PEOPLE
getting to know malaysians


 

starting Over      Mariam Sulaiman

Forty-two-year-old Mariam Sulaiman is petite and chic and beneath it all is a woman who made waves in the tougher than none cosmetic industry.

"I'm not that hot," she protests.

But she contends that she's happy with how things have turned out after abandoning her accountancy course in England.

"When I realised what it entails I knew I was kidding myself, it wasn't for me," she recalls. "I decided there and then that I was going to do my own business. That was how I started with the Body Shop, with no business experience and management skills to speak of."

With partner Mina Foong, they put in a lot of sweat the first few years.

"We started very small," says Mariam. "We didn't have much money and all we had was a lot of enthusiasm, spirit, passion. We found out how to do things for ourselves."

They approached banks for a loan and through contracts, they managed to finally convince their banker that theirs was a viable project. Their first office cum showroom was opened in 1984 at Yow Chuan Plaza. That in itself was no mean task.

"Back then the Body Shop in England had started in England only eight years ago," explains Mariam. "We wanted to locate to a better place but nobody had heard of us and we had to put up with a lot of ding dong---like they wanted us to go high tech instead of using green wood for the decor. So we went somewhere where we didn't have to conform with others even though it was't the best."

It so happened that Mariam was expecting at that time but she was on the shop floor from ten to ten everyday for about a year and a half learning everything hands on.

"We put the products on the shelves, we handled stock-taking, we were the sales staff, the receptionists, everything," she says.

The initial period to make the business work was a struggle bearing in mind cosmetics was already a matured industry in Malaysia. Getting even a small share of the market was difficult because there was brand loyalty to contend with and any entrepreneur will concede that it takes magnanimous efforts to convert cosmetic users to switch brands.

"On top of that, here we were bringing in a brand which has a totally different concept, that is environment friendly, refillable and that kind of thing."

That very difference was in fact why they chose the Body Shop. They knew it would even harder if they just entered the market with yet another brand. And it didn't help that the partners had no budget for advertising which plays a paramount role in the cosmetic business.

Mariam, however, viewed it as a challenge and took on the role of public relations person herself.

"Actually, I'm a very private person but to publicise our products I spoke to the press extensively, anybody who wanted to interview me, and the press was kind. We had a good rapport with them. We did small scale promotions with launches in shops unlike the large corporations which spend millions on such campaigns.

They also managed to build up a regular clientele through word of mouth thanks to largely to their personalised service. And they supported environment friendly causes and undertook projects like annual beach cleaning. By harping on green issues while promoting their own environment-friendly products, they appealed to the younger and more environment conscious generation.

"It was the right strategy because we knew it would be difficult to convert the older generation," says Mariam. "So our target was to build up a base of younger customers and hopefully they grew older."

That was how Body Shop established a name for itself, without so much as spending a cent on advertising in the media. Commendable.

Though it wasn't plain sailing until the fourth year, things started looking up after one year of hard work when Guardian Pharmacy invited them to join outlets to expand their product range.

"We couldn't have afford to open a second shop but by latching on to Guardian Pharmacy, the cost was less. It was a break and that gave us the leap to open several shops within a shop in a short period of time. It was a good arrangement for both parties until we were able to rent our own space. We stayed with them even after we had opened a few more of our shops. Then due to some technical problems, like we could not have our own cash register in the shop, we thought it's time to break away, that it would be better if we worked alone."

By then too, Body Shop was financially stable and they opened more company shops, eventually adding up to a total of twelve. Never for once did Mariam think of giving up despite the numerous problems because she considered it a learning experience.

"Whatever obstacles that came along the way, we faced them and overcame them. That's part and parcel of getting to know a business."

And besides hard work she thinks they are being personally involved was instrumental in the success of the Body Shop.

"If the franchise were to be taken by a big corporation and run on its own, it might not have worked so well because customers like the personal service," she says. "They see us as the Body Shop. Even though we were not there personally when we grew bigger, it was still all right because by then we had already done the ground work."

She feels that is one of the reasons the competitors who came in and who tried to copy cat the Body Shop have not really come up to the same level.

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