14th May 2018
As a speaker at the next IMAGE Networking Breakfast on May 25th, beauty business leader Michelle Feeney definitely has a story worth telling. Working her way from Bumble and Bumble to Estee Lauder, launching global cult brands like La Mer and St. Tropez, to now launching her own fragrance line Floral Street, if you were to curate the perfect beauty career, it wouldn’t be a patch on Michelle’s. Here, she tells Erin Lindsay about her secret to success, her career highlight and the one piece of advice she’d give to business women today.
An Extensive Career
My first job was in London in 1983 in fashion PR. One of our clients at the time was a prominent hairdresser called Trevor Sorbie, who brought me to work with him in-house and launch his line of products into Boots. It was the first time Boots had stocked a designer haircare brand, and that was where I got the bug for beauty. I loved that beauty could be a business as well as a creative outlet, and how important it was, and is, for women around the world.
After a stint at PR firm Lynne Franks, where I built up their beauty department, I took the plunge and moved across the Atlantic to New York. I had no plan, I’d given up my big job. It was a total risk, and I didn’t have a clue what would happen. I ended up building my own PR agency in New York, and my very first client was a hair salon called Bumble and Bumble. I rebranded them, got them to launch some products, and the rest is history.
That was when I got headhunted into Estée Lauder. Ten interviews later (including one with Leonard Lauder himself), they offered me a major global role. That’s where I really started to be at the heart of the beauty world, with these big worldwide brands, getting to bring my quirky ‘Britishness’ into the corporation.
While working there, I was given a little tub of face cream and asked: “see what you can do with this”. The tub turned out to be Créme De La Mer. We did out a launch strategy and it became this massive success that completely changed the game in beauty.
In 1998, Estée Lauder acquired MAC Cosmetics. I had an incredible seven years working with MAC; launching into 40 countries, looking after the MAC AIDS fund, and building their fashion outreach from scratch. It was a culmination of all the things I’d loved about the industry at the beginning of my career and all of the skills I’d learned from my years in New York.
All of this was done with absolutely no plan. I never once applied for a job, as crazy as it sounds. I was just always very open, I did a good job with things and let opportunities come my way, and that’s how I’ve looked at life all along.
When I met my now-husband, we dated transatlantically for 2 years until I moved back to the UK, when Estée Lauder moved my job to London. I had my second child at 41, and that’s when I decided I needed a break! I spent some time consulting and taking time for myself until I was approached with a role for St. Tropez tan. This was at a time when fake tan was seen as something that only WAGs would wear; the company had bought St. Tropez for a lot of money and it wasn’t doing well at all. So I came on to rebrand it. And it ended up selling for a lot of money after that.
I stayed on with the corporation to head their beauty department and had a lot of meetings throughout the week on Floral Street in Covent Garden in London. One day, I just looked up at the sign and thought: “That’s a great name for a fragrance”. So I registered the name, did a bit of research, and left my job to take a gap year at 51 years old.
At 51, you have had a massive chunk of your life happen. As a woman, your body and mind is changing. You really need a break to look at how you’re living your life and what you want to do for the next part. I totally disengaged from fashion and beauty, I didn’t even read magazines. I just observed. I thought about how I could launch my own fragrance brand, based on watching how my two kids were consuming culture, shopping, news and ideas. I knew that if I wanted to do this, I would have to do it in a whole new way. I wanted to create a luxury fragrance that people could afford, that was great quality with totally compostable packaging. I wanted the store experience to be about entertainment and learning. And all of that came together when we launched in November.
I am so happy and proud of creating another brand that is meaningful because that’s what women deserve. Beauty is joyful, it’s playful, it can improve your self-esteem. I feel more strongly than ever that it has a place in the world, and the industry needs to catch up.
When I was in my first role in Estée Lauder, the President sat me down and asked if I was ambitious. I said: “I’m ambitious for every day”. I want to be the best I can be every day and that adds up.
My mum is Irish and I was raised in a very Irish community in the Midlands. I feel like I got this approach to life that’s more optimistic from that. I was also raised Catholic, and there’s a big ethical part of me. My ethics and what I’m working on has to match up, and when they do, I can excel.
I also think I know what women want because I don’t think we should be imposing things on them. Women aren’t stupid. They’ll buy something once and if it doesn’t work, then they won’t buy it again. That’s what I work towards all the time. If the product is good enough, people will come back, whether its a £150 tub of cream or a £15 lipstick.
I’m 55 now, and I can tell you this reflecting on my life, but I wasn’t always clear on this stuff when I was young! But I haven’t wavered on who I work with and what I do. I’ve always been true to myself and I do things because I want to, not because I’m following the crowd.
Launching my own brand is obviously the ultimate high. It’s the scariest thing I’ve ever done but it’s been incredible. Although I get recognised for branding other companies, ultimately, I can’t take full credit because it wasn’t all me, it wasn’t my product. But with Floral Street, I’ve done the whole thing. The career high was opening the door on my first store in Covent Garden.
But in business, I have to say that being in the United Nations, handing over a check to Kofi Annan for $750,000 to kick off the ‘AIDS in Africa’ initiative with MAC was incredible. To know that a lipstick helped save a life was mind-blowing to me, and to know that we had raised enough money and awareness to stand in the U.N making a difference was amazing.
My Golden Advice?
Be true to your gut, but prove your gut right. So many women get that gut feeling and don’t follow it through, because they get talked out of it or they’re scared. Trust yourself.
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