Cosmetic company Babor, based in the west German city of Aachen, was struggling with an aging image. Then Isabel Bonacker took a seat on the board and prescribed changes that went more than a little skin-deep.
Brands may not wrinkle or find themselves dotted with liver spots, but they can age badly too. Isabel Bonacker likes the comparison. The 49-year-old is an anti-aging expert. For three years, she’s been sitting on the board of directors at her family’s luxury cosmetics company Babor.
“Our image was a bit musty, although our products were highly innovative,” she said.
Babor’s clientele ranges from acne-plagued teenagers to celebrities like Cameron Diaz, German football legend Bastian Schweinsteiger, to 103-year-old grandmothers. Babor has never had trouble finding willing customers for its tubes and tubs, especially cosmetic specialists.
In 1956, chemist Michael Babor developed a skin cleanser called Hy-Oil, which is still a bestseller today. Seven years later, Isabel Bonacker’s grandfather Leo Vossen bought the company, transferred it to Aachen from its original Cologne headquarters and expanded it.
These days, Babor is present in more than 70 countries and sells about 50,000 liters of Hy-Oil yearly, and has a portfolio of more than 100 different products, from facial cream to make up, some of which can cost several hundred euros each.
At work, Ms. Bonacker is constantly aware of the tension between tradition and technology, commitment and investment. Her days consist of client meetings and trade fairs, every eight weeks she takes a 6:43 a.m. train to Aachen, where the headquarters’ glass facade stands out, and 400 of the company’s 500 employees bustle about.
Encased in the glass cabinets adorning the hallways are the bestsellers of the past decades, in black packaging and fancy designs.
And in the training room for cosmetic specialists, where spa beds form a semi-circle, tiles featuring drawings of arnika and chamomile form a pattern on the floor – medicinal plants appear like relics from past era. In the adjacent cafe bar area, one may meet a regional boss or a manager waiting for a treatment.
I'm an ampoule junkie.
Ms. Bonacker uses Babor products too.
“I’m an ampoule junkie,” she said, holding up a delicate glass bottle filled with facial care concentrate – also a bestseller.
“I’m turning 50 next year, and I’m getting wrinkles,” she said. “These ampoules are tiny beautifiers. You just break one open and spread it around your skin,” motioning over her face and throat.
“Then you brush your teeth and then you’re done. It’s grand, especially for very busy women.”
The trained lawyer once gave up her consulting career at McKinsey, because “it didn’t fit in” with her life. She says she wasn’t the kind of woman able to manage a career and children at the same time.
“One should have the chance to take time for the family and restart a high-powered career later on,” she said.
While on family sabbatical, she also helped start a Montessori school. Once her children were more grown up, she looked for opportunities for “professional creation.”
She re-started her career by going to work for social entrepreneurship company Ashoka, and then went to Babor, which was experiencing a change of guard. It was Bonacker and her generation’s turn at the family business.
Executive director Michael Schummert says Ms. Bonacker is not one to be boxed into the operations side. Rather, she seems to be the link between the family, manager and employees.
“In all seriousness, I also see myself in charge of entertainment,” she said. In May, as the company celebrated its 60th anniversary, she performed a self-adapted version of Que Sera Sera, singing praises for her company and its workers.
Whenever she’s at headquarters, she often dons a lab coat and white slippers to do rounds at the production centers.
“This proximity, this level of interest from management – I’ve never experienced that anywhere else,” the head of operations said, standing next to enormous metal vats with giant rotating mixers.
The facilities are state-of-the-art, and Babor adheres to pharmaceutical standards. The company likes to include “precision made in Germany” in its ads.
And marketing and packaging received facelifts too. In 2014 and 2015, flagship stores opened in Hamburg and Berlin, in the storage rooms employees wear data glasses. And the trainings for the cosmetic specialists go beyond a standard course on how Babor products are used.
Babor renovated the studios to follow a brighter, unified design. The move paid off. Revenues in this area rose an average of 20 percent.
And in the online shops, the customers could name which beautician serviced them, who would then receive a cut of the sale.
Ms. Bonacker and her cousin have started a sort of deep-tissue rejuvenation at their company. Although the previous generation largely leaves decision making up to the current one, especially the online side of the business has the old guard scratching their heads.
As Ms. Bonacker was looking for experts for online marketing and search engine optimization, her father, whose time came before the rise of the digital age, would ask, “do you really need five people for that?”
But the numbers speak for themselves – in 2015, Babor saw its sales rise 10 percent to €107 million, for 2016, the company expects a similar increase.
In social media, some Babor products are considered click hits, especially those featured in the Instagram accounts of model and bloggers, who test lotion and lipstick and reach more than one hundred thousand followers.
Some of them receive some of the test products for free, but are completely independent. Selfie-marketing isn’t exactly Bonacker’s world, but she appreciates its value in today’s times.
“It only works if you have something good to offer,” she said.
Handelsblatt’s Corinna Nohn writes about consumer issues, business and family. To contact the author: email@example.com