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Charlotte Rhys: Janet Rhys & Shaun Mcdermott

Building a business on people’s taste for indulgence

Monique Verduyn

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Charlotte Rhys

What do you do when you’ve never worked,you’re in your late 50s and you suddenly have to start generating an income?One solution is to befriend a retail pharmacist who has a wealth of business experience and create a range of luxury bath, body and home products that have set a new standard in the South African market.

And because you want a brand that exudes an air of timeless, understated elegance and romance, you name it after your grandmother. That is what Janet Rhys did and the result is Charlotte Rhys, a company that she and business partner Shaun McDermott launched in 2000.

Turnover that year was a modest R30 000.That grew to R550 000 in 2001 and in 2006 it hit the R10 million mark. The company has three retail stores in Cape Town and recently opened in Sandton. It also has a website where customers can shop online. Rhys and McDermott recently visited the UK to explore opportunities to break into the overseas market.

Their story began in Rhys’s dining room,where she and McDermott experimented with making eau de linge (scented linen water). Neither had cash to spare and with no hope of securing finance, they started small. Rhys focused on packaging, design and sales while McDermott worked on product development.

“We used recycled hydrolyte drip bottles from the hospitals because we liked the look and because there were few other suitable options,” says Rhys. “We wanted something stylish and different from the ordinary.”

They also needed top-quality fragrance so they contacted a local agent for Charabot – one of the most prestigious perfume companies in Grasse – who obligingly sent them a range of samples that kept their production line running for several months.

It took two years for Charlotte Rhys to start turning a profit. During that time Rhys and McDermott moved production to a garage, and then to a rented factory, all the while adding to the range. They were joined by Rhys’s erstwhile gardener Mbelelo Belabana, who is today the manufacturing supervisor.

In 2004, they bought some land in Westlake and built a factory that houses the company’s 30 employees, most of whom are drawn from the local community. “This was one of the smartest moves we ever made,” says McDermott. “The advantages of owning your own business premises are immense.”

Charlotte Rhys’s first customer was a home store in the Cape Town region. “Our big break came in 2002 when we secured our first customer in the hospitality industry, the Cape Grace. Today many hotels and guesthouses use our products as gifts for their guests.

Our customers are people who have received the products as a gift and then become loyal users,”says Rhys. She takes her job as brand policeman seriously because that is what differentiates Charlotte Rhys from the many bath and home products out there. “In the early stages we contracted someone to make our body lotions and shower gels.

It was a huge mistake as we had no control over quality, delivery or customer service. From 2003, we made sure we did absolutely everything in-house.” What makes the products stand out is a commitment to elegance. “I spent a lot of time in the UK as a pampered wife, doing serious shopping in the world’s top stores,” Rhys says frankly.

“I’ve seen how Armani and Valentino package their products, and we wanted to be the first to do the same in South Africa. We provide customers with a marvellous shopping experience that is rounded off with the luxury tissue paper and the carrier bag.”

Competitors have sprung up, but Rhys and McDermott agree that ongoing research into new products – such as an upcoming spa range – and a focus on continuous improvement is what keeps Charlotte Rhys one step ahead.

“We recently embarked on a massive staff training initiative that has been supported by the Department of Labour and we’re about to get our first payout from the department for skills training,”says McDermott. “This will enable us to recoup some of the investment we have made in our people. Entrepreneurs often forget that the department is there to assist with growth, if not with start-up.”

Monique Verduyn is a freelance writer. She has more than 12 years’ experience in writing for the corporate, SME, IT and entertainment sectors, and has interviewed many of South Africa’s most prominent business leaders and thinkers. Find her on Google+.

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