Episode 153: Frédéric Fekkai, Founder and CEO of Fekkai

Here’s a reminder that we’re all in this together. Even seasoned business owners, innovators and entrepreneurs are navigating uncharted waters as we shift the way we connect with our teams and our customers. Frédéric Fekkai, Founder and CEO of Fekkai shares in this episode how he and his team are working through a time of change, and how through many changes over the past several years, he’s managed to stay connected — to his home, his customers, his team, and his name.

Entrepreneurs, this one is for you.

Dan Hodgdon
AnnouncerWelcome to WHERE BRAINS MEET BEAUTY® hosted by Jodi Katz, Founder and Creative Director of Base Beauty Creative Agency.
Jodi KatzHey everybody, it's Jodi Katz, your host of WHERE BRAINS MEET BEAUTY® Podcast. I'm grateful that you tuned in. This week's episode was recorded via Zoom since we are still all under quarantine. It features Frederic Fekkai, he's the founder for Fekkai, and he's also the co-founder of Bastide. And if you missed last week's episode, it featured Diana Briceno. She's the CEO of No B.S Skincare. Hope you enjoy the show.

Hey everybody. Welcome back to another Zoom WHERE BRAINS MEET BEAUTY® Podcast episode. Today I'm so excited to be with Frederic Fekkai, you know him as a founder of Fekkai. He's also the co-founder of Bastide. Welcome to WHERE BRAINS MEET BEAUTY®.
Frédéric FekkaiThank you for having me Jodi. So delighted to be with the WHERE BRAINS MEET BEAUTY®. That's a great title.
Jodi KatzThank you. And thank you for using our custom Zoom background. You're the first guest who's put it into their Zoom rotation, so we're very proud. Thank you. I wish we were together in New York City doing this in our studio, which is the image of your background, but we'll make do now and we'll get to see each other in real life sometime soon.
Frédéric FekkaiI agree. I'm quarantine fatigue.
Jodi KatzSo before we dive into some of the really interesting backstory of your career, let's talk about what's happening in your world as a business owner right now. I think this is week seven or eight or something of our stay working from home, staying at home and really trying to let the virus run its course. What's happening in the world of your businesses in general right now?
Frédéric FekkaiIt's a very interesting world. I mean, obviously we have to do the best we can with what we have here, but we just learn how to work differently. Obviously Zoom, we're doing that now, but Zoom has been a part of our life. We find that actually we work much harder. My calendar is certainly much more filled than when I used to be at the office. So what we learn is that actually we try to connect as much as we can, so we don't feel too remote.

I also encourage and I think I'm the only who bugs everybody like this, but to pick up the phone and have call, sometimes as opposed to respond on the text or an email just to get a little bit more connection. But what we found out business-wise is that the behavior is completely different. We see everyone is at home and everybody's on their computer.

So we had to obviously shift everything to our D2C and really actually, it's a great lesson. It teaches us how to be more efficient, to be performant on D2C and to acknowledge customer behavior and customer requests, and try to do the best we can to do customer satisfaction. So I think the plus of this is that we learn how to be more efficient on our D2C.
Jodi KatzRight. It's such a fascinating time and you're an entrepreneur multiple times over. And I think that this is such an interesting vantage point for the crisis, right? To work in an entrepreneurial way and lead a team and have your business be able to grow and still connect with the customer during this time. It's super challenging.

So let's go back in time a little bit to 2015, which is when you acquired Bastide, which means country home in French. Why did you want to own a business again?
Frédéric FekkaiThat's very interesting. When I sold my company in 2008, I became a consultant and all of a sudden felt like on the passenger seat of my company and not steering the company in the way I wanted. And we bought a house in my hometown, in Aix-En-Provence, a beautiful house in Bastide. And we realized that our life changed, our way of life changed. We are very careful to eat with incredible ingredients, so more plant based for me.

But what I mean by that is we really wanted to make sure we knew where we sourced the ingredient. We banned plastic in our house. We started to really be much more relevant and friendly to the environment. And also living in between France and New York, we saw the contrast, but also some similarity. So the contrast was that in France, we saw people taking time to really enjoy life. And in New York, people are very busy, but yet are aspiring to live well, to have great ingredients, to do yoga, meditation and so on and so on, but everything in a scheduled way.

So Bastide was a brand that my wife and I, we were customer. It was called Cote Bastide at the time. I was about to do a startup, and she said to me, "Why don't you buy this brand?" And this brand was actually everything we wanted to be. It was handmade by artisans. It was locally sourced. Ingredients were coming from the region, bottle were in glass. Everything was like that. And so we said "My God, this is beautiful. It's the opposite of the industrial era. It's about back to the source, back to authenticity, to give back to small business owners and so on and so on."

So we bought Bastide and we developed product that are on the 98 average percent of naturality. And we kept everything in glass and aluminum except for the shower liquid soap, which obviously for safety reason is in plastic. But the idea was also to have everything done by small lab, small manufacturing. Enough to scale it, but not something that where we lose quality, we lose the genuine ideas of provenance of ingredient.
Jodi KatzWas the brand for sale when your wife suggested this?
Frédéric FekkaiNo. The brand was not for sale, but we knew the owner and she was very kind and she always asked me to actually help her business wise. And I did obviously for free as a friend. And then one day I said to her, "It seems to me that you guys struggling because you lack in cash and so on and so on. So why don't I partner with you?" We started as a partner, but then she was getting old. She was 74, 75 years old. And she says "You know what, take it over." And we did that.
Jodi KatzHas the former owner of Bastide seen what you've done with the brand? Is she aware?
Frédéric FekkaiYes. They live in the area. So they see the boutique, they see what the website is, the Instagram. And obviously they feel like it's a whole revival, but they love the idea that we kept the artisans and local artisans and so on.

So yes, they can't believe... It's their baby, they can't believe what happened. But it thinks it's a little too elevated it for them, a little bit too... How would I say global, sophisticated. But they love the brand.
Jodi KatzI'm sure that you can have a lot of compassion for the former owner of the brand considering you were at a time, a former owner of your own brand, a namesake brand, right. Your brand with your name was out in the world without your leadership. So I'm sure you can have a lot of compassion for what it's like to have that experience?
Frédéric FekkaiAbsolutely.
Jodi KatzThe world not leading your brand. So let's talk about that. Let's go back in time a little bit. This is a little different then the former owner of Bastide. Her name was not on the brand. Yours was.

So I've had this conversation with many leaders and accomplished talent in our industry where they start a brand with their name, and then they exit the brand, but their name is still attached. And there are I'm sure a lot of emotions involved in that. What were some of the significant emotions for you before you were able to buy it back?
Frédéric FekkaiIt was interesting because when I sold it, I thought, "Oh my God, great. It's in amazing hands. It's a global company. They have more power than anyone in distribution, marketing and so on, and so on." Then shortly after that, I realized that actually the company was too big for the brand and the brand was too... How would I say, too small for them to pay attention to.

So all of a sudden I saw the brand that had great legacy, that had great potential shifting away from the core ideas. It was no longer being genuine. It was no longer being with a soul. It was more about how can we do innovation product and put it out to the market? And how do we do with pricing? How do we do... It was all about data, which is interesting and good, but not enough sincerity, not enough genuine messages.

And to me it was, "Oh God, this isn't possible. We need to buy it back. I need to buy it back." And the opportunity came, 2018. I'm glad we did. And it's been hard work because we had to revamp and change everything, which is packaging. We fabricated, we truly did our custom bottle with 95% of recycled plastic, and it's 100% recyclable. And also I want it to reflect the life we have with Bastide. We need to be clean. We need to be clean.

So we developed formula with no silicone, no paraben and to be as clean as we can. But yet to not compromise the performance because we are after all professional brand, salon brand. And the first critics obviously are the stylist and the colorist. When they don't like something, it's the end of it. So, yes. So buying the brand was very interesting to me because it was about to make it relevant and modern for today.
Jodi KatzSo let's talk about this process because you've been in this business for a long time, so you've seen this not just from your own experience, but from other brands. So an entrepreneur and innovator builds something, then a strategic gobbles it up, but then it flounders. Without the magic of the entrepreneur and the magic of that entrepreneurial attitude, these brands don't mean as much, right?

Like a brand is not just the goop in the bottle, it's what you're buying into, the ideas, the essence. But we keep seeing this. Grow a brand, sell a brand, brand, blah, blah, blah. It keeps happening. Why does this keep happening? Why do strategics buy things that they know that they can't do well with? Why do entrepreneurs sell to those partners?
Frédéric FekkaiRight. I think the attraction is actually... Because of that, the attraction is that they cannot do brand like we do. Where when a founder brand does it, it's invested with their own sweat and tears in the sense of it's reflecting a very important ideology. It has a message, it has a story. It's not fabricated by just, "Oh my God. Marketing came up with an idea. Let's do that." It's real. It's authentic in all this. And then also they love the idea... In my case, let's not forget I was the first one to introduce luxurious hair care.

Hair care has always been considered as a mass market brand, as a staple brand. So for me, it was very important to say, "My God. My customer uses skincare at three to $400, a little jar of three, four ounce. And why would a haircare product above would be 8 to $9? That doesn't make sense." So it was very important to me to go back and go to the labs and develop product that had the same technology and innovation as skin care and make sure that the formulation was very much cutting edge. And by doing that and developing a packaging that will not look like a mass market, but more like a skincare brand.

So all of a sudden my brand was sitting on the shelves next to fantastic brands, like La Prairie or La Mer or Chanel and so on. So it was a basically sitting with good friends there. And that was the only brand who was sitting in luxury. So that was attractive for the strategic. But the good news is this is that I was able to buy it and to bring back what I call the soul and the credibility and the authority that the brand deserves.
Jodi KatzSo if you could give advice to our listeners who many of them are the private equity people or the strategics who make acquisitions. Advice to the strategic is about to buy a brand that has an entrepreneurial spirit and is founder led, what would you tell them to help them nurture continued success for that brand?
Frédéric FekkaiVery importantly, when you buy a brand it's to make sure that first of all, you understand the success of the brand. That you understand the origins and the element that made the brand a success. And if it's because the founder is there, then you have to make sure you have a good understanding with the founders. Estee Lauder does a great job with that by the way. They acquired brands like Le Labo and Frederic Malle and Kilian. And they really are, I think really working hand in hand with the founders.

So the idea is really to make sure that first of all, you don't change everything. The first thing that strategics do is that they eliminate the office. They put you back in the corporate building. So no. Leave everything a little bit [inaudible 00:16:31], don't disrupt anything. Because all of a sudden you lose not only the audience, but you lose your team because your team love that idea of being scrappy, to be more thinking out of the box.

And that's what strategics have a tough time with because everything is about protocol and marketing, what I call Marketing 101. So that's very important to me to understand that when you buy a brand private equity or not, is embrace the success and why you're buying it.
Jodi KatzAs you work from home and there's distractions all around you, this is a good transition to my next topic, which is about this idea of being agile. So in our pre call, you and I talked a lot about this and how the demands of today are forcing us all as marketers to be even more agile. But I mentioned to you, I'm like, "But wait, we were crazy agile before." I would wake up in the morning with my head spinning about all the news and all the innovations and all the new platforms.

So constantly being agile before COVID. Now we to be more agile. How many more body cells and brain cells are there left to put into whatever the new agile looks like? So let's talk a little bit about what it takes right now, as someone who's been through this before as an entrepreneur to stay agile. What does that mean to you as you're leading your team today?
Frédéric FekkaiThat's very good question. I think the most important thing about being agile today is to listen to your staff and to really brainstorm ideas with them. And to listen also to the customer. I mean more than ever, you have to check your reviews, engage your customer, build a community. And then also what I love the most and that's to me, this is why a founder is important, what I love the most is to take example from other department, other categories; the food, the leisure, the entertainment and take ideas from there.

Because at the end of the day, to me, the most important thing about a brand is to make sure that you develop an incredible relationship with your customer. That the customer feels a trust, feels that they can live vicariously through the brand. To me, it's not about selling a product, that should be a natural it's about how can you serve your customer? How can they feel like you really genuinely helping them. And that's the agility for me.

It's about making sure that first of all, you bring... Even if we are working at home, that the environment around your team is right. So to make sure that when you do Zoom conference, the host has to be the first one so you can greet them. Maybe once everyone is there, instead of jumping right into the subject of the meeting is de-icing everything and making a little joke, appropriate obviously. Or even just talk about the weather or anything, just to make sure that everybody feels comfortable and relaxed.
Jodi KatzSo that sounds like the person who's welcoming guests into their country at home. That's sort of the same idea?
Frédéric FekkaiAbsolutely. Absolutely. It's so important that you don't change your attitude in business as the way you are in your way of life. How would you do if you are hosting your friends or how do you behave with your family? It's the same thing. You make sure that everybody feels great, communicative two ways always important. And to make sure that everyone has a sense of being invested.
Jodi KatzSo what has changed during this time period from your customer? What are they asking for that's different then they were even three months ago?
Frédéric FekkaiWell, in our business being in quarantine for 40 plus day, obviously the number one question is about hair color, roots. How can you do that? I never got so many texts or email in my life about how to help, and even DM on Instagram, people are just checking, "How can I do that? Oh, how can I cut my hair? How can I cut my kids hair?" And so we did a few tutorial on that.

Hair color is a little bit more challenging, but otherwise it is basically helping them how to manage their own hair at home. Even if we are at home and more relaxed, people still feel the need of, and I applaud that, to be groomed. It doesn't matter if you have a t-shirt and a polo as opposed to be dressed up like in an office, but people love to have that. They love to have still a little bit of lip gloss or the hair gel or anything like that. So I think the importance here is to make sure that everybody feels still engage and like it's not so remote.
Jodi KatzSo I will say that on Zoom you can't see the grays. There's something about the Zoom platform that was created by somebody who didn't want to see their gray hairs. Because even though in the mirror, I see them quite obviously. Over Zoom it's really hard to detect them. So that's really the magic of platform.

So let's talk about something you said a few minutes ago about how you're approaching business in these conditions. It sounds like you have a very long view of the business or the businesses, as opposed to a short term view. Is that true to the nature of how you run your businesses?
Frédéric FekkaiYes. First of all, I think it's so important that for the sake of everyone, the staff, the customer, or this, a brand needs to have a long vision. Because if it's a short vision, it's very easy to see it. That means you rush to do things, innovation becomes more trendy and it's not substantial enough. So I think it's so important that you take the time to make sure that... For me, it's important that a product it's timeless.

It has to be longevity. So it's not about today. It's how can it last for a long time on the shelves? So, yes. And also if you think about it, the way we live, when we change the way we live, it's not just a period of time that is two, three years. It goes for a long time. So I think when we adapted to that, whether it's a sustainable packaging or clean formula, you have to think about longer.

Doing sustainable and clean means first of all that you have to invest more than in before. So the cost of doing that, it's much higher, okay. So you cannot just go into the business for short term, because you're not going to recoup the investment right away. So you have to think about how can you build a solid brand for the future.
Jodi KatzSo, five years ago you were not running two businesses, you were a consultant. Your name was out there on product that you were not making but you were not entrepreneurial-ism in that moment. And now five years later, you're running two brands with very longterm views through a crisis. So how does it feel to be an entrepreneur again?
Frédéric FekkaiIt's definitely a change. It's a little bit more chaotic obviously with COVID in addition to that. Before pre-COVID 19, there is so many brand. I forget the number of brand that just flourishes every day in our beauty industry. It's like hundreds, okay. So the market is saturated. It's saturated with brand, it's saturated with messages. It's saturated with ideas and all this. So how do you get out of this incredible clutters of brand?

And then I realized, "My God, this is distracting. This is actually very much frustrating." So I said, "Okay. We have to focus on what we do best and not deviate it. Not try to be distracted with everything else. The good news is that we have a name that has had credibility, authority and stand for excellence and luxury. So let's keep that. Let's keep that even if we go a little bit more mainstream.

Let's make sure we keep that message, we make sure that people realize that we are useful, that we are helpful and certainly that people are proud to have our bottles in their shower. I love that the idea when I get messages, "Oh my God, I think of you every day because I see your bottle and your shampoo in my showers." So those are the things that we need to focus on.
Jodi KatzWell, thank you, Frederic so much for your wisdom. It's incredible to hear from you today.
Frédéric FekkaiThank you very much for having me.
Jodi KatzAnd for our listeners, I hope you enjoyed this interview. Please subscribe to our series on iTunes and for updates about the show follow us on Instagram @wherebrainsmeetbeautypodcast. Thanks so much.
AnnouncerThanks for listening to WHERE BRAINS MEET BEAUTY® with Jodi Katz. Tune in again for more authentic conversations with beauty leaders.

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