samples resume contact  

Entrepreneur's Heavy Duty Hand Emollient Crosses Demographic Lines

Beth Hughes, Special to the Examiner
May 19, 1999



CARMEL—For years, Alexandra Volkmann used her hands to do more than just wave. At the Manhattan School of Music, they carried a tune. They focused a camera and delivered Szechwan takeout.

Now her hands do just about whatever needs doing at Heavy Duty, her expanding, Carmel-based start-up where she has fewer than five employees and just one product — Hand Gear, a rich, hydrating hand cream without what she calls "a foofy scent that reminds you of Grandma's cream gone bad."

It fills a niche that Volkmann spotted while she was a national sales executive for Murad cosmetics — a niche that market observers see as an international explosion in cutting-edge beauty and personal care products.

"What's happening is that some of these markets are so specific, smaller players are filling the niches," said Bryant Riley, president of B. Riley & Co., a Los Angeles stock brokerage.

Big pharmaceuticals and cosmetics companies "need big heads, and they overlook niches," Riley said.

Overlooked niches become profit centers for companies such as Heavy Duty and E^ Shave, which reverse-engineered the techniques used by old-fashioned English barbers to create a line of luxury shaving brushes, soaps and razors for women.

The small cosmetics companies "are just like start-ups in garages," said Steve Bock, executive vice president at Sephora, the French beauty bazaar that recently opened its West Coast flagship store in The City.

"Suddenly we're part of this movement where a small vendor with a great idea, great packaging and an angle of some kind can stand out. It opens the industry to any talented person," he said. "It's the American ideal because there are no barriers to entry."

Often, the industry giants buy such smaller operations, he said, citing Estee Lauder's purchase of the fashion-forward MAC line of cosmetics and the streamlined Bobbi Brown line.

But the small, privately held companies can continue to grow independently. "They're wonderful because they have such clear and simple ideas," Bock said of the little outfits with big products.

The Business at Hand

As for Volkmann, it's tough to get much more focused than her stated goal of making the best hand cream. Period.

How she came to realize her dream reads like a case study for a small cosmetics concern.

Volkmann's venture began about four years ago, when she realized she wanted her own cosmetics company with a single product she could sell as a gift or personal care item, something "that would cross over into different markets."

She needed something heavy-duty, she told her friends.

With repetition came clarity. In "Heavy Duty," she found a company name.

Next came a marketing concept. Nostalgia for the late '50s and early '60s appealed to Volkmann, as did their retro look.

"I liked the women of that era," Volkmann said. "I thought of them as resourceful, strong, able to do the job."

Then Volkmann flashed on the cars, or rather land yachts, of that era with their "come hither" chrome and big fins. She said, "I liked the idea of body parts being analogous to car parts, where you want great performance."

That led to the marketing mantra for her "no-nonsense cosmetics company that incorporates an automotive concept with a retro edge. We'd go the extra mile" for customers.

Finally, Volkmann figured out her product: hand cream, something with universal appeal. Hand Gear would be the product name, she decided, dedicating it "to hands that do more than just wave."

The Nuts and Bolts

Volkmann then developed a business plan. "I knew right away that my strategy would be to do one product and do it right . . . to ensure that we were known as the best hand cream on the market."

She cashed in a four-figure savings account and took her plan to an accountant for a tune-up. She said it was one of the smartest things she did in growing her business.

"I would strongly suggest anyone going into this or any kind of start-up have a good four-year plan and work on it with a good accountant," she said.

Next came the ordeal of qualifying for a loan from the Small Business Administration. "I was very proud to get that," Volkmann said. "They took me through a lot of paces."

The key element of her business plan may have been her cosmetics-industry background. Working with a chemist in Los Angeles, Volkmann specified several ingredients she thought would give her product a competitive edge.

A small focus group of friends, family and a few strangers wrung their hands over various formulations. Volkmann acknowledged their efforts with a line on the Hand Gear label: "Tested on Genuine People."

Crafting an Image

While the testers focused on the product, Volkmann worked with designers to refine her packaging vision of a corporate look with an automotive theme.

Identity creation does not come cheap. At one point Volkmann resorted to bartering. She modeled her legs (shaped by years of ballet training) for a commercial photographer who needed them for another project. In exchange, he took what is now the signature photo on the Heavy Duty Hand Gear label: Volkmann fixing a flat on a borrowed '58 Caddy in that resourceful retro-woman mode.

In February 1998, Volkmann launched Hand Gear at the upscale Fred Segal Essentials in Santa Monica. Acceptance at this outlet, a bellwether in the industry, would put her on the right track.

Looking to the Future

Now after a year of more-than-satisfying sales growth, Volkmann prefers not to think about the possibility of selling her company, because that was never her goal.

"I'd like to nurture this company as much as I can," she said. "I want to see this baby fly."

Instead, she focuses on expanding and marketing, which includes a Web site, "lots of phone work," and a good deal of grass-roots promotion as customers spread the word.

At $15 for a 3.5-ounce tube, Hand Gear isn't cheap, but its fans aren't deterred. Volkmann now services more than 500 accounts, representing a range of retail outlets: department stores; upscale cosmetic shops like Boston's E6 Apothecary, where owner Elena Behrakis told Vogue she sells 10 tubes a day; small specialty clothing stores with big industry clout, like Barney's and Henri Bendel in New York; gift shops at The Whitney Museum and The American Folk Art Museum, and home furnishing stores.

She has also garnered coveted mentions in the glossy fashion magazines such as Elle and Mademoiselle, as well as alternative magazines like Paper.

Then there's that car connection. The gift shop at one car museum stocks Hand Gear, as does Carumba, an automotive memorabilia shop in Carmel.

"It sells great," said Morton Lukacsy, who manages the store.

"I would like to see us become more involved in automotive trade shows" said Volkmann, in part because cosmetics and personal care trade shows have proven so effective in her marketing scheme.

With simple black, white and gray packaging, Heavy Duty wouldn't look out of place in a tool box, and that is how Volkmann markets it: She provides retailers a bright red tool box with two pop-up hinged trays loaded with the product.

The auto connection brought Hand Gear to the attention of Cindy Piva, co-owner with Eileen Claytor of The Cutting Edge Salon in Bernal Heights. After a car-crazy client gave a tube to Piva, a manicurist, it is now the only hand cream she sells.

Like Lukacsy, she found women buying it for themselves and their husbands and boyfriends "because the packaging is not overly feminine and the fragrance is not perfumey."

Hoping to build on her carefully cultivated reputation for quality, Volkmann is preparing to launch four new body-care products this summer.