Maria Hatzistefanis: How I muscled in on the beauty industry

Maria Hatzistefanis noticed the popularity of plastic surgery stemmed from a desire for instant results. But, rather avoiding the knife, most people sought out fast-acting cosmetics instead. Now, Rodial has gone international and is able to count celebrities among its fans.

Maria Hatzistefanis spotted her business opportunity while still at university. As a writer for a Greek fashion magazine in her spare time, she noticed that the rising popularity of plastic surgery stemmed from a desire for "instant results". But given most people "would avoid surgery if possible", any other cosmetic treatment that offered quick results was likely to be profitable. But it took ten years for her concept to become reality.

After graduating from Athens university, Hatzistefanis went to New York to study for an MBA. She then worked for Salomon Brothers and climbed the rungs in the corporate finance department. But she couldn't let her business idea wither and in 1999 she quit her job. By this stage she was living in Britain. With help from her husband she was able to put £20,000 towards her new brand: Rodial.

The first step was to work on a product. She decided to go upmarket, as "many of the ingredients that have been proven to deliver the quickest results are expensive". The vogue at that time for "tummy tucks" inspired her to commission a laboratory to work on a product "that helps to re-sculpture body shape". Once the lab had come up with something, she found a factory that could produce and package it. "My budget was quite small so I could only commission 200 units." The rest of the money went towards a PR agency that began to drum up positive attention in the press. "Of course, there is no point having a good product if people cannot buy it. So I had to get it on the shelves."

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Hatzistefanis pestered the buyers of London's top department stores and cosmetic boutiques. After a year, Fenwick, a central London department store, agreed to give her a small space. "The great thing about London is that shops are prepared to give small brands a chance." Eager to attract buyers, Hatzistefanis visited the store at weekends to try and drum up sales. "It was difficult. I am not a natural salesperson, but with my business on the line I was very motivated." The first 200 packets took almost six months to sell. She reinvested the sales in more PR and production. "It was a slow start but gradually we started to gain momentum."

The breakthrough came when other major stores, such as Harrods and Harvey Nichols, agreed to stock Rodial. "Sales jumped overnight and it gave me the money to bring out different products." Yet signing store deals wasn't simple. "The key was the price. The margin has to be big enough so that you can keep the retailers happy and remain profitable, while not pricing yourself out of competition." Hatzistefanis kept a "tight control" on costs and, unlike her bigger rivals, eschewed traditional advertising campaigns. She gave out free products at film premiers and at the Oscars. The tactic paid off Victoria Beckham and Claudia Schiffer are among fans of the Rodial range.

The financial crisis in 2008 hit Rodial "like everyone else in the industry". It was time to "go international. It made sense as the crisis showed how some economies are more affected than others." That move means Rodial products now sell in 35 countries, with sales of £4.5m in 2010.But Hatzistefanis isn't stopping there her latest Nip + Fab' range "sold out within days" of its launch.

James McKeigue

James graduated from Keele University with a BA (Hons) in English literature and history, and has a certificate in journalism from the NCTJ. James has worked as a freelance journalist in various Latin American countries.He also had a spell at ITV, as welll as wring for Television Business International and covering the European equity markets for the London bureau. James has travelled extensively in emerging markets, reporting for international energy magazines such as Oil and Gas Investor, and institutional publications such as the Commonwealth Business Environment Report. He is currently the managing editor of LatAm INVESTOR, the UK's only Latin American finance magazine.