Susan Gerrard

Nailing the Modern Mani

23rd November 2018

Susan Gerrard, 73, is the woman routinely credited by the beauty industry with transforming nailcare in the UK. While a regular manicure was once seen as the height of luxury, ‘getting your nails done’ is now just as routine, and no more self-indulgent, than popping to the hairdressers to have your hair trimmed. Nailbars proliferate on every high street and offer convenience and an abundance of choice and colour, at affordable prices – in no small part due to Susan’s entrepreneurial vision. Yet rather than winding down to enjoy her success, Susan is still pushing forward with new and exciting plans. Lisa Botwright finds out more…

In her delightfully engaging way, Susan is telling me about her early experiences as a manicurist. She recounts that her husband, a West End hairdresser, had suggested that she re-train as a manicurist to paint his clients’ nails; an ideal job to fit around caring for their three small children. “But it was chaos,” she laughs. “Nails were treated like a cup of coffee, to be fitted in while you were under the dryer. There were no dedicated nail areas in salons, and women only thought about having their nails done when they were going out.”

Skip forward a few years, and a trip to America, for the couple’s silver wedding anniversary, re-framed the concept of manicure in an entirely new light. The hotel they were staying in had a glamorous spa and offered ‘Jessica’ manicures. “I saw all these lovely polishes in such great colours, and thought, we don’t have anything like this in our salon.”

At the thought of this Sliding Doors moment, when you or I might have shrugged and gone back to enjoying our holiday, Susan reflects, “I’m very lucky that certain opportunities have come my way. I wasn’t looking for them, but I have made the most of these opportunities. I was at the right place at the right time, and I went for it…”

Susan was so sure that Jessica Nails would be a big hit in the UK; not just for her customers, but in other salons too, that she phoned Jessica personally and asked if she could distribute the brand in the UK. “I explained how impressed I was, and visited Jessica in her prestigious Sunset Boulevard clinic, where she gave me a manicure. “That was [the extent of] my training.”

Susan bought three dozen of everything in the Jessica range (“that’s half of what some of my salons stock now,” she smiles) and priced it all up on the plane home.

By this stage, Susan’s children had just left home to go off to university, and so “this was a good time for me [to launch my new career]. Jessica Nails gave me a whole new lease of life and energy; I’d recommend it!” She travelled up and down the UK selling the new services on offer; not just new colours, but nail strengtheners and treatments for different types of nails. “This wasn’t just a ‘file and paint’ this was all about the whole treatment. When I wasn’t selling, I was training. I just knew it was going to work.”

Jessica Nails became a big name, and even “pushed Revlon off the map”. But just as Susan began to take on regional sales managers, and swap the kitchen table for a swanky London office; she was hit with terrible news. She had breast cancer, and would need to undergo several months of chemotherapy.

“I had six months of chemo. I couldn’t do training any more; I was so exhausted that I had to sleep for two hours every afternoon. But my business gave me a raison d’être; I just worked through it. I was 47 when I was diagnosed, and by 48 I was in remission.”

Susan moved the offices closer to home to Borehamwood, and eight years ago launched her Mii range of cosmetics. “Knowing the market as I did, it made sense. My only regret is I didn’t develop it sooner. I had no idea what a success Mii would be so I wish I’d had the confidence to launch the brand earlier. It’s easy to say that now, but through knowledge and experience comes greater confidence.”

What started life as ‘The Natural Nail Company ‘ is now ‘Gerrard International’, and Susan’s portfolio of products are distributed to 900 salons and spas in 22 countries. Moreover, the tenacious entrepreneur is constantly unveiling new plans..

She’s just launched the Susan Gerrard Beauty Academy in Borehamwood, offering fully-accredited qualifications for new students and short courses for beauty lovers and for professionals to top up their skills. “We’ve always been held in high-regard in the industry, and I’ve always wanted a school; you have to be educated to maintain a successful career, and we offer additional skills that other beauty schools don’t – practical training in retailing and marketing. The academy is perfect for mature women who want to re-train – it’s never too late!”

Susan certainly has no plans to slow down: “I still work full time; retirement fills me with dread – I think I’d be bored. I don’t call this working: it’s a passion, it’s always different and it’s very exciting; it’s what keeps me as a person fulfilled.”
Does she have time for interests outside work? “I learned to play the piano a few years ago, and enjoy a tinkle on the ivories. I love gardening, but I don’t dig, I have a gardener… oh, and cooking. I have lots of cookery books with loads of stickers in them, and I kept thinking, ‘I must make this recipe’. So now I’ve made a file, and tick them off when I’ve made them.”

With three children and six grandchildren aged between 11 and 18 years (“they’re all growing up so quickly”) those cookbooks must come in handy for big family dinners. “I love it when we’re all together, although things have changed now the grandchildren are getting older. When they were young, they were round every weekend.”

Susan is incredibly close to her family; so much so that her three children, her husband and her brother are all now part of the business. “I never asked them to, but they wanted to,” Susan explains. Daughter Lisa, a pharmacist originally, is Managing Director; second daughter Danielle is Head of International Distribution; son Paul, a copywriter by trade, is Head of Brand Communications, and Susan’s brother, a former banker, now heads up IT. Even her husband hung up his scissors fifteen years ago, to become Finance Director.

Asked if she has any advice for those just starting out in business, she says, “it’s all about the people: get a team of staff better than you and learn from them.” She recognises that the beauty business, and especially nailcare, has undergone enormous change in her time. (“Like coming from the Stone Age to having cars”) Susan ‘lives and breathes the industry’; “I know the market. I can still see what salons need for their growth and I’m proud to have built a business where people have a future.”

She continues: “There’s only one ‘you’ and it’s important to live as fulfilling life as you can: be interested in others, be an example to pass on to your children and take that legacy forward. I don’t feel old – if I heard about a 73 year old being knocked over by a bus, I’d think ‘poor old dear’ but I’m 73!”

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