Beauty Store Business magazine - December, 2019

The Denman Difference: An 80-Year History

Celebrating more than 80 years of innovation, Denman remains a trusted, iconic brand among stylists and consumers alike–while remaining true to its founding principles as a family business.

In an interesting twist, Denman’s now-legendary hairbrushes were created before the company even existed. Founder John Denman Dean, described as a naturally inquisitive serial entrepreneur from Northern Ireland, avidly sought problems to solve–and new ways to solve them. “There is some company folklore that he was looking to create a brush for his sister’s hair, but this is not proven,” explains Dr. John Rainey, MBE, chairman of the Denroy Group, which owns Denman, based in Bangor, Northern Ireland (pictured to the left with daughter Victoria Rainey Fishman, CEO of Denman Inc.). “What we do know is that he was passionate about innovation.”

In 1938, John Denman Dean created the first prototype of the Denman hairbrush, a rubber-headed brush with boar bristles. It was such a game-changing product that he immediately applied for a patent on February 16, 1938, which marked the start of the Denman business.

When World War II struck Europe, Dean’s ambitious business plans had to be put on hold. However, during this time he was introduced to a revolutionary new material: nylon. After the war he relocated to England and began working with Imperical Chemical Industries, a chemical company in Welwyn Garden City, where he opened his first factory to create the Denman brush, which would now be made with nylon. In 1946, he opened Denman Products Limited with a wide variety of consumer and professional products, taking advantage of the innovation he discovered in the plastics and chemical industries.

Twenty years later, Dean sold the business to a company called Lyndsay & Williams, which moved all operations to Belfast, Northern Ireland. The company eventually became Ulster Plastics and hit some troubled times amid a strained economic and political climate. It fell into receivership, and the Northern Ireland government approached the small Martin Rainey Plastics company to rescue the business in 1972. Rainey admits that back then, no one recognized the value of the brand. “Our background was plastics and engineering; we knew about the equipment, the people and the land, but we had no idea of the value of Denman until some outside companies sought to buy the tools,” he explains. “Their interest sparked our interest, and we began to learn about the hairdressing industry.”

Once a business-to-business company, execs initiated conversations with leading stylists of the day, including Freddie French and Vidal Sassoon, who used the Denman D4 Styling Brush to help create modern hairdressing. “In 1972, we attended our first Salon Exhibition in London, and we haven’t missed one since,” Rainey notes. “Our first demonstrator was Andrew Collinge’s father, Peter, and we’ve had the good fortune to work with Joshua Galvin, Nicholas French, Tony Mascolo and too many superstar hairdressers to mention.”

As Sassoon’s approach gained attention, Denman’s sales followed suit. By the 1980s, Denman was exporting to Japan; American interest was frenzied when the company’s first U.S. office opened in Boston in 1990. Today, Denman ships to more than 60 countries around the world, with another office in Holland to meet European and Asian demand.

Denman employs a group business structure, with the Denroy Group (headed by Rainey) holding three subsidiaries: Denman International (global sales and marketing for Denman, headed by Philip Steele); Denman Inc. (sales and marketing for the United States, headed by Victoria Rainey Fishman); and Denroy Plastics, a leading manufacturer in precision plastics injection moldings (which specializes in the aerospace and defense industries alongside Denman Manufacturing). “Denroy Plastics is our go-to manufacturing partner, producing almost 90 percent of our range from our facility in Bangor,” Fishman details. “Denroy does not just make brushes for us; they work collaboratively with us and leading stylists to refine the product brief and choose best-in-class materials and processes.”

While the core of its business is the iconic Denman Styling Brush, the company has expanded its range to embrace trends–think paddles, thermoceramic radials, and further innovations on consumer brush ranges like Gentle brushes and the Tangle Tamer Ultra. “But the Denman Styling Brush remains the top seller, we believe, because its use is constantly changing in the hands of the individual,” Rainey says. “Today, a lot of our growth is fueled by the natural hair community, who use the brush to define their wet curls. A brush that was created over 80 years ago still has the power to transform today!”

While staying true to its legacy of innovation, Rainey stresses the importance of also retaining its founding values–and never relying on its past to secure the future. For example, its commitment to quality, durability and performance led to keeping manufacturing in the U.K., despite lower operating costs overseas. “We make brushes that last, and we work diligently to exceed customers’ expectations,” Rainey notes. “Any change we make to our brushes follows lengthy debate and testing–and we will only do it if we can prove the product performance is improved.”

In a fast-changing world, with pros constantly adopting new tools and techniques, Denman continues to invest in brand marketing and innovation–introducing a healthy batch of new products alongside promoting great respect for the legendary Styling Brushes. “Our people and their continued curiosity are important to us,” Fishman says. “We need to keep listening to the needs of our users and customers. We can never lose that drive.”

In fact, when the company celebrated 80 years in 2018, execs took part in a series of workshops to examine what makes the company what it is, and what values are important to its culture, then evaluated its vision and mission statement. “Companies spend a lot of time and money reaffirming their brand and values externally, but it’s even more important to do this internally,” Rainey notes. “Sometimes the day-to-day can knock you off course, or you lose sight of why we come to work each day. We spent a lot of time working on a document that spoke to the head, heart and gut.”

The company ultimately defined its purpose as “Hair Brilliance,” with the mission to “Make Hair Brilliant.” Values and keywords that have persisted over the last 80 years, they found, were: trusted performance, transformative, collaborative, confidence-building and accessible–while central to running the family business were the traits of decency, honesty and generosity. “Being a family business has enabled us to make decisions that are right for the long-term health of the brand, the business and the people,” Rainey explains. “We do not have to report to the city or the whim of institutional shareholders. We do not have to chase short-term volume that may, in the longer term, cripple the brand. Being a family business has ultimately afforded us the luxury of time and strategic thinking.”

Rainey believes that Denman’s commitment to quality and innovation differentiates its products. Thanks to maintaining control of production, the team can inspect its products religiously, while also investing in top-notch equipment, tooling and people.

Meanwhile, at the U.S. outpost in Boston, Victoria Rainey Fishman notes that the company works closely with customers and stylists to provide the perfect products. “With styles and trends changing rapidly, we have to move quickly with the times also,” she says. “It’s important not to assume what our customers need, but to identify what they actually need and to maintain the interaction with our customers and end users. When you call our office, you will speak with a real person!”

Though Fishman credits the company’s amazing longevity to its strong partnerships and a willingness to learn, change and adapt to the ever-changing needs of hairdressers and consumers, it also presents the company’s biggest challenge: to maintain this commitment to evolve in today’s supercharged world. “Every day, there’s some new social tool or online customer, and it can feel like you’re playing the largest and longest game of whack-a-mole,” Fishman laughs. “We must keep true
to what makes us Denman. The media that people consume, or the way they shop, may change, but ultimately they’re seeking a product that does the job it says it does. We need to ensure that we stay true to our proposition, innovate where appropriate and protect our brand for future generations. We’re working hard to ensure the brand not just celebrates its 100th birthday, but hopefully its 800th!”

Paul Stafford, Belfast-based global creative director for Denman, is a key figure in making that innovation happen–a journey that started while he was a young stylist in the early ’80s. “My first mentor was an avid advocate of the classic Denman D3,” he recalls. “He snatched my round brush out of my hands, handed me his trusty Denman 7 Row and said, ‘Use this–it won’t make you a great hairdresser, but it will help.’”

A decade later, Stafford was living his dream, traveling the world as a Denman ambassador, demonstrating its newest innovations and reintroducing traditional tools to a new generation of hairdressers–and he hasn’t looked back. Now, as global creative director, he loves unveiling the Denman brand to old friends and new fans at industry events worldwide. “The Denman family is always willing and eager to listen to customers and take ideas or suggestions on improving the products, or developing new ones,” Stafford says proudly. “They know that it’s the hair professional who understands the changing trends and the need for tools to help deliver new looks. The brand continues to evolve and develop tools that speed up the drying process, help maintain hair condition, and are suitable for the world’s wide and diverse hair types.”

Stafford adds that the “sheer quality of the caliber of the Denman brand” ensures that today, more than ever, hairstylists everywhere employ the brushes at shows, shoots, film sets and at every Fashion Week. In turn, Denman’s commitment to the global hairdressing industry is evident in its involvement in leading trade bodies and organizations, as well as through support of educational programs that encourage and assist young stylists. “Like all great designs, Denman products are simple, effective, and created first and foremost for the user,” Stafford concludes. “Denman doesn’t create gimmicks, but usable tools with a distinct purpose. Like all great designs, they have been copied and emulated many times—but there is only one original.”