When I met ESPA’s Susan Harmsworth at the launch of her latest spa collaboration, The Spa at The Belfry, I was struck at how ballsy and confident she was, but more than that, she was also very interested in others and caring. In creating ESPA and the products that are so sought after, she was not just interested in helping people look good but she wanted to promote health from the inside out as well. “When I create a product, it has to be sensuous in texture and smell. Scent is crucial to mood,” Susan says.”We notice when something smells wonderful, but we are often unaware how powerful the effect is psychologically.”
But if you think all this came easily to Susan, starting young and having people help her out, it didn’t. She launched ESPA in her late 40s funding it herself and has grown it steadily over the years to become the well respected and desired brand it is today. Here she shows how tenacity and vision got her to where she is today…
What gave you the confidence to launch your own company, firstly in the 70s and again with ESPA in the 90s?
I was born into an entrepreneurial family, and had also been educated in an era when the empowerment of girls was really embryonic, I was also brought up with a can do attitude and that if you really believe in something you can achieve it. The break between my first business in the 70s and then starting ESPA was really timing, in that I wanted to be back in Europe (I was living in America at the time) and all the knowledge I had gained with my first business, then running a Health Farm and then Managing Director of a company with 1100 therapist gave me the experience to know that the timing was right to launch ESPA and as you know we were one of the first spa companies.
What was the hardest thing about setting up and developing ESPA?
I was in my late 40’s and I self financed the whole company, one of the hardest things was risking all my personal finance. Developing the spas, products and treatments was not a problem but because it was a very visionary idea, it was difficult convincing others to believe in the concept initially. Sales were not a problem and we had double digit growth for the first 18 years. In the first few years the hardest thing was maintaining cash flow and not losing control of the company.
What skills do you need to be a successful entrepreneur?
Passion and energy, leadership skills, vision, hard work, being prepared to take risks and being a decision maker.
What advice would you give women trying to start their own businesses?
Take small steps, grow organically, be ambitious, but not over ambitious. Financially, don’t over extend yourself. I do believe that it is very difficult to start a business when your children are small and although I did it, something has to give. If you have your own business it is 7 days a week, hard work and not necessarily profitable for some time, and you have to be prepared to drive through those first years. Many people make the mistake of calculating their initial investment and not calculating enough for growth. In your first years you may not make profit, or the profit goes back into the business, which explains why most businesses fail in the first three years of trading.
You have always been at the forefront of the spa industry, what is the next development for ESPA?
ESPA is constantly evolving and because we operate in 60 countries we are very close to our guests, therapists and consumers, and by our very nature we are leaders and creating trends. Our formulas and treatments are becoming more effective by the day. Owning our own factory has given us technology, chemists and the ability to formulate powerful natural products that are more results driven and efficacious than ever. The same is true of our treatments, ESPA Life is our new wellness brand, which is bringing complementary health into the spa market. I do think prevention and health are going to become major issues over the next decade with an global ageing population.
What, in your opinion, makes a woman beautiful?
I really believe beauty comes from within, and a positive mental attitude, wisdom, and a life well lived are reflected in a woman’s personality. Personal style, good skin, health, energy, all show in the face you present to the world.
How can our Belle’s best look their best?
I obviously passionately believe in good skin care, however, often less is more, and one of the reasons I developed ESPA with formulas that are 98% natural, is that I do think chemicals in products, food, household products, environment, have one of the most negative influences on our health and skin. Skin reflects how we feel and how we are. The other negative is stress, so I am a great believer in breath work, which I practice personally all the time. Again, a positive mental attitude really helps in day to day life and is something we can teach ourselves. However bad life gets, we do have a choice to be happy or sad. Life is not easy, everyone has tragedy, however, we do have a choice.
How do you unwind after a busy week?
I have no norms in my life and I am on a plane usually once a week, staying in wonderful 5 star hotels. As this is part of my life, my home is my sanctuary, to be there with family and friends with good food and a great glass of wine is bliss to me. As I get older, personal training has become more important, especially because of the pace of my life.
What is your favourite travel destination and why?
Due to my travel schedule I don’t any longer have a tolerance for long haul holidays, so I try to stay as close to home as possible, the West Coast of Scotland is one of my boltholes where I can totally escape, and also Italy in the Spring and Summer, because I love the architecture, food, scenery, smells and the people. Having seen most of the world, I love the diversity of European culture.
What is your favourite bar or restaurant in London?
Cecconi’s for dinner, The Connaught Bar to meet friends.
What 3 universal truths do you live by?
I think you have to treat everyone you meet with respect, don’t patronise people, be true to yourself, be honest and genuine. Assume nothing. Live for now and be thankful for what you have and not what you don’t have.