Deciem CEO Nicola Kilner shares her business heroes and top career advice
Nicola Kilner is the CEO of global skincare giant Deciem, the parent company of cult brands The Ordinary and NIOD. Kilner founded Deciem 10 years ago with business partner and friend Brandon Truaxe, who tragically died three years ago. Here, we chat with Kilner about what it was like launching Deciem with Truaxe, the legacy he has left behind and the lessons she has learnt as a leader. Inside Retail: Can you tell me the story of how you and Brandon met and decided to launch Deciem together? What
her? What was it like to found and lead a global business with a good friend like Brandon?
Nicola Kilner: I met Brandon whilst I was working as a beauty buyer at Boots in my early twenties, when Brandon was with his current business, Indeed Labs. When Brandon shared his vision for Deciem I was blown away by the energy and knew it was something I wanted to immediately be a part of. Deciem’s ambition was to launch 10 new cosmetic brands at the same time — hence the name Deciem, which means “ten” in Latin.
Brandon’s initial idea was that each of these brands could contribute up to 10 per cent to the profitability of the fixed costs related to production, communication, design, etc. Ironically, it’s The Ordinary, which is the eleventh brand we launched that generates the majority of Deciem’s revenue today.
Our company stands out for its very results- and science-oriented approach. All our products are designed in our laboratory. Deciem is based in Toronto and employs 1,200 people worldwide, a third of whom work in production and distribution, another third in our offices and the last third in our shops.
IR: What do you think Brandon would think of how Deciem has progressed in the last few years?
NK: We continue to stay true to the three values Brandon held at the core of Deciem: innovation, design and function. We will always love Brandon and continue to build his legacy into everything we do. I know he would be proud, he would be excited at the new product development Prudvi and the lab team has been working on and always keep integrity at the core.
IR: Deciem is really well-known for its progressive policies around things like financial assistance, domestic leave, diversity and inclusion, etc. I think there are a lot of brands that would love to implement similar policies, but don’t know where to start. As a leader, how do you juggle the commercial side of the business with the people side in this regard?
NK: We recognise that Deciem wouldn’t be where it is today if we didn’t have the support from the amazing humans that work in our teams. Creating an environment where our people feel valued is really important. Over the last few years, we’ve implemented new HR initiatives at Deciem, providing the team with 24-hour access to counselling, mental health days, competitive benefits, such as maternity policies, and many opportunities for employees to have their voices heard.
Companies are no longer defined by their product offering, but by how they treat their people and their social impact and sustainability strategy. Our offering is a reflection of what we believe should be offered in all working environments. More than ever, people are looking to work for companies that offer a package beyond salary, one that not only aligns with their values, but offers them an approach to work that fits in with other personal aspects.
The people side of the business is so important to me. I have a better understanding of what employees’ needs are, and we listen to these and do our best to implement them. We have recently hired our first GM who has been phenomenal in analysing and growing the commercial side of the business, freeing up more time for me to work on the areas so important to me.
IR: In the last couple of years, the world has gone through a multitude of issues around things like Black Lives Matter, which Deciem responded to quite quickly and with action. As a white woman leading a global business, that must have been quite a personal journey for yourself, in terms of allyship. What have you learnt about yourself since then?
NK: At Deciem, we are committed to meaningful, measurable change in the lives of our employees and in the communities where we operate. In 2020, I wrote an open letter outlining our commitment to change. Since then we have issued two more open letters, our latest one being Commit to Change, Change Will Come. These open letters to our audience outline the changes we’ve made as a business and keep us accountable for continued evolution.
As a result of asking the hard questions, reflecting, and learning over the past year, I’m proud to say that we now have a clear, actionable five-year DEI [diversity, equity and inclusion] roadmap. This roadmap demonstrates how achieving equity is critical to Deciem’s mission and vision as a company, with core initiatives rooted in our four commitment pillars:
Safety to be our authentic selvesLeverage diversity as our strengthAddress systemic barriers in our communitiesAccountability and governance
There remains so much to learn, and unlearn, but with focus and dedication, the impactful, sustainable change we want is ahead. As a leader it’s my responsibility to ensure we continue to evolve in our collective mission to build growth to power good.
IR: Who would you describe as your business heroes and why?
NK: Brandon was a true inspiration in business and taught me so much. My favourite quote of his was: ‘One day, planes do fly.’ To think back to the point in history where flying must have seemed a far-off dream to being reality should always serve us as the inspiration that nothing is impossible. [Patagonia founder] Yvon Chouinard is also a great inspiration (I would highly recommend reading his book, Let my People Go Surfing). Yvon continues to challenge the norm and put good at the heart of all they do, despite the challenges that can come with size.
IR: If you cast your mind back to when you were at the start of your retail career, what do you wish you could tell yourself and why?
NK: The best advice I ever received was “you catch more flies with honey than vinegar”, meaning being kind gets you further. At Deciem, we have always led with kindness. We hope to inspire a better world of beauty through the kindness of our people, the innovation of our brands and the honesty of our words and actions. I still say this to this day, when I am met with business and people decisions. We have the most incredible team of humans and leading with kindness is so important to me.
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