'My mum and I had the usual teenage angst clashes when starting our tanning business ... but it's a huge plus working with family'
Tanning business He-Shi is beloved by celebs around the world, and is run by a mum and daughter from Carryduff. Shelley Martin (36) tells Una Brankin how she and her mother Hilary McMurray (60) conquered the market, and how she balances her busy working life with raising her young family
Quite often, Shelley Martin goes about her daily business in Carryduff with arms in two different shades of brown. But, what would be anathema to the tan-obsessed young women out on the town these days, is part and parcel of Shelly's lucrative job.
The 36-year-old from Co Down has made a fortune, alongside her mother, Hilary McMurray (60), with He-Shi, one of the most popular self-tanning product ranges on the market.
And, although they will celebrate their 15th successful year in business in 2019, there will be no slacking off for the award-winning duo.
"I have a real passion for what I do, and mum's still at the business 24/7," says Shelley. "It's her baby and she loves it. And dad, he's 65 next week and supposed to be retired, and he's the chief maintenance man in the warehouses.
"He lets us test on him quite a bit - it's useful for seeing how the product takes on men's hairy arms and all that. I'm always testing on my own skin, too. Hence the different-coloured arms."
The combination of the family's work ethic, marketing skills and the continuing craze for bronzed skin - fuelled by the increasingly scanty fashions and the powerful Kardashian dynasty - has created an enormously successful brand, consistently popular with beauty editors. Broadcasters Christine Lampard and Caroline Flack have both heaped praise on He-Shi, as have the influential Made In Chelsea personalities Millie Mackintosh and Binky Felstead, and Emmerdale actress Gemma Oaten.
Shelley, a marketing graduate, knew her mother was on to winner when she returned from a year out in Australia in 2004 to find Hilary with the product in development and a strong, catchy brand name. He-Shi is formed from the 'H' in Hilary and the 'Sh' from Shelley, with the 'e' and 'i' around.
"I think it has a Japanese feel to it as well, and it's simple," Shelley remarks. "For example, Coke doesn't mean anything, yet it is one of the most famous brands in the world.
"And then there's the unisex element. The product is suitable for men too, although they're only about 10% of the customer base. They use it on their face - men here don't own up to it but it has become part and parcel of their daily grooming routine for quite a few of them."
Shelly got married at 30, to building site manager Colin Martin. They met at a pub quiz in Kilrea and have a 14-month-old son, Ryan, and another on the way.
"I'm due in May, for my sins," she laughs. "I'll have my hands full, but it gets it over with. We're trying to clear space at the minute, but I can't bring myself to throw out stuff like my university coursework - so much work went into it. My husband can't understand but I say 'you never know'. I just can't.
"I enjoyed my degree at Queen's - though I missed out on student life by living at home - and I loved the smaller Master's course at Jordanstown. I was working away helping mum with the business at the same time and that experience made the coursework so much easier."
An only daughter, Shelley grew up in Ballygowan with her brother, Craig, who works in refrigeration and air conditioning in New Zealand, his home for the last 10 years. Their father (Wilbur's short for William) worked as a plant manager for a leading civil engineering company. Hilary was in insurance but had a lifelong interest in the beauty industry.
In 1997, she set up a distribution company for sunbeds and related products, originally operating from home. The business developed from part-time home-hire sunbeds to supplying commercial sunbeds and products to salons. Hilary owned a salon for a while but as the business soon grew, she branched into other cosmetics, waxing, manicure and pedicure products.
"The sunbed business paid for our holidays and we would have used the sunbeds at home before going away, to prepare our pale skin and avoid that prickly heat rash," Shelly recalls. "The first fake tan I used was Banana Beach Sun Wipes - they could be messy enough.
"I'm a few years older than the age group that's absolutely obsessed with fake tan and wouldn't go out without it. I'm testing it all the time; I really only use it for special occasions and holidays, but the craze for it among younger ones and the influence of celebrities like the Kardashians is scary. It's all social media - all big lips and eyebrows."
As teenagers, Shelley and Craig were always doing something to assist their mother with her business, helping to deliver sunbeds, typing up invoices and organising business cards and headed paper.
"We had a good work ethic. There were no days off sick from school, that's for sure," Shelley remembers. "My brother helped too, though he's not in the business and couldn't think of anything worse. He leads an outdoor life in New Zealand.
"You really do have to have the passion for it. Kids now - some come out of school not being able to grasp the concept that you work for the rest of your life, five days a week. You don't get life on a plate. You work for it."
With no such sense of entitlement in the McMurray household, Shelley continued to help her mother with her business while she was studying Management and Information Systems at Queen's University. It wasn't her first career choice, however.
"When I was in fifth year at school, I did a week's experience in the Army and hated every minute of it," she admits. "There was no way I was going to be in the military. Then I did a week in a primary school - I always thought I'd like to be a teacher - but that put me off completely!
"Kids need to be motivated for their choice of work and not put in a job because of who their parents know. They need really good careers advice. University is not for everyone and it won't get you far if you don't have a genuine interest in the subject you take."
After her year out, Shelley joined her mother's company as business development manager. Hilary had spotted a gaping hole in the market; although the shop shelves are groaning with self-tan products these days, back then, St Tropez and Bronze Express dominated the UK and Irish markets, respectively.
As the launch of He-Shi coincided with the proliferation of spray tans in beauty salons, mother and daughter were kept busy from day one.
"We had the usual teenage angst clashes but we do get on well," she says. "It's a huge plus working with family; you don't have to worry. The only problem is getting mum to talk about anything else but the business.
"Sometimes you want to talk about something else but you learn to get on with it and keep your mouth shut."
Along with Colin's parents, Hilary and Wilbur find the time to help Shelley out with childcare. She only took six weeks' maternity leave for Ryan, whom she describes as "good fun".
"I have great support from Colin - he does more than his fair share at night, and with dressing and feeding and swimming, and both sets of grandparents chip in. It was hard for me to switch off from the business when I was on maternity, but after a couple of months, it easier to be at work than home!
"I did the first six weeks, then started coming in now and again, but we got a new manufacturer and I found that I'd be trying to catch up on emails and calls at home after putting Ryan down and that didn't work. So instead of trying to work from home, I limited it to one day a week, in the office."
Publicity is crucial to all beauty brands and much of He-Shi's public relations drive is focused on bloggers and influencers online. With almost 107,000 followers, Irish make-up artist Tara O'Farrell (Tara MakeUp) is a prominent supporter, as is the famous Zoella, who is hugely influential for the brand's UK market. The celebrity endorsement is also worth its weight in gold.
Says Shelley: "Most celebrities get self-tanning right these days - maybe not Katie Price! Their make-up artists are all using fake tans as a base, so it's applied properly.
"Christine Bleakley - or Lampard - always looks great and very natural. Some of the Irish rugby wives use He-Shi, too. When anyone repeat-purchases, we know that we have got it right, and when people send in reviews, just to let us know the products are amazing, that is the biggest compliment you can have.
"We have also won many awards along the way - that gives us confidence. How do we celebrate? When we get the chance between hectic schedules and family life, we would go for a meal or a weekend break to a spa hotel. And I did have a pretty awesome honeymoon in Botswana and Mozambique. It was a once in a lifetime trip."
She's excited about a new He-Shi spray tan to be launched in March at a professional beauty show in Dublin. Years in development, the company has worked hard to ensure the product doesn't fade on the skin in giveaway patches, and to avoid that awful chemical biscuit odour left by the dihydroxacetone (DHA) ingredient, derived from glycerine, in self-tans. Interestingly, the odour is made stronger by hormonal fluctuations, and older women get the same whiff as younger ones, according to Shelley.
"We don't use strong fragrances, like coconut holiday smells - with them, the DHA reacts even more on the skin," she explains. "We do a lot of testing and developing, so we don't smell as bad but you can't avoid it 100 per cent. Anyone who claims that, isn't using DHA. .
"Older ladies tend to prefer the gradual or lighter tans with less DHA, for a bit of a glow for special occasions. The darker the colour, the higher the risk of smell."
Ultimately, Shelley and Hilary are aiming to grow He-Shi internationally. They're also excited about their new brand, Skinician, an affordable professional skincare range available throughout Ireland.
"If I can get through the next 12 months with two young children and little sleep, I'll be happy and content," Shelley concludes. "I love being a mummy, it's the best job in the world."
Shelley’s top tanning and beauty tips
Which products do you use to prepare your skin for tanning?
He-Shi Exfoliating bodywash — it is an awesome exfoliator. I also wax my own legs, which acts as an exfoliation in its own right.
How do you remove any lingering product?
Again, I exfoliate or wax.
Have you ever used a tanning supplement; do they work?
I’ve never personally used one. They don’t get the best Press.
Which facial products do you use?
I use Skinician cleanser, toner and moisturiser each morning and the night cream each evening. I’ll exfoliate and use a Skinician Mask in between, if my skin is drier. Once or twice a year I will also have a glycolic peel course, which brightens my skin, with visible results. I love it.
Do you wear a sun block; which SPF?
There is an SPF 30 in the moisturiser I use. I have very pale skin and burn easily, so you can never be too careful.
What’s your best beauty tip?
Treat yourself, you deserve it. Have a facial or massage once a month. If you take care of yourself, it will give you confidence to excel and feel good about yourself. Self motivation is important: believe in yourself. Always get up, get on with it and remember there is always someone in a worse situation.