When Aly Rahimtoola wanted to diversify his business interests away from shipping, he decided the cosmetics industry fitted the mould.
So the 43-year-old set up Herbline Essentials, a Dubai-based natural-cosmetics company centred around ayurvedic medicine.
“Women will naturally always care about themselves and how they look. Now with the advent of David Beckham and others, men are equally attentive to themselves,” says Mr Rahimtoola, who adds that he used Dubai’s growing status as an impetus for his idea.
“You will see as any city gets bigger, the stress gets worse and people start looking for answers to the lack of sleep or mass of hours worked.”
By producing the product here, he developed a “Made in the UAE” brand, a tag he is entitled to use as he adds more than 200 per cent of value to the product – far above the 40 per cent of value demanded by global standards.
“I thought if I created a product that was organic, priced correctly, not mass market but not luxury premium, good quality and affordable, that would be a great idea.”
It was such a good idea that since the launch, he has already expanded the product to Kuwait and Pakistan and is currently in talks with a Spanish department store.
Born in Pakistan but raised and educated in the UK, Mr Rahimtoola first showed his acumen for greater things when he decided to go to university in the US and managed to win a place at Brown, an Ivy League university. After graduation he worked on Wall Street as he wanted to see if he could understand the real world without the security of the family business. Investment banking taught him finance and how to work hard, notching up about 100 hours per week.
The family business, however, concentrated on shipping, dry bulk shipping, moving coal, iron ore and grain. So when it moved into pharmaceuticals, the executive returned to Pakistan to get involved.
Trading and shipping are cyclical businesses, says Mr Rahimtoola. When it’s good it’s very good but when it’s bad it’s painful, so he was looking for a defensive concept that would not be so volatile.
Trawling one of Dubai’s many exhibitions in 2005, he met an Indian in his 70s, named Anil, from Delhi. Anil had never exported his natural cosmetics but had a research and development centre in the Himalayas and he invited Mr Rahimtoola to see it for himself. There he found a product made with the finest natural ingredients, blended with spring water from the Himalayas and mixed with the knowledge of ancient ayurvedic science.
While the product was desirable, the packaging, design and delivery were not.
However, Mr Rahimtoola’s father encouraged his son to research the business.
He learnt about skin care, chemicals, vitamins, seeing cosmetics as an education. Today, all of Herbline Essentials’ PR and marketing is centred around educating its customers. It is building a brand not selling a product, Mr Rahimtoola says.
Many cosmetic firms add artificial preservatives and parabens to lengthen shelf life, which Mr Rahimtoola is now using as a war cry against the industry.
“The skin is the largest living organ in your body and it absorbs anything you put on it, so knowing what may be entering your body through the creams and unguents available today would seem to be sensible,” he says.
Herbline Essentials started selling in 2006. BinSina Pharmacy and later Boots agreed to take eight of the brand’s 33 products on a six-month trial basis. It was make or break time.
Then the family’s shipping business took a global hit. The shipping had been Plan A with the cosmetics as Plan B, so Mr Rahimtoola switched his attention to Plan B, quickly setting up a Dubai manufacturing facility in 2008. So Herbline Essentials is now a UAE home-grown, organic, paraben-free producer.
Herbline Essentials has been marketing its products for two years, expanding from just two sale assistants to seven in the UAE factory, 12 sales promoters and a head office of eight.
“In five years we have grown significantly,” says Mr Rahimtoola.
The company has products for every category: cleansers, nourishers, moisturisers, special therapy, eye care, hair care and body care. It offers a full service from head to toe.
So what’s next for this cosmetics firm?
“Last year we had a 57 per cent year-on-year growth in terms of sales,” says Mr Rahimtoola. “We have moved from fighting to stay in the pharmacies to looking for new opportunities. We are bringing three new anti-ageing products next month, so I will look younger later in the year.”