As the recession put paid to many entrepreneurs’ plans for world domination, Nails Inc, founded by Thea Green, went from strength to strength
As Thea Green arrives in the dimly lit Oxford Street Debenhams store (it’s before opening hours) she chatters away happily about the morning’s school run. “My son pointed out that I said ‘goodnight’ when I dropped them off this morning, rather than goodbye,” she laughs. If she is a little frazzled from running a £25m turnover business and bringing up a young family you’d never be able to tell. Slipping on a pair of Manolo Blahniks and shedding her jacket to reveal a stylish Victoria Beckham dress, in a flash she is transformed from school-run mum to chic business owner. Her apparent ease in front of the camera should come as no surprise. Green has form when it comes to fashion, having been the fashion editor of high society magazine Tatler before founding Nails Inc.
“I always wanted to work in fashion,” she says. Growing up on the Wirral, near Liverpool, she describes an idyllic childhood spent by the seaside. She was inspired largely by her father who spent much of his career at Littlewoods, where he eventually became director. “Littlewoods was one of the first companies to ever do celebrity ranges and they did all of this stuff with the stars of Dynasty and Dallas. He used to go on photo shoots all over the place with people like Linda Gray, which I thought was terribly glamorous,” she laughs.
The appearance of fashion bibles including Vogue on the coffee table further galvanised Green’s early ambitions. “Even when he was no longer a buyer himself but was running a team of buyers, he used to have all of these magazines that he’d read for inspiration. They were all the international magazines: American Vogue, French Vogue and Amica, a very trendy Italian magazine,” she explains. “I used to go through and pull things out and come up with all these mock-ups and mini magazines.”
While her parents were happy for her to indulge her passion for fashion, the same could not be said for Green’s school. She says her teachers at Birkenhead High School, a prestigious Girls’ Day Trust School, were “disgusted” with her decision to apply to the London College of Fashion rather than a traditional red brick university. “To get into London College of Fashion, you didn’t fill out a UCAS form, it was the same form you’d fill out if you wanted to go and do an HND course. They said it was the first time anyone in their school had ever filled out one of those forms and they were absolutely appalled,” she reports. “They even called my parents in for a meeting.”
The school’s disapproval did nothing to dissuade Green from following her chosen route and in September she began her fashion journalism degree at the London College of Fashion. “I moved from the Wirral to London at 18. It was amazing. I was always coming to the capital – from a really early age, I’d really wanted to move to London as soon as I could,” she says. “My friends were going to Leeds and Manchester and all around the country and I had absolutely no idea why anyone would want to go anywhere but London,” Green smiles.
That’s not to say that living in the capital wasn’t a shock to the system. “I don’t think I’d ever thought about the logistics of getting around London versus the Wirral, where you drive everywhere in next to no time. I was lost for a year,” she admits.
Whilst Green remained baffled by the city’s geography, she got to firm grips with her degree programme. “It was a great course, both in terms of industry knowledge but also amazing contacts. If you wanted work experience there were always opportunities to do so,” recalls Green. Placements at a couple of PR companies followed, as did a long stint on the Daily Mail. Then when a colleague on the paper left for Tatler, Green saw an opportunity. A work experience placement evolved into a full-time job when she graduated.
“It wasn’t an easy place to just walk in and get a placement but once you were in, I think if you proved yourself you could start quite quickly.” She impressed then-editor Jane Proctor, who fast-tracked her from fashion assistant to fashion co-ordinator, deputy fashion editor and finally fashion editor by the age of 24. It was at this point Green left Tatler to found Nails Inc with Marie Therese ‘MT’ Carney.
Although she’s come under fire for her no-nonsense approach to magazine editing, Proctor has quite a reputation for breeding entrepreneurial talent: Net-a-Porter founder Natalie Massenet also came from the Tatler stable. Whilst the overlap between journalism and running a business may not be immediately clear to most, Green says there are some commonalities.
“I did an awful lot of budget stuff at Tatler. At the time, the magazine ran on unbelievably tight budgets and 90% of what we had to negotiate was free. We were doing hugely glamorous, expensive-looking shoots on hundreds or a couple of thousand pounds. I liked the fact that they would give you a £2,000 budget for something that should’ve cost £20,000. I loved the problem-solving aspect of it,” she elaborates.
Her ability to manage tight budgets and run projects on a shoestring paid dividends when starting Nails Inc, the idea for which had been formulated during a trip to the US. “I was backwards and forwards to the States all the time when I was at Tatler and there was this culture where everyone would get their nails done. What I liked about it was it was nothing to do with economics. It didn’t matter if you were on a starting salary on a magazine, you’d get your nails done. Likewise, if you were on a five-star holiday, you’d also get your nails done.”
She did, however, spot some flaws with the current model. “It was fast and efficient but it wasn’t a nice, relaxing environment and it wasn’t branded nor had a clear identity of any kind. I wanted to take some of the ideas from that, some of the learnings, and then give it a much clearer identity.”
But opening bricks and mortar stores isn’t a cheap undergoing; Green and Carney’s first task was to raise some capital. Initial conversations with VCs were fruitless, despite a promising start. “It was the dotcom bubble and we could’ve raised a lot of money if we wanted to do an internet business. VCs were throwing money at women in particular,” says Green. “But ours wasn’t solely a dotcom business. It had a dotcom element to it but it was on page 20 of the business plan rather than on page one.”
The pair decided private investment may be a better route and borrowed £250,000 from wealthy individuals to kick-start the business. The first Nails Inc store opened on London’s South Molton street in 1999 to a rapturous reception. London’s time-poor women, it seemed, were desperate for their 15-minute manicures.
The products began to fly from the shelves too. There are more than 100 different shades in the Nails Inc collection, all named after streets, boroughs and landmarks in London. From a ketchup red monikered ‘Portobello’ to a glossy topcoat caviar: ‘Kensington’, of course. There are all the accessories one might associate with manicures too, including files, polish remover, transfers and correction pens. The company also diversified into false eyelashes, currently available at Boots. “It’s a tiny part of our business,” says Green, hinting that Nails Inc lashes’ days may be numbered. “If anything we’ll go strictly into doing more nails.”
Until recently, all of the polishes were manufactured in the UK but this has become more difficult as the business has expanded internationally. Whilst the majority of production continues to take place in the UK, Nails Inc now manufactures in Europe and the US to meet the demands of its ever-growing customer base. Green isn’t unduly worried that the quality of production will suffer as a result of no longer being centralised on home shores.
“Making nail polish versus most makeup is a fairly complicated process,” she explains. “It’s a chemical product so it’s very technical, it’s very expensive and you need to employ experienced, high-level chemists. It’s not an industry cowboys would go into. It’s an industry for people who really understand chemical manufacturing.”
As consumers snapped up Nails Inc products, the services side of the business flourished too. Rather than opening myriad standalone stores, Green and Carney instead opted to partner with department stores to offer manicures as an in-store service.
“Opening nail bars in department stores was something we evolved into. We always thought we’d sell products in department stores, but we’d not thought about doing nail bars in store. But nail bars in department stores was an easier way of rolling it out as you can open ten bars quite quickly versus finding ten standalone stores. In most department stores we were the first ever service – there were no blowdrys, no threading services or teeth-whitening and all of the other things you find in stores now.”
At this point in the business’s evolution, Carney decided to leave the business – and Blighty – in order to return to the States with her husband whose job had been relocated. Becoming the sole person at the helm was a difficult adjustment, admits Green. “It was tough,” she says. “What I did very quickly was started to employ some great people. MT and I had been just us two without much of a support structure around us. So I felt the gap and then went and found great people.”
The business certainly hasn’t been held back by the departure of its co-founder. Nails Inc now has 50 nail bars in the UK and Ireland, employs 400 people and turns over £25m. While many high street businesses hit the runners during the recession, nail bars thrived. Between 2009 and 2012 nail bars accounted for 16.5% of new outlets.
Green relates this spike in the market to women’s desire to look and feel great – but without forking out a fortune on clothes. “The nail market exploded during the recession and I’m sure that was because it’s a fun, fashionable way to experiment and to buy into fashion without having to buy clothes that are expensive,” explains the businesswoman. “I think more than most other makeup products, people think about nail polish as being more of an accessory.”
Indeed, Nails Inc describes itself as a fashion business rather than a beauty business. As a result, it remains close to the bosom of the fashion world, with a presence at New York and London Fashion Week. It’ll often work with designers, matching nail polishes to new collections and getting models runway-ready. In February this year, a Nails Inc team worked with Victoria Beckham for her show in New York. “I love her clothes; I think she’s fantastic,” says Green.
It’s fair to say the affable entrepreneur keeps her finger on the pulse of all things cool and chic, drawing inspiration for new polishes from colours and textures she finds in magazines and on the runway. “I have a full-time product developer here and we have a creative team but I still lead the way in terms of product development,” she says. “I still love creating products. That’s the nice bit of the job you do when you don’t want to do the hard stuff,” laughs Green.
It’s a balancing act – both in the office and at home. Thea’s husband, Nick, also runs a successful business and they have three children between the ages of four and ten. “There’s no particularly easy solution and I’m sure like most people I feel sometimes I’m not doing it perfectly everywhere and am a bit pulled in too many directions, but at the end of it I wouldn’t change a thing. There would never have been a perfect time in Nails Inc to have children – I’d be about 60 before that was a good idea,” she jokes.
Back at Nails Inc HQ in London’s West End, Green has more pressing concerns. “We’re 15 years old this year and we’ve been redesigning our logo and our bottle,” she explains. Elite Business was treated to a sneak preview of the new bottle and all we can say is it’s been worth the slog. It was dreamt up by acclaimed fragrance bottle designer Fabien Baron who came up with the famous Jean Paul Gaultier bustier bottle, amongst others, and is expected to hit shelves this August.
“I knew it’d be a challenge but it’s been worse than I thought,” Green says. “Creating the bottle was very easy, integrating the bottle into our business has been challenging. You don’t realise how much the Nails Inc bottle is in everything and on everything so everything has to change. It’s a bit like starting up a new company actually because nothing is the same,” she says, only half in jest.
Still, even the greatest of work stresses don’t keep her from getting solid shut-eye. “I always sleep brilliantly,” she says. “I sleep brilliantly even if I’ve got something stressful going on. I’ll go to bed and say: ‘6 o’clock tomorrow morning I will fix this, but right now I’m going to sleep.’”