Five years ago, when Jeffrey Davidson first signed on as a part-time consultant for a company then called “J&D Brush Co.,” in Hauppauge, New York, he had no idea that his career would take a whole new direction. Under the leadership of founder Jeff Rosenzweig, the company created the cult-favorite WetBrush line–a long way from the days when Rosenzweig sold brushes out of the trunk of his car at a local flea market decades earlier. Still, Rosenzweig was ready to rise to the next level. And Davidson knew that his strengths as a sales and marketing guru could help the company soar to new heights.
“When I met Jeff, we just fell in like, and I understood his trials and tribulations,” says Davidson, now CEO of JD Beauty Group. “With my entrepreneurial background spanning over 35 years in several businesses, I’ve been fortunate enough to raise hundreds of millions of dollars of capital, and we knew this company had tremendous potential.”
Of course, neither could have known how quickly the company would take off. Davidson has overseen a business boom in just the last five years: steady sales growth for the already established WetBrush line; a game-changing decision to expand to the consumer market; two major acquisitions in the electronic and liquid-line categories; and an employee base that grew by a factor of five. And he predicts an even more promising future.
Davidson recently sat down with Beauty Store Business to discuss what he brings to the table in his role as CEO, how he has defined company culture and the mechanics behind conjuring such a storm of success for an already beloved brand.
THE BRAND BUILDER
Davidson, a self-professed “serial entrepreneur,” didn’t always have his sights set on building businesses from the ground up. He instead undertook formal training to sell and market television airtime in the mid-’80s, but quickly realized it wasn’t his calling. Seeking a way to satisfy his “burning” entrepreneurial desires, he secured the rights to build and develop a Taco Bell franchise in New Jersey. From there, he built and operated nine additional highly profitable Taco Bell locations within five years, until then-parent company PepsiCo approached him to buy them back. “That was my first experience of growing a business and successfully exiting, and from there, I was off to the races,” Davidson says. “It took on a life of its own.”
Next, he would operate and lead a chain of movie theaters, securing venture capital from high-profile investors such as William Edward Simon, who was the treasury secretary under Nixon and Ford. Again, after five years, a bidding war broke out and Davidson sold to Regal Cinemas. He brought that “build, develop, grow, exit” formula to myriad industries, from hospitality to shoe and sandal manufacturing. But Davidson insists he’s no flip artist...he was simply approached with can’t-refuse offers thanks to a savvy business sense and an open-minded approach to hiring. “I’m an operations guy, and I know what I don’t know,” he says. “So I hire the best team of executives possible, surrounding myself with people who are smarter than me in other areas, then get out of their way and let them do their thing.”
“We’re very excited about having Ouidad because they have so many strengths we don’t.”
After building several businesses, he delved into the other side of the picture, becoming a principal at a private equity firm. Looking at a company’s strengths and weaknesses from this angle, he says, was one of his greatest learning experiences, with “eye-opening takeaways” as he watched over operations, offered guidance and developed a close rapport with the operators. As a former business operator himself, he knew that running a company goes beyond spreadsheets and black-and-white sales figures. Still, after another five years in private equity, he was ready to return to his original passion: growing brands.
Davidson had just exited one when his son called and said he knew someone whose parents owned a successful mom-and-pop company called J&D Brush Co., helmed by Jeff Rosenzweig. Rosenzweig’s business was expanding and he needed advice. So the pair connected by phone... a fateful call that would change the course of Davidson’s career trajectory and set the still-growing company on a path to greater success than previously imagined.
THE WETBRUSH BOOM
Davidson and Rosenzweig hit it off immediately, but the business mogul was especially impressed by the raving testimonials from the brand’s fans. “I knew this company had something really special; I had never seen a brand or product with a more impassioned user than the WetBrush consumer,” Davidson says. “Unsolicited, there were literally thousands of testimonials, and they all had the same theme: ‘This brush changed my life.’”
Davidson hopped on board as a consultant in 2013, expecting to contribute about 15 hours per week. But that soon turned into 30, then full-time. To take the business to the next level, he recommended selling the company to a private equity firm, allowing them to hire the best executives possible and take on intrepid investment bankers. Upon the sale of a majority stake to TopSpin Equity Partners in late 2015, Davidson officially joined the team as chief operating officer/chief strategy officer. About 18 months later, he assumed the CEO position as Rosenzweig moved to chairman.
“The business has flourished tremendously, and my focus as CEO is to grow and respect the WetBrush brand,” Davidson explains. “We always believed it had tremendous potential, but we’ve truly revolutionized the brush business. We’ve decommoditized the commodity of brushes.”
Of course, by the time Davidson joined the team, JD was already a well-established brand, in the market for decades. Back in 1977, Rosenzweig started selling brushes out of the trunk of his car at a flea market in Long Island, New York. From those humble beginnings, he became one of the first to manufacture brushes overseas, and in 2005 he founded what became the wildly popular WetBrush. “We were the first to market around and teach people about detangling,” Davidson says. “The heritage of our business is professional users, yet it’s our consumer group that’s now continuing to grow and thrive. But without that professional heritage, 300,000 to 400,000 hairdressers using the product every day, we’d be nowhere.”
Davidson insists that the company remain mindful of that pro focus; he believes it’s like a “permission slip” to cater to consumers. By focusing first on professionals ... giving them better, newer, sleeker solutions ... JD is able to take that technological knowhow and create patented products for the masses. And, by separating pro and consumer product development and marketing initiatives, Davidson believes the company can focus better on each channel, thereby strengthening both. “We’re now offering to pros and consumers in 35 countries, and it’s not just detangling brushes anymore; we have round, dry and styling brushes, too,” Davidson notes. “We have some formidable competitors, but nobody markets brushes like we do, including through digital and social media. And the brand is trusted throughout the world.”
“We’re very excited about having Ouidad because they have so many strengths we don’t.”
Fittingly, the man who was once trained to sell TV ad airtime recently launched an unprecedented marketing effort. In September, the company concluded a $1 million ad campaign with national television spots on large networks, which contributed to a significant sales lift while breaking brush-ad barriers. “To our knowledge, there’s never been a brush brand advertised on TV that way,” Davidson says. “Thanks to the campaign, we saw a 30 to 50 percent growth over last year in just the month of August.”
A PLATFORM COMPANY
With the brush business booming, Davidson and his team soon set out to expand further, their sights trained on becoming a platform company with diversified offerings. They identified two areas of desired growth: the electronic appliance and liquid spaces. To that end, in 2017 the company purchased Bio Ionic, a professional-only brand (and the No. 1 seller in SalonCentric stores) with electronic hair tools such as blowdryers and flat irons.
“We’ve grown the brand further since taking it over; one year later, business is up 28 percent, year over year,” Davidson reports. “And we now have the formula down for how to integrate a new brand seamlessly, because acquisitions can easily fail if they aren’t integrated properly.”
Continuing its quest for diversification–this time in search of a star liquid line–brought the company to Ouidad, a decades-old brand known worldwide for its natural and curly hair products, acquired in August 2018. Beyond its robust product portfolio, the brand boasts three salons across the country, which can function not only as spaces to serve the public but as “test kitchens” for product development. And, though the Ouidad customer list is virtually identical to JD’s other brands–retailers such as Ulta, SalonCentric and Amazon–the curly-hair kingpin brings a different set of assets to its new parent company. “We’re very excited about having Ouidad because they have so many strengths we don’t: e-commerce, digital reach and integrated educational teams, as well as the salons/test kitchens,” Davidson says. “We believe we’ve now proven that we can be a platform company, to buy and integrate other brands that are synergistic with our brands.”
Amid this transformation, there also remains the intense focus on growing and catering to both consumer and professional markets without one harming the other, and sales trends have been overwhelmingly positive. In just a few years within mass-market stores, Davidson reports “phenomenal” results, with WetBrush gaining market share over competitors, despite being on the higher end of the pricing scale. In SalonCentric, the company is enjoying nearly 30 percent growth year over year. “As far as our future, we want to continue to use our synergies well and find smart opportunities,” Davidson says. “We want to be as strong as we can be as a platform company.”
As Davidson learned early on in his own career, a good team is the cornerstone of every successful company. Therefore, he has tapped some top minds–both from the beauty space and other industries–to help lead the company to the extraordinary growth it has experienced in the past few years. Francesca Raminella, coming from the pro beauty world with previous stints at GHD North America, L’Oreal and P&G, serves as chief commercial officer, overseeing sales, marketing and product development for all three brands. Gary Dailey, with a background that includes time at brands such as Hain Celestial and Everlast, runs everything logistical as chief financial and operations officer. Davidson says, “I don’t come from the beauty business, and I think we have a good mix of employees who come from beauty and those who don’t. I think there are great lessons to be learned from other types of businesses, and as we moved into consumer products especially, that mix has really helped us. You’re only as good as your people, and the proof is in the pudding.”
Likewise, top execs from beauty and beyond are no doubt attracted by JD’s company culture–one that Davidson describes as fun and exciting rather than corporate and drab. For example, Davidson created what he calls the Culture Club. He allots a certain amount of cash to a group of employees (six are selected each round) to use as they see fit. His team has hosted everything from lavish lunches to parties and picnics. Meanwhile, at quarterly “town hall meetings,” employees will take over a bar and talk about the company’s growth and direction in an informal setting. The attention to a fun yet focused work environment has certainly been successful, which has been especially important as the group expanded from 24 to 124 just in the years since Davidson came on board.
And, with the acquisition of Ouidad, the company now enjoys a strategically placed office in the heart of New York City. “We could not be more pleased with the early success of our integration with Ouidad; we’re already experiencing the synergies, and sales and marketing have been realigned to better serve our customers,” Davidson says. “We will also be looking at how we can leverage cross-pollination opportunities between our brands where applicable.”
Of course, the JD team extends farther still. The brand connects with a broad range of professionals and customers to sharpen product development and testing–brainstorming with laboratories, tapping stylists, rounding up consumer focus groups both online and off, and testing in salons. Meanwhile, Davidson continues to seek acquisitions like Ouidad: brands that will work synergistically with its current portfolio, and that JD, in turn, can help to grow.
It’s all part of the grand plan for JD Beauty Group, a flourishing platform company that seems well on its way to reaching the very ambitious goals that Davidson has set for it. “The company’s first focus is to have each brand become the best and most coveted in each of their particular channels,” Davidson concludes. “We’re laser-focused on being the best and most innovative product development and marketing organization in the entire beauty industry!” ■
Jeffrey Davidson shares his top business lessons gleaned from decades of entrepreneurial success.
- Davidson advises beauty store owners to look at what other beauty businesses are doing. “Look at other retailers, too,” he says. “How do they think about their customers and services? Don’t be afraid to look outside and learn from the rest of the world.”
- “Let great people have the leeway and tools to make decisions and grow their groups,” he says.
- “Take chances. It’s OK to fail. Get back up and try again!”
- “Coaching is great, but don’t expect to change people and their beliefs or business practices.”
AT A GLANCE: JD BEAUTY GROUP
- Founded: 1977
- Signature Product: The WetBrush, launched in 2005 and now sold in 35 countries
- Best-Sellers: Original Detangler, Flex Collection and Plush Brush
- New Acquisitions: Bio Ionic (2017) and Ouidad (2018)