it has been BPerfect Cosmetics’ affiliations with bloggers and Instagram personalities that have catapulted the name to fame.
Among those names are Portglenone-based Louise McDonnell who has her own brand, LMD, which is stocked by BPerfect, and Irish blogger Suzanne Jackson. The success of Suzanne’s SoSueMe blog has made her one of the biggest and most successful bloggers in the south.
The Republic is now a big market for BPerfect. Brendan’s success there followed on from an appearance on Dragons’ Den Ireland, where he was offered £80,000 for part of his business.
The show aired in March 2017 when Brendan showcased his BPerfect Semi-Permanent Eyebrow Kits, BPerfect Brush on Lashes and his top selling fake tan — BPerfect 10 Second Tan.
He secured an €80,000 (£69,000) investment from not one, but two Dragons, Alison Cowzer and Barry O’Sullivan.
“I declined the offer and went solo and that created a wave of interest, and I knew then I had to do something big and different. No brands at that time had worked with up-and-coming bloggers and Instagrammers so when we paired up with LMB we sold our entire stock of Christmas units in a week,” adds Brendan.
Among BPerfect’s biggest sellers are its Carnival Palettes — a range of pigmented eye and cheek colours.
“We knew there was going to be a wave of colour eye-shadow palettes, so we launched Stacey Marie Carnival Palette and from then we’ve been on a real journey.
“We began as an Irish brand and now we are an international one,” Brendan continues.
He says the company’s turnover and profit has doubled consistently and adds that Brexit has allowed him to take bigger chunks of the EU market, while attracting new brands to his collection.
One of those lines is Jeffree Star’s collection, an American YouTuber, entrepreneur, makeup artist, and former singer and songwriter with a collective social media following of more than 30 million people worldwide.
“Because of Brexit a lot of UK companies are struggling to ship to the EU and that’s the reason why I launched a megastore online, not just to sell our products but others’ as well.
“We are in a unique position to take on other brands and not have to pay custom duties. Brexit has been a great business opportunity for us,” he adds.
Covid-19 however, was a very different story.
“That was a big challenge. We get a lot of our products from China and the factories there closed so it was a bit of a disaster.
“We were behind, and we had Christmas coming up too, but we were lucky in that it afforded us the time to focus on everything we had.
“We had a good surplus to do us and while development fell behind in that we couldn’t work on new stuff, it all worked out and we are glad to get together again to be creative.”
He says his high street stores, despite forced closures during the pandemic, are thriving.
“Our Belfast store has exceeded all expectations and despite being closed for four months after Christmas; our online sales went through the roof.
“The past 12 months have been both a challenge and a very real opportunity for us to grow our online brand.
“However, nothing beats being present on the high streets of our two leading cities in Northern Ireland.”
Brendan’s career began after a period of travelling when he went into sales for seven years, including roles at Sky TV and Yellow Pages.
But he says: “I never had any interest in make-up or make-up salons, but I just knew there was a gap in the market and there was a way to make revenue.”
He attributes “calculated risks” to his success over the past eight years, adding: “My mum, Ann, has been a big support and she always keeps me grounded. I think sometimes she worries that I take risks, but they’re always calculated risks. Within business you have to take risks, perhaps not humongous ones that could see you fail, but every business needs a bit of risk.”