South African skincare brand, Placecol, will turn 40 in January 2020. Esna Colyn, CEO of Imbalie Beauty, owner of Placecol, looks back at the brand’s fascinating history.
In January 2014, four years into my journey as the CEO of Imbalie Beauty, I met the original founder of the well-known South African skin care brand, Placecol, Elma McKenzie, for the very first time. Elma gave me a very large, beautiful black book, containing the history of the Placecol skincare brand, which she and her husband Leslie McKenzie started in Ermelo, in January 1980, when they started the company, Macnel Pharmaceuticals. What made an impact on me on that particular day was Elma’s inner and outer beauty and her Godliness. I will forever remember her mission: she came that day to specifically pray for me.
Today I have the honour to write this article for Professional Beauty, reflecting on our history, as our beautiful and much loved South African Placecol skincare brand turns 40 in January 2020. Late in my life I have learnt the lesson to never forget where you came from.
I thought I would share with you a couple of highlights celebrating Elma and Leslie’s story.
Leslie and Elma Mckenzie in 1980
In 1980, the cosmetic market was overflowed with imported cosmetics from France, Germany and Switzerland. There were expensive cosmetic houses available, like Germaine Monteil, Juvena, Charles of the Ritz, Alexandra de Markhoff and Estee Lauder. It was evident at the time that people had money, so it was quite easy to sell a full range of cosmetics, a complete range of make-up and perfume to a single client.
In South Africa, Annatjie Theron (later Annique), Avroy Shlain and Veronica Devine from Justine had just started to launch their cosmetics on the direct selling platform.
At that stage, there was no local manufacturer of cosmetics for the pharmacies and only a few beauty clinics. This was the time before Edgars, Clicks and large departmental stores kept cosmetics. Elma and Leslie saw the potential market to manufacture a South African cosmetic range for pharmacies and beauty clinics.
Leslie was a qualified pharmacist and homeopath and wanted to manufacture homeopathic medicine. Elma was a qualified radiographer, specialising in radiation therapy, but later on she switched her career to beauty therapy. Together, Leslie and Elma had a dream to manufacture their own cosmetic range under the name Placecol, which is derived from the words placenta and collagen.
This was the time before any technology: no fax machines, no internet, no electronic banking and no couriers. There were many challenges to buy raw materials and chemicals. Although certain companies like Henkel were already in South Africa, most of the ingredients were required to be imported. The placing of orders posed several challenges: Elma had to write a letter and post a letter to an overseas company. Thereafter Placecol had to pay for the order, but only after a period of three weeks at Barclays bank. The bank then had to confirm the payment by telegram. Six to eight weeks later, the stock would arrive. This process took very careful planning.
At that time there were also no courier services or GPS to assist in locating factories in the industrial areas of Johannesburg. Elma knew exactly what it meant to use a road map to find places.
Packaging was also very difficult to source and Elma had to make the best of what was available. At some stage Placecol was packed into glass jars, which were imported from France. The biggest challenge was the words: ‘minimum order’, which meant an order of 1,000 jars, while they only needed a few hundred jars.
At the beginning, Placecol could only afford packaging for two different products, only for a night cream and for cell therapeutic ampules. The only way to enter a very competitive cosmetic market was to be the best. So, only the best quality ingredients, with maximum concentrations, were used to ensure the best results.
Placecol realised the need to have ‘something’ totally different from all other cosmetic manufacturers to enter the market and Elma and Leslie travelled to the Potchefstroom University to obtain information from the library and the Botanic Department.
Elma and Leslie found information on the Manketti nut. This wonderful nut grows on large Manketti nut trees which are found around the Caprivi area (Northern Namibia and Botswana, Southern Zimbabwe and Angola) – a war stricken area at that stage. Fortunately, there was a rehabilitation hospital in Rundu (Namibia), which needed money and therefore they were willing to collect bags full of Manketti nuts and send them by train to Ermelo.
The next challenge: these nuts are extremely hard to crack, but it was required to extract the kernel oil. Leslie then designed and manufactured his own machine to cut through the nuts. The kernels were sorted, washed and extracted with another self-manufactured oil press. As the outer part of the nut was used as compost, an unplanned market arose from this process for the best compost in the world.
Placecol patented the use of Manketti, where in particular the nut oil was used as the basis for Placecol’s new range. This was the ‘secret’ to enter into the market.
Elma’s first exhibition for Placecol took place at a beauty congress in Cape Town in 1981. She was humbled when she saw the beautiful displays of large overseas companies and this was also her first time to see a video playing on a TV screen. She walked in and thought: ‘Fools walk where angels fear to tread – but with my God, I CAN!!’ Placecol’s display had three different products, flowers, pamphlets and a few Manketti nuts on the large table. The amazing blessing was that many beauty therapists came to the Placecol stand, gave their names and were interested in Placecol’s products. On that day Placecol suddenly had 11 new clients who ordered its products.
The first article about Placecol was published in the Keur magazine. At that time, Elma was the MD, the marketing manager, the financial manager, the courier, the sales representative (with a nanny and three little ones in the combi) and even the bottle filler of the products.
Placecol later manufactured a full range for dry, sensitive skin types. At a later stage, the range for normal to combination skin was followed by a range for oily, problem skin.
By 1983, Placecol had a full range of cosmetics which was easier to put onto the shelves of pharmacies. It was, however, still difficult to incentivise pharmacists to stock the range.
In 1988, Elma attended the CIDESCO World Congress overseas. At the exhibition, she saw a soft laser machine, with large potential once combined with the Placecol products. Laser was the new ‘buzz word’ in beauty therapy. This opened the door to reach more pharmacies, as it was easy for them to arrange a ‘Laser Promotion Day’. Elma worked in all towns surrounding Ermelo in a radius of approximately 250km from home. She got up very early in the mornings and returned home late in the evenings because she had three little children at home. She always felt very guilty to leave them, but she had a granny and a nanny to help in difficult times.
For all mothers who feel the same guilt today, Elma advises: ‘Pray, love them with your whole heart, give quality time to your children and work hard. One day you’ll be admired by them for what you did by working so hard. They will never blame you’.
There was a specific demand for a pigmentation treatment that actually produced results. Leslie did extensive research on pigmentation and formulated a miraculous cream that gave Placecol the biggest growth ever. The demand for Placecol’s Miracle Cream opened up pharmacies all over the country without much effort.
Pharmacies from the Eastern Cape, Free State, Namibia and all over South Africa wanted this cream on their shelves. Usually a pharmacy will keep three items of a product on their shelves, but Placecol’s Miracle Cream sold even in hundreds to some pharmacies. Magazines wrote about this wonderful product. Although most pharmacies only kept the Placecol Pigmentation Cream, the turnover increased enormously.
Elma and Leslie’s dream was to establish Placecol in the cosmetic market and also to establish a family business for their children. They worked exceptionally hard to reach their dream. At this stage, their humble beginnings began to change into a success story. Placecol was available in 800 pharmacies and beauty clinics throughout South Africa; it was exported and also did contract manufacturing for other companies like Isa Carstens Cosmetics.
In May 1998, Elma and Leslie sold their Placecol business to Wessel de Wet and Charles Moolman.
Below are some of the highlights achieved by Wessel and Charles.
Listing on the JSE in 2007
This team took the Placecol skincare business to new heights through the following significant milestones for the next 11 years:
· In 2003 Placecol was invited to become a supplier to Edgars.
· In 2004 Placecol Cosmetics opened its first Placecol Beauty Centre, which was franchised two years later in 2006.
· Opened the Placecol Beauty Institute in 2005.
· In July 2007, Placecol acquired the Dream Nails franchise group.
· In August 2007 listed the Placecol Group on the Johannesburg Stock Exchange.
Two years after listing, both Charles and Wessel resigned from our group to embark on their personal life journeys.
I have immense gratitude to be the current custodian of the Placecol skin care brand, since May 2010. The highlights of my career have most definelty been all the special women and men who have been part of this exhilarating journey, the acquisition of the Perfect 10 franchise group in 2012 and my travels in June 2014 to Switzerland and France, when I travelled with one of the original formulators, Karen Coomber to upgrade and simplify the entire Placecol skin range and to ensure that the range is paraben and allergen free.
Just like Elma, we again had to confront challenges with the will to succeed: there have always been answers and an outcome for every hurdle presented to us. The journey will never end; in 2019 we launched our Placecol Excellence skin care range, which is our first biological solution to change skin on a cellular level. At the time of writing this article, we will make our first entry into the Hotel industry with Placecol in December 2019.
Today I can quote Elma’s words over the lives of future generations: ‘I know that our dreams are very small in comparison to God’s dreams for us!’ One day, I will hand over the baton to the next generation to ensure that our vision is achieved, which is to be the leading and most desirable beauty and wellness group.”