“I find it really hard to stop,” says Hazel Barry – and she’s not kidding. Losing the ability to walk for a year didn’t stop her from achieving business success.
Nor did the six months she spent fighting the weekly threat of bankruptcy or losing it all and having to rebuild from scratch. In fact it would take a lot more to knock this tenacious entrepreneur off course.
Still only 37, Hazel has – despite numerous setbacks – built up a business with truly global appeal from its base in Harrogate. H2K sells luxury skincare, toiletries and spa products to hotels here, in the Middle East, Australia and in pockets of Europe.
It lists some of the world’s biggest hotel brands among its customers and, with the company’s growth now picking up, plans to expand onto the High Street and into new international markets. Hazel grew up in Bradford and showed entrepreneurial flair from an early age.
When she was seven she ‘branded’ the rose petal perfume she’d made and sold it round the neighbourhood and “made enough money to buy sweets, which was very important then”. Dad worked in a bank, while mum sold skin care products at Tupperware-style parties.
She left school at 16 and, on her mum’s orders, went to secretarial school for six months. “My mum said if I was going to live at home I had to find a proper job. “I remember thinking at the time, I’m not going be a secretary I’m going to have one,” she says with a laugh.
Despite her success today, an in-joke at H2K is that Hazel still hasn’t actually got a PA or secretary. That goal as yet has eluded her. “I actually do need one, hopefully by the end of the year. Emma, my sales administrator, does some of my PA work though."
Next a business degree funded by the chemicals company Cytec where she worked in customer services admin, helped to set her on the road to entrepreneurialism. Her time at Cytec also gave her an insight into the formulating and treatment of chemicals – something which would prove useful later in life.
At her next job she progressed into an export manager’s role and learned about another area which is now a crucial part of her business; global trade. “I learned about international banking, how to import and export, the many regulations that the Government imposes on import and export.
“I remember leaving thinking ‘what a waste. I’ve just spent three years at this company learning all that and I’m never going to use it again’. So ironically years later here I am running my own business where we export all over the world. It’s bizarre how things work out.”
By the time she was 21, a Prince’s Trust business course had propelled Hazel into setting up her own fashion business. After six months of trading, profits were tight and so she decided to do secretarial work by day and sell at night.
“I had three girls working for me making clothes for businesswomen. Looking back I probably should have set it up in Harrogate instead of Bradford. I really enjoyed it but it wasn’t bringing in enough money so I decided to type during the day and sell at night. It seemed like a cracking idea and doubled my money but, because of the workload, I got tendonitis and couldn’t move my hand so I had to stop.”
This commitment to hard work continues today though as she balances the life of a young mother with that of an entrepreneur.
“I don’t think anyone who has a business works less than 12 hour days do they? I’ve got a nice work life balance now because I’ve got a little girl but if I’m really honest, I work from nine till two, then go back to work after seven when my daughter goes to sleep. I’d love to meet a person who’s actually made it and done it on short hours, I just don’t think it can happen.
“When I first had my daughter I probably let the business tick over as opposed to pushing it for a year but businesses don’t survive if you do that for too long.” After her short-lived fashion empire, Hazel landed a job as the northern sales rep for a South East based cosmetics firm and, over three years, was instrumental in doubling the firm’s turnover.
But: “I found I really missed doing things for myself,” she says. And so Hazel went it alone and within two months found herself pitching to the only five star hotel in the North of England at the time, The Lowry Hotel.
The original concept for the company evolved from Hazel’s plans to manufacture skincare products to help people whose skin was affected by medication for the same ongoing gut complaint that she suffers from.
“I had really dry skin and couldn’t find anything to help it until I found Kalahari melon oil which comes from Namibia and is really good as a natural moisturising derivative.
“Because I’d found that in my teens, when I set my business up, I wanted to involve it in the products.”
The brand has since grown, with more products being developed for all skin types – alongside its toiletries products. But a call from a business looking to tap into her selling power was what really got the company moving in its first few months.
“I set the business up to sell various things for the hotel industry and I’d been contacted by a company asking me if I could sell pens and pencils into the Lowry. Pens and pencils weren’t really my thing but I did it anyway and I got the order.
“But at the end of the meeting the Lowry guy asked me if I also sold toiletries. I didn’t but I said I did. He showed me some products and said ‘if you can do something like this by the time we open next year I’ll buy it’. I said ‘we’re already on it’. Then he asked what I was going to put on the front of the bottle. Without hesitation I said ‘H2K’ and then looked at the products he had and reeled off ‘handwash’, ‘body lotion’ and that was that.”
H2K (H2 representing H2O and ‘K’ for Kalahari) then started building traction in the hotel industry.
“Taking a brand that didn’t really exist into the best hotel in the North was a bit of a challenge really. I thought it couldn’t be too difficult, and then I realised how difficult it was.
“But because I won that contract I could then go to other four star establishments and win further business on the back of it.”
Initially the business traded out of a “tiny bungalow” on a trading estate in Bradford with a team of one.
“It was just me for three years really. I used to get up at five, fill bottles until seven, and then get out on the road to do deliveries and then back to do my accounts. At the same time I’d always have the phone next to me so I could take calls.”
While many start-ups fail because they struggle to find a market to sell to, Hazel’s challenge was the opposite problem – she sold too much.
“I was trading too fast. So I was buying more stock but people weren’t paying quickly enough. So I put the house in with the business.
“For six months I had to fax the bank every Friday and then on a Monday to find out if I was going bust. I could hardly sleep at night.
“I did consider getting out but I was in too deep. I still had really big contracts I just didn’t have any cash but I couldn’t go bankrupt, my dad was a bank manager after all. He had already passed away by then but it would have been a complete failure to go bankrupt, so failure wasn’t an option.”
She alleviated the problem by selling her house at a 30% profit – this was in 2003 in the housing boom years - and put all the money in the business, paid the bank back and moved back in with her mum.
“I thought I’m just going to have to take a hit so there were no perks for a while.”
That ‘while’ lasted for six years as she slowly but surely got the business firmly established, with a small team and growing presence. Spotting an opportunity to raise some cash fast for the business, Hazel renovated and sold three houses – selling by day and painting, decorating and learning to plumb and hang doors at night.
The company then cracked the Middle East market with a deal taking it into some of Dubai and the wider Gulf region’s luxury hotels operated under names like Hilton and Sheraton as well as Microsoft’s UAE offices.
This market has since acted as a stepping stone into Australia for H2K. Next came the economic downturn.
“The recession hit in 2009 but didn’t hit UK hotels or my business for about a year because a lot of the hoteliers had a lot of stock. So it hit in mid to late 2010.”
In the fallout H2K lost a major client in Dubai which had been offered free toiletries from a rival supplier. The company survive the knockback and began moving along briskly until a health problem threatened to stop Hazel in her tracks.
Around 18 months ago she collapsed at home and was unable to get back up. It was caused by an inflamed pelvis related to the medical condition she was born with which causes certain parts of her body to become inflamed.
Hazel was unable to stand or even sit and was told by doctors that if she couldn’t overcome the pain of learning to walk again in the first two years, she’d probably never walk again.
But a little problem like this wouldn’t stop someone as determined in business as this, despite fearing the worst.
“I needed 24 hour care for six months and couldn’t walk for a year. I couldn’t even use a wheelchair as I couldn’t sit upright.
“It was horrendous running the business but I moved the phone line and PC downstairs. I was still able to talk and type.”
She also employed a sales director, Angela, which Hazel says is the best decision she’s ever made. And the year spent running the business from a horizontal angle delivered some surprisingly positive results.
“I don’t like to admit it but I’m not good at stopping. Not being able to walk and get out and do things made me for the first time in my life stop.
“Instead of me going out seeing people and doing all the things I used to do, it made me stop and sit back from the business. It made me jump out of it and see it in a different light.
“That’s been fantastic because, since I’ve done that, I see the business very differently. We’ve been able to rebrand, I’ve bought a new product range in and I also wrote a business plan for the next five years.”
The rebrand came after the company missed out on what had been considered a shoe-in contract win worth £500,000. And it has certainly proved to be a shrewd move.
“We tendered for a major account with a big hotel group and we were told that they were 99.9% sure we were going to get it. We were really excited, but when it came to signing the papers we were told we hadn’t got it.
“We asked them why and they told us it was because we weren’t English enough. We have our address on there but they said it’s not on the front of the bottle. So we rebranded as H2K of Harrogate and since then the business is virtually doubling.
“Being British globally is fantastic. We supply to the Middle East through a distributor in Dubai and since rebranding in December they’ve doubled the amount of business they put with us because the Middle East market really likes the fact that it says Harrogate on the front of the bottle.”
Another global boost is the deal it has just signed through a distributor to sell its products as a vendor on Amazon across the US and Germany, as well as the UK. “We expect big results from that,” she says.
“People can also buy from our website and we do get three or four people each week coming onto the site after seeing our products in a hotel. We do particularly well in Italy, France and Belgium.”
At a time when many retailers are shedding the bricks and mortar expenses that come with a high street presence, H2K is moving in the opposite direction.
“We want to get onto the High Street and we’re waiting for planning to go through for a site in Harrogate, but it should definitely happen before the Tour de France next year.
“We’re doing it for our profile and because we have a really big following. We are in a recession but what we’ve found in the hotel industry is that people aren’t buying cheaper toiletries, they are actually still wanting a really quality product. People don’t want to compromise on their skin and I can’t see the high street being a bad thing for us.” The company certainly seems on an upwards trajectory then?
“We sell about 250,000 bottles per month and have grown 20% on last year, and will grow by a further 20% next year. We expect to hit £10m turnover within five years.” For now, though, Hazel is on the hunt for up to seven figures of new investment to realise her business ambitions.
“We’ll use it to make the brand global. The next stop is America next year.” With her tenacity, there’s very little doubt that she’ll not only get there, but make a success of what could potentially be a hugely lucrative market.