In the spirit of the vendor interviews I’ve recently done on both Youtube and Sharpologist I’m continuing the series, this time with Todd Fisher, owner of St. James of London. Todd and I actually go a fair piece back, when he was with another wet shaving brand and he was able to facilitate one of the barber shaving videos I did on Youtube a number of years ago. I wanted to ask him about his work with St. James of London!
Who are you? Where are you from? Give us a little background on how you started St. James of London.
Born and raised in central Illinois by the best parents one could ask for, I majored in Business and Sociology and played collegiate tennis all four years. I loved tennis and still do. I began my career in Washington, DC working for the 2nd largest sports marketing firm in the world, specifically for the company’s founder and the industry’s most high-profile sports agent at that time – Donald Dell, ProServ. Having a passion for tennis, I parlayed my experience with ProServ and moved onto other tennis companies, including Reebok, Gamma Sports and Penn (sales and product marketing capacity). I took a sabbatical to pursue my MBA in the mid-90’s and upon graduation, I returned to Reebok’s world headquarters in Boston, where I headed-up the Global Tennis Footwear Category. In general, I’ve always thoroughly enjoyed working with products along with international markets, particularly as it relates to developing strategic product platforms for growing the business. My last tennis company move was to Wilson Sporting Goods, which is what ultimately led me to Chicago – a city I’ve always enjoyed for a number of reasons. After nearly 16 years of building brands for different companies, the desire for a change of pace came knocking at my door in the Spring 2007. It was also during this time I met and married my wife of 10 years as well. At the time, my future in-laws expressed concerns of my extensive business-travel (200,000 miles annually), which further contributed to my decision to make the move to head-up the North American Distribution for a luxury grooming brand. It wasn’t long after starting my new role that I became enamored with the grooming & fragrance space, and the organic growth it was experiencing. After successfully building and establishing an old English brand in its infancy to that of a well-respected and distributed brand throughout North America today, my passion for the grooming industry grew even more and the opportunity to purchase and resurrect St. James of London presented itself in the Fall 2013. Now here I am, combining a myriad of passions, one as an entrepreneur, another building a brand and lastly, doing it in the grooming and fragrance space I’ve grown to love over the last decade. The best part is I’m doing it now with even better products and branding than before! Interestingly, the irony for many people when they look at the St James of London brand today is the natural perception we’re this old British company that’s been around for ages, which is simply not the case. We’re a very lean organization and we work efficiently well, which often creates a sense of largeness.
Give me a feel for your development and manufacturing process. How do you make your soaps/creams/gels, etc?
We work with a well-established manufacturer in the United Kingdom for our shave creams, gels, and colognes. This manufacturer has been around for three centuries and has a solid reputation for making some of the best grooming & fragrance products in the world. They’re also not inexpensive to work with, but in our industry, you pay for what you get and we’re committed to producing world-class products. We’re also probably among the few, if not the only brand, who manufactures in small-batches. Doing this allows us to produce and distribute the freshest and most consistent product possible. One of the greatest benefits of working with an established manufacture is access to their chemists and product development expertise. There’s a treasure-trove of centuries of product formulations, ingredient knowledge/chemistry, fragrance trends as well as fragrance house relationships and the like. You just can’t go out and secure this information on your own even on the internet. When we explore the idea of creating a new fragrance profile, we start with a product brief, which essentially outlines and details the specifics we’re looking for. A general overview describing the profile is followed by the various pyramid-levels of notes we’re looking to include (Top-Middle-Base). Once a brief is submitted, we work with a fragrance house, typically those found in the UK, France, or Middle East, the latter being a huge market for fragrances, scents, oils, etc. Within a few weeks, we receive a number of fragrance samples, usually in the form of a lotion, because it is the easiest and quickest to make for sampling. From this point, the process of elimination begins and we narrow the preferred samples down and compare it to the original brief. As it is often the case, we select a number of fragrance samples and resubmit with modifications, some of which may take the form of punching-up (or reducing) certain attributes, or re-arranging a certain fragrance sequence and order (Top-Middle-Base). This process continues until we find just the right combination we’re looking for, and in some cases, we terminate and abandon a particular brief altogether and start over. However, in the case of selecting a new fragrance, the process of incorporating it into our product formulas takes place next. The chemist we work with does this in the laboratory, where they create a small batch of shaving cream or cologne using the new fragrance and send us the samples for testing. While we’re doing actual testing on our end, the chemists in the UK are evaluating the compatibility and colorization on their end to insure all ingredients being used work with our particular formula. Unfortunately, this is not always the case and re-working of formulas is needed. This is also the case when using the fragrance across a variety of products – Shaving cream, Cologne, Post-Shave, etc. A new fragrance may translate perfectly in one product but not in another, so additional refinement is needed. Needless to say, it’s a laborious process that includes one-step forward, two steps backward many times over. In general, it can take 9-12+ months from start to finish before a new product is introduced into the market. The last step in new product commercialization is consumer testing. Because our products are all-natural, gluten-free and adhere to EU and US regulations, we do extensive testing both in the UK and US. As a rule of thumb, we use a wide array of different consumer demographics, all of whom have different skin-sensitivity and grooming rituals to get the best cross-section of testers possible. Once testing is completed and results are consistent and compatible with our lab results, then we move into the last phase which is commercialization. Product packaging designs are submitted to our printer, color samples received/confirmed, cartons ordered, we schedule production for the products and then it becomes a matter of a few months to bring to market.
Where do you find your creativity?
I find it everywhere. The world is full of amazing beauty, all of which can be experienced to its fullest using all of our senses. In the past, I’ve gained a great deal of inspiration from people I’ve met or talked to about various products. I also think my diverse background in sales and product development in a number of different industries gives me a unique and creative perspective as well. I was not born into the grooming or fragrance industry per se, didn’t really have a passion for it either, but was dialed into it just enough to appreciate it. It’s been interesting to see a seed planted many years ago take shape and unfold and ultimately become a passion, which describes the last decade for me perfectly. Combining this passion with the love of building brands was a dream come true for me when the opportunity to acquire St James of London came along.
What is your most popular product?
We’re fortunate that most all of our products run neck-to-neck, so that makes this question a bit challenging. There are times during the year when one fragrance will see a spike, and another will take hold and replace that one. Plus, certain fragrances are more popular regionally or are country-specific as well. Our shaving creams and colognes without question do extremely well regardless of fragrance, region or climate. Because our post-shaves are super hydrating, they’re very popular in hot/dry climates, and in particularly cold climates during the winter months where the skin is exposed to dry air. When we first launched St James of London, we led with Cedarwood & Clarysage which has continued to be a fan-favorite. Then the others fragrances, such as Black Pepper & Lime and Sandalwood & Bergamot, took off in a big way. Our scents are clean, crisp and subtle, which makes them appealing to those who wear them as well as to those who are around them.
What is your favorite (SJL) product?
This is like asking a father which of his kids is his favorite! I generally shake it up from one day to the next, and don’t really have a favorite. Although if you asked my wife, she would immediately say that hers is Sandalwood & Bergamot. Being a head-shaver, I love heavy-weighted safety razors and large badger brushes since I have a lot of real estate to cover on my head. In my earlier years when I shaved my head, I used Aloe because it would absorb well into my scalp leaving my head feeling super soft and not shiny. I migrated to balms, but quickly dropped them because most have alcohol. This would dry out my skin/scalp as well as cause my eyes to burn when I would play sports and sweat. Our Post-shave Gels are no doubt the best kept secret on the market. They’re similar to Aloe because they’re super hydrating, absorb well into the skin, and leaves zero residue no matter how much one sweats. I absolutely love applying it on my freshly shaven face and head – such a great feeling and only a little is needed.
Where are your products distributed?
You can generally find our products in a variety of distribution channels, such as Barbershops, Shaving stores, Fine Clothing stores and Fragrance shops across 20 countries worldwide.
What’s next for SJL? Any new products in development?
We recently launched a collection of bespoke Straight Razors, which are individually hand-crafted and we’ll offer these periodically throughout the year. Because each razor requires extensive time to make, we only offer a limited number at the time of production. We’re also working on, and are quite close to finalizing, a new fragrance to be launched very soon. We started this “new” project over a year ago and ultimately scratched it altogether and started over. As I explained about the development process, we’ve had a number of revisions to make with this newest fragrance due to its complexity of key ingredients. Needless to say, I’m excited about the new fragrance as it will fit in nicely and complement our existing fragrance profiles very well.