SA entrepreneur swims against the economic tide with international break-through

SA entrepreneur swims against economic tide with international break-through

While the world economy languished in the doldrums of the COVID-19 pandemic, a small local cosmetics company has been increasing its sales by a staggering 40 percent this year, notching up one international breakthrough after another. 

To be sure, Elim Spa Products International’s remarkable success this year is no COVID-induced fluke. On the contrary, it has happened despite the pandemic, as the culmination of 16 years of extremely hard work and tenacity to develop an exclusive range of pedicure, manicure and body treatment creams.

The driving force behind the Cape Town based Elim is Shantelle Booysen, a 48-year-old life-long entrepreneur and finalist in the 2019 Entrepreneur of the Year® run by Business Partners Limited.

Her company, which she started from home in 2004, has just had its best year ever after a breakthrough in signing up with a top distributor in the UK, and increasing recognition as a leader in its category by exclusive spas around the world. In another reversal of global economic trends that bodes well for South African manufacturing, Elim no longer sources many of its components such as packaging from the Far East, but buys them locally, based purely on economic reasons. Shantelle, who describes herself as a born entrepreneur, grew up in Cape Town, and started her first successful business at school buying towels directly from a factory in Wellington and selling them to workers in Epping Industria, where her mother worked. She believes she may have inherited some of her entrepreneurship from her father, who grew up an orphan, left school at 16, and eventually became a successful steel manufacturer in the US.

As long as she can remember, she has always been on the lookout for business opportunities. “It’s not something I can turn off. When we go on holiday to Mauritius, for example, my husband and the boys enjoy their time on the beach, while I’m constantly looking through the shops and the markets for things that I can import. I’m just wired that way,” she says.

This is exactly how Shantelle stumbled on spa products as a business opportunity. She was travelling in Thailand to meet up with a supplier of leather shoes which she was importing to South Africa. The footwear itself was a side hustle to her regular job as a curriculum developer for a correspondence college. At the end of the trip she relaxed and took a pedicure at a Thai holiday resort. The cream caught her attention and she brought samples back to South Africa. She realised that unlike facial creams, pedicure foot cream was a neglected, underdeveloped product. The Thai product was remarkable, but tended to dry out the skin. A friend who had a background in the chemistry of cosmetics helped to solve the problem by adjusting the PH of the cream. 

This was the start of Shantelle’s immersion in the world of chemistry and the development of her range of sophisticated spa treatment creams for the next sixteen years. Today, she still spends whole days in the lab, leading the perfection of her products and the development of new ones. 

Shantelle started marketing her cream first through classified ads, and a demonstration at a fair which didn’t work. Then she decided to sell her cream, branded Mediheel, directly and exclusively to spas. For seven years she drove from spa to spa in a tiny sedan, demonstrating her products. In many ways she enjoyed these early years the most, and even today she pops in at spas to give a demonstration and to sign them up, much to the irritation of her marketing team, she says.

A breakthrough came when she struck up a relationship with the operations manager of Camelot, a leading chain of spas in South Africa. Camelot bought into Shantelle’s products and showed remarkable patience with early manufacturing faults that led to some complaints of skin rashes. Shantelle believes her total openness about how far the product still had to be developed and her honesty about who she was helped to turn Camelot into a development partner rather than a difficult supplier.

Part of Shantelle’s struggle was to find a manufacturer reliable enough to produce her products at the requisite standards. She contracted two factories before she moved her production to Adcock Ingram’s Johannesburg plant where Elim products are manufactured under the direct supervision of chemists. This was only one step towards gaining access to highly regulated markets such as Europe and the US where any claims made on the packaging need to be scientifically substantiated. Shantelle describes the quality-registration processes to gain access to these markets as difficult, slow, and very expensive. Although she received help from government agencies, much of the cost had to be borne upfront by her small company. What drove Shantelle to overcome these huge obstacles throughout the years, even though she constantly spots other business opportunities around her? Shantelle credits an early business mentor for whom she worked at the correspondence college who taught her the importance of doggedly sticking to a plan and seeing it through to the end. She recognizes the danger of constantly jumping from one idea to another in the businesses of many other entrepreneurs.

It also helped that she focused on hidden early signs of potential success. From the start, she has seen her innovations brazenly copied by large competitors, down to the very words written on the packaging. She could have fallen into despair, but she chose to see it as a confirmation that she was on the right path.  Today, nothing is hidden about Elim’s success. It is established in the exclusive spas of the UK, and another excellent year lies ahead with distribution contracts signed in Canada and Israel before it conquers the rest of the world.