It started at the kitchen sink and has grown to a $40 million-plus global business dedicated to making people less hairy.
And, while starting a new business can be hairy enough, Sue Ismiel has managed the ups and downs of running her hair removal product company over the past 23 years through hard work and drive.
Mind you, when the mother of three daughters was slaving over a hot stove for 12 months to come up with a painless cold-wax solution to her daughter Natalie’s hairy arm problem, she did not expect it to turn into a ground-breaking business. But the green goo-like substance that Sue eventually concocted in 1991 to take care of Natalie’s unwanted hair soon took Australia, and then the USA and the UK, by storm.
The product is Nad’s, named after Sue’s eldest daughter Nadine, and the company is Sue Ismiel and Daughters — well and truly a family company. The company is based in a spacious office suite in Norwest Business Park and employs over 50 staff. The Ismiel women are all proud to call the Hills home.
Born from Sue’s commitment to formulate a product that contained only natural products for her daughter’s delicate skin, Nad’s products stand out from the crowd of depilatory creams.
Essentially, Sue drew upon her Arabic culture’s solution to unwanted hair, in her formula of molasses, sugar, fructose, lemon, honey, date extract and water.
“I come from Syria, where women use a similar formula to make a cold wax-like substance that removes hair,” Sue said. “But it can be painful, so I came up with a product that clings to the hairs and not the skin to make hair removal easier.”
Natalie recalls her embarrassment over her hairy arms. “I have fairer skin than my sisters so my excess hair was more noticeable, even from a young age,” Natalie said. “I used to wear jumpers to school, even in warm weather.”
Sue knew she had to do something to ease her daughter’s pain. For the determined woman, who worked in medical administration with no science background, the 12 months of experimentation was intense.
“I did not expect to be running a company with a product that has helped so many people,” Sue said. “I left school at 15 and was married at 18.”
Husband Sam has been supportive from the beginning, even if that support has been physically painful.
“He was my guinea pig, so he had a lot of hair pulled out,” Sue laughed.
Soon after coming up with her formula in 1991, Sue was approached by family and friends who wanted to buy the product. “I then decided to invest in jars and boxes to sell the product at markets, which was a great success,” Sue said.
Sue formed her company in 1992.
“But the turning point came in 1993 when I took a leap of faith, cashed in my long service leave, and invested in TV commercials, selling direct to the public. Four years later, I was knocking on Woolworths’ door and soon it was stocked on their shelves. In 1997, Nad’s was named the best new line in Woolworths.”
It was then time to explore world markets. A US distributor developed an infomercial for the product that was at the forefront of non-chemical hair removal, a concept that — pardon the pun — gelled with women of all ages.
Showing how business-savvy she had become, Sue convinced the distributor, who was clearly besotted by the product, to fund the infomercial and other advertising campaigns. It was a win-win for both of them, with Nad’s launched in the lucrative US market.
“It took off in 1998, climbing from the bottom 100 to the top 10 of that type of product,” Sue said.
The UK entered the fray soon after, with Nad’s moving into the prestigious Boots chain. Along the way, the Ismiel women have opened laser hair removal clinics and Nitwits to care for the annoying problem of nits in hair with natural products.
It was no surprise when Sue’s girls decided to follow her into the business, although they were under no compulsion to do so. And they did not just swan in and take their place beside their mother as if that were their rightful places.
These young women, as driven and focused as their mother, came with qualifications that would be an asset to any company. Nadine, 36, is a qualified bio-chemist, so she concentrates on product development. Natalie, 33, graduated in business studies and marketing and Naomi, 30, is the company’s art director responsible for the design of packaging. She worked for two years in a North Sydney ad agency before joining the company.
While Sue is still full of steam and loving her job, one day the company will pass to the Ismiel girls. In Australia, it is rare for a family business to pass from mother to daughter(s), a fact that makes Sue very proud.
Sue Ismiel continues to be an inspiration to others, giving regular talks in Australia and overseas, although she has encountered a less-than-welcoming attitude from some men.
She can still remember when she first pitched her Nad’s products to a room full of businessmen.
“I can still see that image of sitting in front of those guys, big men in suits looking down at me. My attitude was, ‘Bugger you, I’m going to find a way no matter what you think’,” the feisty businesswoman said. And that she has — the woman who left school at 15 has picked up a slew of accolades and awards along the way.
But it has not been all smooth sailing. Sue almost lost the company through an error of judgment she has been determined not to make again.
“In 2004, we needed a break so I took a year off and put the business in the hands of someone who almost sent us into bankruptcy,” Sue said. “That was the biggest mistake of my life, but I knew I had started with nothing so I could build the company up again.”
With the philosophy that what doesn’t break you makes you stronger Sue, again with the unwavering support of her husband, was soon on her way again.
You cannot imagine Sue being in a business that did not help others, and for the past 15 years or so she has helped people beyond her business interests. A truly magnanimous entrepreneur, Sue has shared her successes with those in need, donating millions of dollars to various organisations, causes and charities.
However, as dynamic as she is, Sue does take time out with yoga, and urges everyone to slow down to smell the roses.
“The world has become so fast-paced, with all these tapes running in our head, so I advise people to switch off for a short time at least twice a day,” she advised. “We have been given the gift of life and we should honour that gift.” ☐
Sue Ismiel’s causes include:
• Sydney City Mission, accommodation for battered women
• The Northcott Society for children with disabilities
• Raising $250,000 for Westmead Children’s hospital’s Poppy Appeal
• Donating $600,000 to an international women’s hormone study
• Funding a Cochlear implant operation for a young boy
• Ongoing support for people of her hometown in Syria.