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Napoleon Perdis: How to become an entrepreneur

Napoleon Perdis: How to become an entrepreneur

It’s difficult to catch Australia’s cosmetics icon, Napoleon Perdis—his days and weeks are a whirlwind of appearances, meetings, and travel. But once you have Perdis, the rest is easy, because talking about cosmetics and the rise of his company, Napoleon Perdis Cosmetics, is something the entrepreneur does with great enthusiasm.

Although permanently based in the US—in an apartment overlooking Central Park or his Californian mansion, just down the road from Cameron Diaz—Perdis travels home to Australia often, most recently to the Mercedes Australian Fashion Week. And while Perdis’ life might sound extravagant, it’s the result of hard work, sacrifice, and pushing boundaries over the last 11 years.

With Greek heritage and a strict Baptist school upbringing, work began at 13, helping out in the family businesses—from a fish and chip shop, to cafes and restaurants. Despite dreams of a career in hair and makeup, family pressure saw Perdis complete an Arts degree in political science and business law, and a post-graduate degree in marketing management.

Between jobs in advertising and as a barrister’s reader, Perdis did some makeup on the side for relatives and friends. He had little formal training in the profession and, while he did do some short courses, most of his makeup skills have been self-taught.

From 1992, he gradually built up his makeup service, hitting the streets and selling his skills to beauty and hair salons, and bridal designers who would recommend him to brides. Then he started selling consultation courses, where he would show women how to do makeovers for themselves. This was the start of the Napoleon Perdis Makeup Academy. “I used to hold little groups of two to three women, then it got to six and then 12, and now of course we’ve got more than 3,000 students across all aspects of makeup artistry at the academy.

“That’s when I thought it would be good to have my own range because I used bits of everything. I never had one range I totally loved. So I worked with a chemist and manufacturer in the United States, Paris and Italy—we had three different suppliers—and started putting my concepts together. That took about two years.”

The first Napoleon Perdis Cosmetics store opened on Sydney’s Oxford Street in September 1995, which was just the beginning of a number of ‘firsts’. “We became the first ever retail brand that was a makeup artist’s brand in the Australian market,” Perdis says. “It was also the first personality brand from the Australian marketplace. I chased that, I was very aggressive and assertive, and I was very positive with what I wanted.”

Napoleon Perdis Cosmetics now has more then 550 point-of-sale doors in Australia, including 52 concept stores, counters in all David Jones department stores, seven makeup academies and almost 400 independent retailers.

Perdis’s biggest challenge has been in maintaining cash flow and getting finance to grow the business. “Bankers and financiers, until you get to a certain size, don’t appreciate the services industry,” he explains. “You’re constantly being very tight with your cash flow, you’re constantly tied up and your bankers don’t understand the business.” So the business had to fund its own growth for the first eight years and Perdis had to be ingenious and make sacrifices until banks took him more seriously.

As the business grew he got some key partners on board to help manage the growth. “I brought in not only experts but people who would be passionate and loyal to me and my brand.” The first of which was Perdis’ brother, who now heads up the company’s Australian and New Zealand operations, and then Perdis’ wife—a former actuary and financier—who is the company’s chief financial officer. The three are on the company’s board, with Perdis the majority shareholder. “We all really believed in how we wanted things to work and tie-in, and how to systematise and bring the brand forward.”

Systems are key for Perdis, and staff training and education is paramount, thanks to his parents’ earlier influence. “At 8:30 tomorrow morning, the New York staff will come to my apartment and I will train them for three hours on the newest techniques I want them showing the customer,” he explains.

International Business Plan

The goal to go global was always part of the business plan for Perdis, and taking his products to New Zealand was the obvious first choice. It’s also where the first international Napoleon Perdis Makeup Academy opened in March this year. In the US market, his products can be found in 16 Saks Fifth Avenue stores, and he’s now launching in independent stores as well as another retail outlet to be announced later this year. By year-end, the cosmetics will also be sold across 50 counters of The Bay department stores in Canada.

Despite it being a ruthlessly competitive market, Perdis attributes the business’s international success to its branding. “It’s extremely competitive, aggressive and challenging, but I do nothing but remain unique to my propositions. I am Australia’s leading makeup artist and they love that connection: I take Australia to the world. It’s not because I’m Australian that they buy me, it’s because of the way I’ve built my brand in Australia that they buy me.

“It doesn’t matter whether I’m in Saks Fifth Avenue, which is one of the world’s most prestigious stores, or whether I’m in Tasmania in one of my favourite beauty salons that carry my line, they get the same value.”
While Perdis prefers the title ‘interpreter and creator’ to entrepreneur, he certainly is one of Australia’s big success stories.

Napoleon Perdis Cosmetics has a projected turnover for the 2005/06 financial year of $45 million, with big plans for the next few years. “I want to have 1,500 doors across the world.” This includes opening academies in Hollywood, New York and Toronto, plus getting into South America, Europe, and eventually the Asian market. “I also just want to keep creating fabulous products, keep meeting amazing people, and keep connecting with my everyday customer.”

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Rebecca Spicer

Rebecca Spicer

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