Scaling a global brand means founders must become “obsessed” with all facets of their business and “get the right people around the company”, says Bondi Sands co-founder Shaun Wilson.
Wilson was this week reflecting on achieving a multimillion-dollar exit for the suncare brand he co-founded 11 years ago, recalling the “remarkable” journey that he and co-founder Blair James have been on as they have taken their Australian-made self-tanning and SPF products around the world.
Their determination to create high quality products, with affordable prices and what Wilson calls a “strong Australian lifestyle positioning” has proven successful, with the company revealing on Tuesday it has entered into an agreement to be acquired by multinational Kao Group, in a cash deal that has been reported to be worth $450 million.
Bondi Sands is now the largest manufacturer and exporter of tanning and SPF products in Australia, and the deal means the company can enter its “next chapter” of growth with Kao, says Wilson, who will stay on as chief executive following the acquisition, along with James who will continue in the role of creative director.
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“It really has been a golden ride of a lifetime,” Wilson tells SmartCompany.
“It’s been a remarkable journey and we’re just scratching the surface.”
The new owner Kao Group is listed in Tokyo and specialises in chemicals and cosmetics. It is home to a stable of beauty brands, including well-known salon haircare brands Goldwell and KMS and skincare brands Bioré and Jergens, as well as home care, fabric care and pet care labels.
The acquisition of Bondi Sands is being made by the group’s wholly-owned Australian and US subsidiaries, with the brand’s products to continue to be manufactured from its four facilities in Melbourne. Being Australian-made has always been an important part of the Bondi Sands core strategy and will remain so, says Wilson.
The values embedded into the Bondi Sands business are one of the reasons why Kao was attracted to the “incredible brand”, said Karen Frank, president of Kao’s consumer care business for the Americas and EMEA.
“Quality, innovation, environmental responsibility, accessibility and community are at the forefront of everything it does, ideally aligning Bondi Sands to our own brand values and corporate philosophy, which we call the ‘Kao Way’,” said Frank.
“The addition of Bondi Sands to our consumer family of brands will greatly advance our mission to be the preeminent leader in the global skin protection business and continue our journey of offering diverse products that promote a ‘Kirei’ lifestyle that is healthy, inclusive and sustainable for all.”
A “beautifully simple” business idea
Wilson and James founded Bondi Sands in 2012 after a fateful day at the Melbourne Cup gave the duo their ‘golden’ business idea for self-tanning products that actually worked.
It was a “beautifully simple” idea, Wilson told SmartCompany back in 2015. The two friends would build a company that sold Australian-made tanning products inspired by the ‘bronzed Aussie at Bondi’, while also tapping into a growing trend towards safer tanning options.
Within three years, their self-described “calculated risk” was paying off: the business was turning over $12 million and had secured shelf space for its self-tanning products in prominent retailers, including Priceline and Woolworths in Australia and Boots and Superdrug in the UK.
Those early days seem a far cry from 2023, with Bondi Sands products now stocked in more than 40,000 stores globally, with major US retailer Walmart adding Bondi Sands products to more than 4000 of its stores this month.
The business is now on track to record revenue of close to $200 million for the 2023 financial year, says Wilson, and the company lays claim to 55% of the self-tan market in Australia. The Bondi Sands suncare range, which was released in 2017, is approaching double-digit market share for SPF in both Australia and the UK, according to the company.
Bondi Sands products are available in more than 95 countries and the deal with Kao, which will be subject to the usual regulatory approvals, is expected to enhance the brand’s global presence significantly.
Bondi Sands employs more the 120 people around the world, including 60 across North America and Europe.
Finding a “transformational” partner
Wilson reveals that Bondi Sands has fielded interest from other potential suitors since 2017, but the founders were focused on the big picture.
“Blair and I have always wanted to find a strategic partner that was really transformational, not transactional,” he says.
“No disrespect to some companies but I think sometimes it is about the short-term P&L [profit and loss] focus and I think for us, it is about how do we honour our mission statement, really be disruptive in skin health and continue to build our skin health position across the world and put the Aussie lifestyle on the map.
“So finding a partner like Kao, that has a real focus on skin health, in particular self-tan UV protection, is really like a unicorn in terms of a partnership.”
When asked about some of what he has learnt from scaling Bondi Sands to its current size, Wilson says it comes down to understanding how your brand and your people are connected.
“I always say that you’ve got to integrate your brand centricity with your staff centricity,” he says.
“So if you focus on your consumer, and you focus on your staff, you’re creating value across the board. It’s really interlinked.”
Immersing yourself in the markets you want to expand into is essential, he says.
“I always tell people that to really grow a global brand, you can’t just spend your whole time in Melbourne or Sydney. You need to really spend time in the other markets.”
Being a successful founder is also about being willing to get your hands dirty by working in all parts of your business, and truly understanding how those parts work, says Wilson.
“When you’re a founder, you have to be a generalist. It’s really important to understand your people model, your brand model, your marketing, sales and financial model,” he says.
Wilson says he and James have both worked in the Bondi Sands warehouses, counted stock, and helped with customer service. It’s all about “you being obsessed with each of those facets of your business”, he says.
Then, once you have enough capital or profitability, you can focus on building out your team.
“For any founder, when you get to that stage, it’s about getting the right people around the company, and really from there, you are coaching those people over time to reach their full potential,” he says.