Most Powerful Women

Transcript: Jo Malone on entrepreneurship

June 24, 2013: 1:36 PM ET

Jo Malone founded one of Britain's most famous fragrance brands, sold it to Estée Lauder, and she has now created a second line, Jo Loves. She spoke with Fortune's Leigh Gallagher at the Fortune Most Powerful Women event in London.

Jo Malone on stage at Fortune MPW London with Fortune's Leigh Gallagher.

Jo Malone on stage at Fortune MPW London with Fortune's Leigh Gallagher.

Below is an unedited transcript of the discussion:

Leigh Gallagher: I have to say I'm a little bit verklempt.  This is a little bit of a moment for me.  You've been on my dresser for about fifteen years, and here you are.  I've always been a Red Roses girl, but now I'm wearing something different.  I am wearing Pink Vetiver because Jo-, is there anyone here who does not know who Jo Malone is?  Just raise your hand, it's okay.  Jo has created one of the world's biggest fragrance franchises, you know, possibly in history.  Founded a company we'll hear about, sold it to Estée Lauder.  It's signature cream and black grosgrain ribbon bags are, sort of, it's iconic statement.  It's known for fragrance combinations that are whimsical and interesting that we'll talk about, but now Jo is onto her second act.  She left in 2006.  She has been in some other interesting things that we'll talk about and she recently started Jo Loves, which is-, well I won't put it right there, I'll put it down here.  Which is her new brand, which is something that press has called the cosmetic equivalent of Led Zeppelin getting back together.

Jo Malone: I've got my leather jacket on.  Did they really?

So I love that.  They did.

JM: Cool.

They did, yes.

JM: How cool.

So we'll talk about that, but your story is so interesting Jo.  You not only have a real entrepreneur tale for the ages but you also are a huge champion of other entrepreneurs.

JM: I am.

You have such interesting things to say, but before we get into that I would love for you to just, kind of, take us back to when you were founding the original Jo Malone.  In your apartment, mixing fragrances.  Walk us through, kind of, how that began and it became the global brand that it is today.

JM: It's so funny sitting under this sign.  I'm dyslexic.  I left school at fourteen with no qualifications.  I can't swim, I can't drive and yet I'm under the most powerful-, how cool is that?  I grew up in a family where I had to support my family from the age of fourteen, fifteen years old.  I had to put bread on the table and raise my younger sister, so, and I taught myself how to make cosmetics from a book called Harry's Cosmetology, which is like, that thick.  So that's how, that's where the dream started.  I started out as a little beautician, going from house to house, and then rented a tiny apartment in Chelsea where we had no furniture, my husband and I, and slept on a mattress.  It was just a couple of plastic jugs and dreams of fragrances and because I'm dyslexic, my means of communicating is through smell.  So I would think of these amazing things to do and created a tiny little bath oil one day.  Gave it to one woman as a gift and then gave it to the next and the next and so everybody that came through the little apartment got a little bath oil.  One day one lady ordered 100 bottles and put it at the place of a party that she was holding.  Within one month 86 out of a-, and they were like kings and queens and movie directors, so they were sending private jets in for these little hand made bath oils.  It was an amazing time of my life.  So Wharton Street was really trying to fulfil this huge demand for a product.

Wharton Street was your first store.

JM: Wharton Street was the first Jo Malone store.  My business partner's my husband Gary, and he'd found three sites along Wharton Street.  Two of which were beautifully polished and finished, and of course I wanted the one that looked like the building site.  That was 154 Wharton and from the day we opened that door we saw success every single day.  We'd sit at the end of the day and look, not just at the figures but what had happened in that day.  Who had come through those doors.  I tell you if there had been a movie camera rolling it would have made a really good documentary.

That's where the fragrance 154 came from then.

JM: Yes, that was four, five years on, to celebrate the wonderful doorstep of 154.

So you very quickly, you were hitting, you were exceeding all your marks.  You were hitting, I think you said, five-year goals in three months.  I mean, this was just, sort of, really exploding in those years. 

JM: It was.

Then, cut to Estée Lauder comes calling.

JM: Yes.

So what was that process like?

JM: That happened over a period of a few years.  The very first day we opened in Wharton Street, somebody came in and offered us £1 million to sell out and walk away.  It wasn't Estée Lauder, it was somebody else and I said thank you and no thanks.

Can you tell us who it was?

JM: I don't know who it was.  I don't know who it was.  I've never seen him again.  That was it.  It was either somebody playing a very strange joke, and then it proceeded to have most of the good and the great from the cosmetic industry at some point coming in and wanting to have a partnership, or buy the franchise for Jo Malone.  It was when I met a woman called Pamela Baxter that I really, the development of the relationship with Estée Lauder, and then when I met Leonard Lauder I knew that there was something very special in this company.

You sold your company and unlike I would say many entrepreneurs, you actually, you had no intention of leaving.  You were happy with them and tell us about what those years were like with Estée Lauder.

JM: Well I sold in 1999 and I was, I was just riding the crest of a wave.  I was flying first class everywhere, you know.  I'd get onto the plane, 'Miss Malone, 1A,' and you know, I mean I'd grown up in the back of the bus and so this was a really different experience.  I'd get to the hotel, I'd been upgraded to the suite so, and I was doing what I really loved more than anything else.  The things I couldn't do, Gary, my husband was always there to make sure the whole thing ran beautifully.  I'd been in New York City.  I was shooting a brochure and I was showering before the day and I found a lump in my breast.  Came back and thought, 'Oh I better get that checked out.'  It was the night of the Serpentine party here in London, so I was dressed in black tie.  I had my diamonds in my pocket.  Ran off to the hospital to have it check and they told me it was a cyst, and within 45 minutes I was told I had a very aggressive form of breast cancer, and probably no more than a year to live.

That stopped my life.  I think any life changing moment like that, whether it's a disease or whether it's, you know, a divorce or your life has changed, you suddenly sit there and think, 'Oh my god.  I've got everything in life in one hand and yet nothing.'  I had a two-year-old little boy and my first thought was, 'Am I ever going to see him grow up?' I remember coming home.  I never went to the-, do you know I haven't even been able to go back to the Serpentine party because it has such-, and that was, you know, seven years on, so it's a long time ago.  I picked up the phone and I called Evelyn Lauder and I said, 'I have breast cancer very badly,' and she said, 'Honey, get on a plane and come over here and we'll sort it out,' and she did.  Thank you Evelyn.  I remember her saying to me, 'Remember, you make lemonade from lemons,' and it stuck with me.  Anyway, I went to New York and was introduced to the most amazing medical doctor, Larry Norton.

At Sloan-Kettering?

JM: At the Sloan-Kettering, who saved my life, without a doubt.  I walked in in pieces and said to him, 'Am I going to die?' He said, 'Not on my shift.' I did a year of very, very tough chemotherapy and reconstructive surgery and I have my life back.  I was, I'm all clear now for seven years and I take each year as it comes.  I don't look too far ahead into time.  I certainly look back and rejoice that I met Larry.

That's amazing.  He said something to you, 'What kind of person are you?'  Maybe tell that a little bit.

JM: He asked me a question.  He said, 'There are two women that walk into my consulting rooms.  One says don't hurt me and the other says keep me alive no matter what I have go through.  Which one are you?' I said, 'I'm the second.  Just keep me alive.  I don't care what you do to me.'  That year was the toughest I think I've ever gone through, although the easiest because I had my treatment ahead of me.  I trusted Larry and his team without a trigger of a doubt, but it was the same attitude that I face business, that I've stayed married for 28 years.  It's that determination that no matter what comes at you, I will find happiness and I will find passion and I will find success.  I refuse to believe sometimes, what someone is telling you.  I was told nine months to a year, and I'm seven years on and I'm all clear and healthy and going on to live my life.  So, sometimes you, yes.  (Audience applauds 09.49-09.54).  You can't believe what the world tells you.  You have to make it happen for yourself.

That's true.  So then, shortly after that you had, sort of, an epiphany.  I mean you left shortly after that and talk to us a little bit about that decision and how it came to you.  That you were ready to maybe move on.

JM: I was opening the Madison Avenue Street store.  So I've had a year where actually creatively, I'd really been challenged, because the chemotherapy had made me so sick, and having to smell was really hard work, I've got to be honest.  So I'd come through that, and my, your body recovers actually remarkably quickly.  I had the most awful curly hair, and why I did a piece with Vanity Fair I shall never know, with this, sort of, poodle brown hair on top.  Anyway, I was standing there, wearing this, my lucky jacket in Madison Avenue and I felt inside of me, 'Jo, it's time to move on.  You don't belong here anymore,' and I'd known it for a while.  It was that, I didn't hear a voice or anything, I just felt these emotions that just said, 'It's time to move on.  It's in safe hands.'

I was so concerned that all my team would be safe across the world, because, by that point it was nearly across the world, and I was very concerned about how people would feel, how the press would feel towards it, but I knew it was time to move on and I was struggling to come up with creative ideas, I thought the cancer might come back and I didn't want to be travelling the world.  I wanted to give my son as many memories as I possibly could, but again, we judge life from that moment.  You know, when I look back now, my head is in a very different place.  I made that decision that night to go, and 2006 I made the exit.  I made the right decision professionally, I made the right decision personally, but from a creative being it was the wrong decision because the next day that I woke up and I wasn't going into the office or I wasn't doing anything, the first thing I did was 'Ah, fragrance.' I had to bury that dream and that passion for five years, and for anyone that has, if you're a musician or an artist or anything, to bury that creativity is really tough.  It almost turns back on itself and it can become destructive.

You had said you were like a tiger in a cage.

JM:  I was awful to live with, absolutely awful.

Jo is governed by her sense of smell, it's not just that you wanted to create a fragrance business.  This is how you think, this is how you see the world.  You can tell if it's going to rain or snow, right?

JM:  Yes.  It's not going to snow today, don't worry.  (Laughter).

Estée Lauder, the particulars were that you could not create a fragrance for five years.

JM:  That's right, and rightly so.  They had paid a lot of money for a business, we all thought we were going to stay together until kingdom come and that's not what happened.  So, for five years I was prevented from having anything to do with a cosmetic company in any way.  I couldn't even walk through a cosmetic hall, I would cry because I would walk through and I would just like, 'Ooh, textures of the product, the smell of the thing, and the bottle looks beautiful and the label.' I just couldn't have anything, I almost had to shut the door down.  You know what, that's not a healthy way to live a life anyway, it really isn't, it was certainly not from where I'd come from, I needed to stretch that passion again, but for five years I was prevented.  The first thing I would do, the first thing I always do in the morning is I wake up, I have a cup of tea, I pick up a bottle of fragrance, I spray the dog, I spray the school uniform, I spray the rest, and I don't think about it.  I just do it, it just happens.  So, to not be able to create that, and ideas in my head would bubble away, and I remember spending a month making ice cream, trying to take my passion for smell into taste.  Our freezer was full of everything from Limoncello to orange blossom, to beetroot ice cream, you name it, I made it.

You did something completely different during this five years, which was, you created a television series called High Street Dreams, which followed entrepreneurs around and was very successful and was fun, but maybe not fragrances but you were able to channel your entrepreneurial energy into that.

JM:  Again, I wasn't allowed to touch anything to do with the cosmetic industry.  I wasn't allowed to promote it, I couldn't even say I liked a lip gloss.  I wasn't allowed to do anything like that at all, and I adhered to that, I respected that.  The High Street Dreams, I had an idea about helping other entrepreneurs do what I'd done, so go from a kitchen table top and see if we could get them to the next level, help them with packaging and PR.  It was an amazing experience, I sat with two BBC One commissioners.  A wonderful women called Alison Kirkham and they bought the idea straight away.  You know, anyone in television knows that it doesn't happen like that does it.  You sort of have a long drawn out-, they bought the format of the television show and I was thrilled.  They said, we'll only do it if you head the show, so I did, and out of eight of the entrepreneurs, we got four of them to the next level.  Two were an absolute pain in the backside and I was glad to see the back of them, but two of them really have continued to excel.  One was Muddy Boots Hamburgers which are now sold in every Waitrose across the country by a wonderful young couple.

The other one was Mr Singh's Chilli Sauce, this was an Indian family of six people all with different jobs in the family, so one was marketing, one was PR, one was finance, one was creative.  They squabbled all day long and I loved them, they were wonderful.  He asked me to go and fill chilli sauce from the bottom of his garden, and so that's what I did in the garden shed with a rather attractive hairnet and wellington boots.  Off I went for BBC One and it was while filling those bottles that that same voice said it's now time to go back.  You've enjoyed this, you've done it, you can tick it, but it's not the great passion of your life.  I think it was filling the bottles, it was that feeling, I don't know what it was.  I walked out of that garden and a week later we were back around my kitchen table and we'd started a business again.

So, Jo Loves, here she is, so, second time around, this is like, if Howard Schultz was throwing another coffee chain, or if, Richard Branson was starting another airline, this should be easy.  You have all the resources in the world, everyone knows who you are, but you found it right back at the kitchen table, you were very much a start-up.  It's not a walk in the park.  

JM:  I suppose that was my choice though.  You know, it's the only way I know how to build a business from scratch and I have a really tough finance director called Gary Wilcox who will refuse to pay rent on something that we hadn't formatted.  I was kind of like, quite happy, around our kitchen table.  We had PR and marketing there, and creative and finance, I would flit in and out between all of them.  Charlotte's sitting over there and she was around the kitchen table as well, it's completely the other way around, it's nothing like the first time around at all.  Creatively, it took me a long time to find my footing again, creating a fragrance didn't come back naturally, I had not done it for five years.  I was suddenly like, caught in the headlights, and I couldn't find all the right notes and I kept humming tunes in my head and they weren't coming out as I had heard them in my head.  It was tough, and from a business perspective, when we pushed that name on Jo Loves, because there was a brand out there with a name, every lawyer said to me, 'Find something else to do, go and sit on a beach, don't do this again.' I said, 'No, you don't understand, I have to do this again.'

I understood all the implications, a brand with your name, and I'm over here and no one knows, it was a recipe for disaster, so we had to take it step by step.  When we pushed the button on the name, we watched the world wake up around our kitchen table, and we've got these 'Keep calm and don't freak out' mugs, and we freaked out every five minutes, you can imagine.  So we pushed the button and the press release went out throughout the world, we hadn't sold one bottle of anything, and the world just woke up and said she's back.  I'd never heard that Led Zeppelin comment, but anyway, I love that.  You know, she's back in business, and then what I had to do was, I had to is, I had to define whether people could really tell this was me, or just another cosmetic product, another fragrance.  If they thought it was another fragrance, we really had to bail out and I probably had to pick up fragrance as a hobby or go find a job.

Wow, that's amazing.  So that was, two years ago?

JM:  Three years ago.

Three years ago, so, did you tell the [???], you did, talk about how you managed that, letting them know that you were going to do this.

JM:  I showed them all the packaging before anyone saw it.  I feel, you know, Jo Malone was my first child and I don't want to see her harmed in any way, shape or form.  Jo Loves is who I am right now, I don't identify with Jo Malone because it happened to me 25 years ago, but I still love her, I still feel, you know, huge respect for that.  I wanted to say to them, 'This is no threat, this is who I am.' It's because I feel passionately, I'm not setting out to prove anything to anyone but myself, can I really do this?  I don't want to get to the end of my life and think, 'If only, I wish I'd done that.' At least I can say to myself, I gave it a good shot.

You have a store that's going to open up, tell us a little bit about the store.

JM:  42 Elizabeth Street.  I was looking for a shop and we opened in South Orderly Street for a bit.  I just knew it was wrong, I had that real gut feel.  42 Elizabeth Street is where I had my first job at sixteen.  So I'm returning all the way back to (TC 00:20:00) where I first started.  I was fired because I tipped a bucket of water over a woman in the flower shop.  Not a smart thing to do.

Not by accident?

JM:  No, not by accident, and she's still alive.  It was a flower shop at the time, the part that I went back to work in was the delicatessen and I used to sit on the doorstep and eat my lunch.  My birthday last year, my husband came up to me and said, 'Happy birthday', and handed me a set of keys.  I looked and he said it's your first shop, and I sat on the doorstep and had my lunch and remembered back.  The privilege on life to go back to where you first started, but bring with it all the wealth of wisdom and creativity that I've learnt.  Just, please come and visit us, I will cause you to look with such fresh eyes at fragrance, it's going to be like nothing you've experienced, it will be an exciting journey.

That's exciting, and when does it open?

JM:  October.

October, right, well, we'll see everyone there then.  I wish we had more time Jo, it's been such a delight to speak with you today, and thank you for being here with us.

JM:  Thank you very much.

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