'At the end of my life if I can say I made women smile that will be very satisfying'
Ballyclare woman Alyson Hogg tells Stephanie Bell how her tanning products made in Northern Ireland are now the must-have items in A-listers' make-up bags
It is the first choice of A-list actresses, catwalk queens and glossy magazine beauty editors, and every minute of every day, somewhere in the world, someone buys a bottle of Vita Liberata self tanning lotion - that's a staggering 50 million sales a year.
It is quite an achievement for a Northern Ireland mum-of-three who was 40 when she first had the idea for a new self tanner and despite having no business experience, was driven by her passionate belief that she had something unique to offer.
Fast forward to today and that passion has driven Alyson Hogg to quite literally conquer the world, transforming herself into a globe-trotting businesswoman who now has homes in Ballyclare, London and New York.
Home still is Ballyclare, where she grew up and where the company is based and it is where Alyson (57) created the world's first odourless tan in 2007, famous for its unique Odour Remove ™ technology.
In 2011, Vita Liberata became the first completely non-toxic tanning brand free from parabens, perfume, alcohol and all chemicals of concern.
As well as being worn by stars on the red carpet, Vita Liberata self tanner is the choice of the world's top spas, including George V Paris, St Regis, Viceroy, Ritz-Carlton and Burj Al Arab.
It is stocked alongside the biggest brands in the world on the biggest beauty counters and is sold on QVC channels all over the globe.
Now a renowned entrepreneur, Alyson enjoyed a varied career, working in broadcast news for both UTV and BBC NI, in academia, hospitality and politics before launching her beauty business 17 years ago.
Her partner Colin Lewis (65) also worked in the media, which is where they met and he gave up his job six years ago to join Alyson in the business, working in global sales.
Success on the scale they enjoy doesn't come easy and yet the hard work, determination and willingness to travel have become a natural part of the Vita Liberata founder and CEO's life now.
Her time is spent travelling between the US and Europe and bouncing from adopted city to adopted city - London, Dusseldorf, New York, Toronto, San Francisco and Los Angeles.
Alyson says it helps that her children are now grown up and that Colin has come into the company with her.
She describes theirs as a "blended family" - her kids Connor Leckey (27), Callum (26) and Caitlyn (22) and Colin's daughters Sarah Lewis (30) and Rachel (26) - and quality time is savoured when they all come together to travel on the family boat, which is where she is when we catch up with her this week.
Rachel also works in the company as head of education and Connor works in knowledge and insight.
In total, Vita Liberata now employs 55 staff and, as well as its Ballyclare base, it has what Alyson refers to as hubs in London and New York, plus field staff in Europe and the US.
Her own life has changed beyond recognition, but she readily admits that she now 'lives' for her brand: "I travel between the USA and Europe, work, travel and more work! Essentially, it is true to say that I live my business. I have no choice. A small beauty company from Ireland is not going to break into Europe and USA, and not get crushed, unless you are willing to give it every drop of energy and focus you have to give. And that continues to this day.
"I spend about half my time in the USA and half in Europe, possibly slightly more in Europe.
"My happy place is our boat, where I am today, with my kids being noisy and boisterous, as always. I have become nomadic over the last 10 years out of necessity, but this has now spilled over into normality, so I don't think we would know how to go to a hotel and sit in one spot for two weeks.
"The boat allows us to sleep in the same bed every night but still keep exploring and discovering and be inspired by the myriad cultures and people we see along the way. However, the boat is only a few weeks each year and maybe a few weekends in winter."
The boat is a Beneteau Oceanis 55-foot yacht which is moored in Valencia on the east coast of Spain, where they enjoy sailing around the Balearic Islands.
It is a rare break for this globetrotting businesswoman, who remembers well how it all began back home in Northern Ireland when she had the vision for a new self tanning product which was like no other on the market.
Her battle to make it global was achieved through sheer determination and hard work, but she makes it sound almost easy.
She recalls: "Ahhh - (it started) from an idea in my head that maybe I could pull together many benefits into multi-tasking products.
"That was at the very beginning. After a couple of years, when it seemed impossible to properly break into any bits of the beauty market, my assistant Cherith asked me to make her a better tan than the one she normally wore. This request scared me! Cherith was an amazing young woman, but every morning she would appear in work a rather odd shade of orange, or a patchy shade of dirty orange.
"She challenged me to make a better kind of product for her translucently pale skin, and that is essentially where it all started.
"I suppose once I saw how well the tan was selling, how much women were responding to the natural glow and the skincare benefits, I began to understand that this was a product portfolio worth taking to a world stage.
"The next thing to do was work out how to do that! So I tried to visualise where I would or could be in five years and then worked out the steps towards that.
"After that it was just a matter of putting those steps in place.
"I say just, but there is no such thing as just. It is a bit like a game of chess - two steps forward, one back, sometimes even three back, but if you stick with the programme, and know you have something extraordinary to offer, if you think through the choices, aren't daunted by the setbacks, embrace the challenges and opportunities, and of course are fortunate enough to have all the amazing support that I have been so lucky to build around the business, then it is certainly possible to do surprisingly big things!"
Building a brand in the highly competitive beauty world, where big companies spend millions on advertising and marketing, was no mean feat.
Alyson credits the fact that she had a good team around her and to this day building a team of go-getting, positive people is what she believes lies at the heart of her continued success. She says: "I guess I did several things right and probably an equal and opposite number of things wrong.
"I built a strong team of highly intelligent, committed people (mostly women) who were passionate about both the business and the product.
"I did not stand for negativity or naysayers - questioners and challengers, yes, naysayers, and energy suckers, no. In fact, we have banned the word 'no' from the company.
"We are very much a can-do company. Instead of thinking that you can't make something happen, we want people to think what the reason is for it and might there be a reason it could happen.
"I just don't think negativity is good for our business and I want people who can have fun and enjoy their work and I think that creates better productivity. One of my beliefs is that you should be delighted to succeed, but not scared to fail."
Alyson has also been a stickler for quality - rigorous about the formulations that the company developed, their organic contents, the technology invented along the way to get the most out of the organic content, and the beauty benefits of each of the products.
"I was never scared of change or challenge and remain extremely flexible - or so I am told," she says. "But also, I managed because I had tremendous support from my close family, especially the kids and, of course, Colin, who made it all much more doable when he agreed to join me in the business about six years ago and has been literally travelling this journey with me ever since."
She is immensely proud that so many A-listers love her products - Downton Abbey actress Joanne Froggatt, Orange Is The New Black actress Kimiko Glenn and actresses Taylor Schilling and Missi Pyle, to name but a few.
Emma Watson has spoken often about her love for the company's Self Tanning Bronzing Minerals, saying they are a favourite in her make-up bag.
"It makes me feel very proud, of course, especially as these girls can wear whatever they want and they choose our products and it is not because we pay them but because they choose it," Alyson explains.
"Emma Watson talks about our bronzing minerals every chance she gets and I've never even met her - that is wonderful.
"For me, what is almost, if not more, wonderful is if I am standing in a store somewhere and start talking to someone about self tanning and they mention they love Vita Liberata. That's so much more exciting, because they have adored it and used it, and it makes me feel that we have done something positive for them and helped to make them feel good and gave them something that made them smile.
"At the end of my life, if I can say I made women smile, that will be very satisfying."
While her business is all-consuming, she keeps herself fit by walking, but even that can be incorporated into her working life, as regardless of what city she is in she has found a favourite route to walk to the office.
"My main exercise is walking - so that I can use my exercise time to get to a work destination," she says. "So generally - when in New York, I walk literally everywhere. Manhattan is good for that. Very easy to do 20,000 steps, let alone 10,000 in a day.
"At the weekend we walk up the west Hudson River. It's lovely, if noisy from the motorway overhead. In London I walk by the Thames - stunning. In Los Angeles, I walk by the beach and in San Francisco I walk up and down the hills to Fisherman's Wharf. In Dusseldorf, I walk by the Rhine.
"When I am at home, which is rare these days, I walk around the country roads and lanes outside our door and down by the stream in Ballyclare.
"I guess water is a theme. I love its life-giving force, its light, its ebb and flow, its magnificence - which pales all else into insignificance and gives true perspective to the undoubted issues that always swirl around a business (and a life) such as ours."
Some of Alyson's favourite things
Can Roquet, Romanya de la Selva, Costa Brava, and Taboon on 52nd and 10th avenue New York.
Harvey Nicks in Knightsbridge for inspiration; Barneys in New York for similar reason (and their cafe on the top floor); Bloomingdale's on Lexington, for practical, good-quality clothes; and the stores in Laguna beach (southern California) for just the best linens ever.
Gramercy Hotel in New York, Case Del Mar in Santa Monica, and Castillo Demporda in Costa Brava.
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