How I climbed the stairway to heaven

How I climbed the stairway to heaven

Ian Halstead meets Heaven founder Deborah Mitchell to learn about her remarkable rise from teenage model in Shropshire to head of a global skincare empire

History’s first noted use of cosmetics came when Cleopatra decided that a hint of henna on her nails, a splash of red ochre lipstick, and a smudge of black kohl around her eyes would enhance her natural beauty, as she prepared to seduce Caesar and Mark Antony. Even then, the techniques for creating powders, lotions and pastes from rocks, minerals and plants had been around for millennia.

More recently, there’ve been times when only an affluent elite could afford beauty products, and when they were used solely by courtesans and harlots; but today, they’re for everyone.
Euromonitor International reckons the global beauty industry was worth £260bn during 2013, and its fastest-growing segment was skincare, driven by ever-increasing demand for anti-ageing products.

It seems logical that the only players in such a market – where product launches cost millions, and annual advertising budgets match the GDP of a small country – must be plcs, backed by significant external finance and led by management teams awash with MBAs.
So it’s both startling, and hugely impressive, to see one of the world’s fastest-growing organic skincare brands run out of a small market town in Shropshire, funded purely by cashflow, and headed by a dyslexic with just four O-levels.

A glance at glossy lifestyle magazines reveals Heaven’s products are much favoured by the rich and famous, including: Victoria Beckham, Dannii Minogue, Gwyneth Paltrow, the Duchess of Cornwall and Kate Middleton. Its founder and driving force, Deborah Mitchell, is understandably proud that such high-profile customers happily admit they love their bee venom facials, moisturisers and suchlike. Celebrity endorsements, and the support of other customers via blogs and social media, are critical to her success, as Heaven has never used advertising to promote its products.

“Everything we’ve achieved has been by word of mouth. My first celebrity client was Tracey Taylor, the wife of Duran Duran’s Andy Taylor. He bought Beckbury Hall in Shropshire, and we met when I was just starting up as a beautician,” recalls Deborah. “Tracey introduced me to the band, I met people in their circle, then I met other celebrities. Years later, I took space in London’s Hale Clinic, which is an amazing place for every type of treatment from acupuncture to yoga, and more celebrities got to know about Heaven’s products.”

Deborah’s connection to the Royal household also began via the Hale, shortly after she created an organic alternative to Botox, which used honey, bee pollen and other organic ingredients to relax facial muscles in a natural fashion. “It was eight or nine years ago, an envoy from the Palace came in and asked if I could do a treatment at Clarence House. I went along, but there was only one couch in the room and Prince Charles was using it, so I had to bring another one from the clinic. Camilla arrived, she loved her facial, and I kept going back there.”

Since then, Deborah has become so accepted by the Royal couple that she regularly treats Camilla, at Highgrove House and her Scottish residence, but she recalls with passion the
day she thought she’d never see her Royal client again. “I’d been visiting Clarence House for about a year, but although I was so proud, I was so nervous about anyone else finding out I hadn’t even told my mother,” says Deborah.

“Then The Sun came out, with a huge story saying I was giving HRH this treatment. I was horrified. I couldn’t repeat the headline even now, and I really wondered what would happen to my reputation and the business.

“Journalist after journalist started ringing. I said nothing, but then the Daily Mail rang, pretending they were only concerned about the plight of the bees, so I talked to them.”
The incident taught Deborah two great lessons; the duplicity of the tabloid media, and the unswerving loyalty of her clients, because her relationship with the Royal household moved serenely along.

However, the idea that she might somehow one day make contact with the Royal family wasn’t even a distant fantasy when Deborah first dabbled in the esoteric world of cosmetics and skincare. “Dad left us when I was very young, but I still used to visit him. There wasn’t much to play with, so one day I started trying to make perfume from rose petals. I knew I needed a liquid, but everything I tried, including milk, went off.

“Then I found some vodka, and it worked. Then I tried other ingredients, grew my own little herb patch, and made all sorts of concoctions.”

Four O-levels didn’t offer an evident career path, so Deborah began using her looks, and an impressive mane of blonde hair, to earn money from modelling, becoming Miss Shropshire, before taking a runner’s up slot at the Miss Great Britain contest in 1988. At the same time, training as a beautician at the nearby Telford College of Art & Technology  increased her knowledge of the cosmetics industry, and her natural flair for creating products surfaced once more.

“I suffered from acne, so the stuff they gave us helped, but not very much. We were taught to apply a face-mask, but the side effect was that it made your face red. I didn’t want to go home looking like that, so I mixed in camomile, which took the redness away.” The solution appealed to other trainees, and led Deborah to her first full-time job, working for a hairdresser, where she had the freedom to continue experimenting, then to work as a beauty therapist, and finally to the world of self-employment running her own salon.
Along the way, the shy teenager blossomed into a genuine entrepreneur, realising that her talents lay in her hands and her mind, allied to a strong sense of self-belief.

“As someone who suffered from acne, I just wanted to help other people look better, look younger and overcome whatever conditions they had. It wasn’t about the money, I just adored my work and when I first started making creams, I used to give them away.
“I knew some people suffered allergies, and could have severe reactions, so even though no-one talked about ‘organic’ products then, I thought using natural ingredients made sense.

Mitchell Awards

“I wasn’t making much money, so I needed to work nights and weekends. I remember my first pack of nail extensions cost £10, and the customer paid £10, plus a £1 tip. Slowly, I built the business, but was never tempted to take out a loan from the bank.

“I’ve always believed that if you have the money, you can think you need to do something with it, but if you don’t, you will stop and think carefully about what you really need.” The tipping point came when Deborah was invited to work from Telford’s Holiday Inn, and customers came flocking.

“In less than two months, I had three beauticians working for me, and very soon, I had eight. We were taking around £12,000 a month, and I called the business ‘Heaven’,” she says. It was a notably ambitious brand then – not least as the Holiday Inn expected Deborah to work out of a disabled toilet, as they had no other space – but has proved a wise choice. There’ve been some interesting moments since then though.

“I gave all my formulas to a Cardiff firm, for research, products and new jars – and they stole them,” says Deborah, still midway between anger and disbelief. “I just sat here for three or four days, not knowing what to do. Then I decided to make all my stuff again – and better than before.”

“I met Theo Paphitis, when he’d just bought Millwall FC and owned La Senza. He offered £150,000 for a stake. I agreed, but thought about it overnight, and changed my mind. He could have helped me with the packaging, and the profile, but I decided it was better to keep my independence.”

“Beatties asked me to work out of their stores. It went great, I was in 16 stores, and turning over £10,000 a week, but then House of Fraser bought them, and changed how everything worked. Eventually, they owed me £90,000 so I sued them, but I never got back the final £50,000.”

“I was invited to Hong Kong for a huge launch, but on the way, the old Heaven bottles (which were handmade) started to leak. Only pinhead-size, but they were useless. I call that my George Clooney moment, to remember that success doesn’t have to come your way when you’re still young.”

“Everyone said China would be the next big market for premium skincare, but a company from there offered an order of just £38,000. I wanted to be cautious, so I accepted it, and met them. The relationship developed and we signed a long-term partnership which will be worth £100m.”

Mitchell ProductsThere’s also much ahead for Heaven and its effervescent founder. A BBC documentary will next year reveal how Deborah tackled the China market, and Channel 4 has filmed ‘The Best in Town’, showing her vetting beauty salons across the UK. In September, her range will be relaunched as ‘Heaven by Deborah Mitchell’, with a chunky £2.5m spend purely for the new packaging, and talks are advanced about a £250,000 deal for Heaven to become a sponsor of McClaren’s F1 team next season.

Deborah, in her late 40s, is the mother of two teenagers, Ella Jane and Christopher. Her daughter has also launched a range of wipes, moisturisers and lip balm, after a long-running domestic debate.

“When Ella Jane was 13, she asked if she could use wipes, but I said: ‘No’, because some companies use chlorine in them, and others mess around with the pH values,” says Deborah.

“Ella asked me again and again. Finally, when she was 15, she created her own wipes. Katy Perry is a big fan of them, so we’ll probably support her UK tour next year, and Waitrose have an offer on the table, which we’re considering at the moment.” It all sounds like a breath-taking burden for one individual, so might Heaven be considering a flotation, and a strengthening of the executive team?

“I’ve thought about it occasionally over the years,” admits Deborah. “I’d have to meet
the right people, and even then it might not happen, but it’s not something I’ve ruled out.”