Meeting Jo Malone

Is there anyone who isn’t familiar with the beautiful fragrances Jo Malone creates, or who hasn’t lusted after one of those fabulous cream and black boxes? She is one of this country’s most successful – and well-liked – entrepreneurs, so I was excited to get the opportunity to meet Jo and hear her speak at an event celebrating the launch of her autobiography ‘My Story’.

Jo Malone

Interviewed in the glamorous surroundings of Park Lane’s Grosvenor House Hotel, Jo talked about her family, her career – and why, eleven years on from selling her Jo Malone business to Estee Lauder, she decided to launch a brand new business. I found what Jo had to say highly inspirational and thought I would share some of it with you…

“People who don’t know me always think I’m really posh”, began Jo. In fact, nothing could be further from the truth. Jo grew up on a council estate in Bexley Heath, in a home where money was always tight, although she describes her childhood as happy and filled with laughter. Her father was a talented man who had a number of professions, architect and magician among them – less happily, he was also a gambler. It was from him, Jo says, that she inherited her creative streak. Her mother, on the other hand, mixed and sold her own face creams, which is where Jo first got the idea of working in the beauty industry.

From the age of 11 onwards, Jo describes herself as “the adult in the household”, responsible for ensuring there was food in the fridge for her younger sister and her, and for paying the rent man. It was a difficult time, she says – but looking back she “wouldn’t change a thing”.

Her school days, on the other hand, Jo describes as “horrid”. Jo is dyslexic, but this wasn’t identified until well into her teens and Jo recounted a number of humiliating experiences, including being told by teachers that she was lazy, stupid and would never make anything of her life. Leaving school aged 15, Jo went to work at a flower shop near Belgravia where her mother sold face creams – and says that she loved it here, because she “had a purpose”. And the customers loved her, in return – she memorised all of the different flowers in the shop by smell, because of her difficulties in spelling their names, and made up stories about them for the customers, who invariably ended up buying far more of them than they had intended.

Romance, also, was on the horizon: aged just 17 Jo met her husband, Gary, a “Robert Redford lookalike” who she describes as her best friend and the love of her life. They met at bible school and Gary originally planned to become a vicar, but gave up the idea after Jo informed him that she couldn’t see herself as a vicar’s wife. Jo and Gary have a 16 year-old son, Josh, who Jo describes as “magical, amazing and combining all the best parts of Gary and me”.

Jo opened her first ‘Jo Malone London’ shop in Walton Street in 1994 and it was an overnight success, aided & abetted by some fantastic PR from the likes of Tatler and the Financial Times (Lucia van der Post and Kathy Phillips were early supporters). Five years later, keen to build her business into a global brand and needing a partner to do so, Jo would sell it for many millions of pounds to Estée Lauder. Jo selected Estée Lauder for its “deep pockets, global distribution abilities and a love for the cosmetics industry which matches my own”. It was agreed that Jo could stay with the business for as long as she liked.

So life was good, with both family and career thriving – until, out of the blue, Jo was diagnosed with breast cancer aged 38. Despite doctors operating immediately, the prognosis was grim; however, after taking advice from her friend, Evelyn Lauder (founder of the Breast Cancer Research Foundation), Jo flew to New York to find a doctor who could, quite literally, save her life. A mastectomy and a year of gruelling chemotherapy followed – and, thankfully, worked.

In 2006, Jo made what she now describes as the worst decision of her life – she left her role as Creative Director of ‘Jo Malone London’. Within 48 hours, she knew she had made a mistake – and there followed five years of lockout, which she says “nearly drove me mad”. In 2011, therefore, she and Gary decided to start all over again and build another global brand. The seeds of ‘Jo Loves’ were sown and Jo was back in business (and in competition with ‘Jo Malone London’!). Building a new business this time around, however, Jo says has been unlike the previous time – far more challenging & difficult; however, it has been a huge privilege to do it all over again.

Often asked for advice by young entrepreneurs, Jo says that the three qualities you need in bucket loads are:
(i) The passion of a storyteller;
(ii) The resilience of an entrepreneur, including the ability to pick yourself up & dust yourself down whilst pursuing your goal; and
(iii) The creativity of an artist. Have the greatest of respect for creativity – it will be your best friend.

And finally, don’t be afraid to walk a path you’ve never walked before: the people who manage to do this are “the people who will change the world.”

P.S. I’m already half way through Jo’s book – and trust me, it is a riveting read.

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