It’s summer. You’re mooching around the pool, taking your annual break from working for The Man. Suddenly, an idea for starting your own business shimmers into focus. It’s exciting. A high-quality skincare range for men with sensitive skin. You imagine yourself shaking off the corporate shackles. Now you call the shots. But almost as quickly as the vision appears, it’s gone again. Everyday life takes over and you’re back at dreary old work-schmerk.
That’s exactly how Anthony McDonough felt 20 years ago. But now, after ditching corporate life, coming out to his ex-wife and daughter and meeting the new love of his life, the 50-year-old can finally say, well, “I’ve done it.”
Together with his new partner in life and business, ex-finance broker Chris Gletbasas, 38, McDonough founded Liquid Skin Care (Lqd), a Melbourne-made skincare brand that has been notching up significant successes in the multi-billion-dollar global men’s grooming market. Launched online at the Sydney Mardi Gras in 2012, Lqd now boasts big-name stockists, including Harrods and Harvey Nichols in the UK, Bloomingdale’s in the US and, recently, enjoyed a stint as the official skincare sponsor of London Men’s Fashion Week. “Only a year ago, just before we launched into the US, we only had five people working in the business. We now have 55 working either full- or part-time,” says McDonough.
There is much more to the story of their success, of course. The tale includes a near-death experience (Gletbasas battled meningitis septicaemia while in London), coming out to an extended Greek family on Christmas Day (Gletbasas again) and weeks of toiling in the laboratory perfecting recipes for lotions and potions designed to be non-irritating and restorative for skin (that’s McDonough, who trained in organic chemistry at university).
But Lqd is not the only Melbourne brand enjoying overseas success. Take clothing giant, the Cotton On Group. (OK, they were founded in Geelong, but then again, we’re told pavlovas were invented in New Zealand.) At last count Cotton On had more than 1400 clothing stores across 18 countries. Melbourne designer Lucy Folk has kept overseas sales for her distinctive jewellery turning over with sightings on celebrities including Snoop Dogg, Beyonce and Elle Fanning, not to mention receiving “standout” praise in The New York Times. And, in hospitality, Melbourne coffee roaster Nolan Hirte has successfully exported his Collingwood cafe Proud Mary to Portland, Oregon, last year with plans under way to open a second in Austin, Texas, soon.
And then there’s competitive swimmer-turned-swimwear mogul Duncan McLean. He built his chlorine-resistant men’s label, Funky Trunks, from a Prahran son-and-mother operation in 2002 to one that employs 20, with 35 sales agents spread across the globe. Today about half of total sales are to Europe. Since 2008 when the company (known as Way Funky, which also comprises women’s label Funkita) turned over an annual $1 million, it has been growing at between 20 and 35 per cent per year, he says. “We’re sending six containers of swimwear to Europe every year now [compared to 2008 when] it would have been down to Australia Post sending a couple of boxes.”
What makes a local brand go global? McLean says big ideas are great but it’s important to have a manageable strategy and to be patient with the process because it takes time. He had no formal mentors along the way but spoke highly of government resources, such as Austrade’s Export Market Development Grant, which can provide emerging export companies up to $150,000 a year for eight years to help them break into global markets. “I know it’s a cliche but there’s a lot of creativity in Melbourne. The designers and the marketing and sales teams you can develop here [are great]. There’s a real buzz and a different vibe you get from people in Melbourne.”
Back at Lqd’s headquarters, McDonough argues a key to their overseas success was establishing a solid local base first. “Overseas is really expensive, so you really want to have your processes already developed locally, so you know what you’re doing and you have a solid base to build on.” The couple uses four content manufacturers in Melbourne, which is important for quality ingredients and monitoring.
McDonough says a key moment came when the brand was first courted by Bloomingdale’s. Instead, they chose to launch through Australian outlet Sephora, which gave them a chance to find their feet locally before taking the global plunge. “It’s all the simple things – well, you think they’re simple until you start to do them – like logistics, planning, distribution and in-store training. You need all those systems put in place before you expand and the best place to do that is where you can be very much hands-on,” he says.
As well as a business journey the couple has been on an emotional journey, too. Each has had to grapple with the process of coming out to their friends and family, later in life. McDonough, who has a 13-year-old daughter, Grace, with his ex-wife, Jane, says he is lucky because both families have been welcoming and supportive. By way of illustration, early in their relationship Gletbasas invited his new boyfriend, Jane and Grace to Christmas lunch with his extended family as a way to announce his coming out. “Picture My Big Fat Greek Wedding and you’ve got my family,” says Gletbasas. “We live in one street and my mum lives in the next street in South Yarra and my sister’s just around the corner.” It was a great success.
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Today, the pair has big plans for the future, including expansion into China (once that country stops testing cosmetics on animals, says McDonough) and a new push into hair-care products and supplements that promote wellbeing. As Gletbasas says: “2018 is so exciting for us”.