For ten years, Birmingham corporate lawyer Rob Hallmark carried around a spicy secret – he fancied selling his own perfume. Today, that secret’s not only out in the open, it’s a commercial venture that Rob’s shouting about from the rooftops.
Last September he quit law, and in December officially launched Gruhme, a range of men’s fragrance and personal care products that he hopes will become a global brand reflecting the “best of British-ness”.
So passionately does he believe in his fledgling business that Rob has ploughed his savings and money from the sale of his loft apartment in the city’s Jewellery Quarter into producing Gruhme’s first fragrance.
Rob is yet to find a major retailer to stock Gruhme, but the £35, 100ml bottles of eau de toilette are already selling online and through The Barber House, a men’s salon and shaving parlour in Birmingham’s business district.
Although Rob has ditched a ‘safe’ legal career for a riskier life as an entrepreneur, he’s relishing the challenge. He hasn’t shrugged off his lawyer’s persona entirely, though: while clearly fired with enthusiasm and get-up-and-go, he wants to grow the company organically and with an eye firmly on the detail.
“I’ve started on a journey,” he explains. “It’s a 20-year project to become a household name, something to relish for a long time: not just profit and disappear. Some of the biggest selling fragrances are ones that’ve been around for a long time.”
But why would a successful lawyer decide to set up a business selling men’s perfume? Malvern-educated Rob, a father-of-one in his early 30s, says he’s always had a creative edge and a desire to go into business, but that he followed a long family tradition and entered law: his father, uncle and grandfather were solicitors. After graduating from Durham University in 2003, Rob spent eight years as a corporate solicitor in Birmingham and London, acting for clients such as Compass Group and Barclays.
Much as he enjoyed this, he felt like a “square peg in a round hole” and knew he needed to follow his dream. “My time at Malvern College was almost entirely filled with design; I even picked up a design award. My mother’s an artist, so I’ve always felt like a bit of a geeky craftsman. So after several years as a lawyer, I decided to give in and do what I wanted to do.”
Rob picked up the scent of the kind of business he wanted to go into during a visit to Grasse, the centre of the French perfume industry, also known as the world’s perfume capital. “I went with a friend, who wanted us to buy some perfume for our girlfriends. I talked to one lady about fragrance and how it was made and it was really interesting: rather than needing global business resources, it came down to just one or two gifted people. So for ten years it simmered in the back of my mind.”
It was the thought of buying a fragrance because he liked it, not because of a celebrity endorsement – with the accompanying price tag – that crystallised the idea in Rob’s mind, especially when his legal colleagues agreed.
“I was surrounded by hard-working, keen and self-aware guys, but none of us were major consumers of men’s fragrance and bespoke personal care products. I thought that was strange, because surely we fitted the demographic that such companies would be targeting.
“My peers told me they wanted to spend money, but couldn’t find products or brands that inspired them. The high street wasn’t changing enough in terms of the type of product available. Profits were increasingly going to massive shareholder bases rather than putting value into the products; so I saw an opportunity.
“My idea is not original; it’s about taking the established market and injecting it with something that guys like me want to buy – something masculine and straightforward.”
Rob wanted an affordable, ‘fresh’ balm that wasn’t too overpowering, and set about creating it by testing an array of perfumes and spices at a Northampton-based fragrance manufacturing company. The result is a “sensual aromatic woody accord” with top notes that include juniper berry, bergamot and lavender, plus traces of cumin and celery seed.
As well as refining the fragrance, Rob also needed the timing to be right: “I knew that if I wanted to do something like this, it would have to be in my early 30s. So I set myself some small steps to follow to begin with.” The first was to semi-detach himself from law, leaving his job at DLA Piper in January 2013. “A career break seems like a big step, but it was quite an easy decision. What I did was give myself a two-month window to set the wheels in motion while looking for part-time work.”
What was Plan B? “To continue to pursue my goal of setting up a business – but with a lot less spare time to give to it as I’d have to go back to being a lawyer.” In the event, Rob didn’t need to resort to Plan B: providentially, along came Birmingham-based Midven, a venture capital company for start-up businesses. Rob landed a part-time role as its in-house lawyer – and spent the next 18 months getting hands-on commercial experience. “It was perfect. I saw it as ‘fate’ telling me this was the right idea. I was very honest with Midven about why I wanted a part-time role. And, yes, I got a lot of tips about setting up your own business – mainly by seeing how incredibly tough it is.
“I saw several businesses go into administration – not just start-ups, but companies that had been going for several years, and I realised it was perhaps true that more new ventures fail than succeed. So it was quite an eye-opener.”
But far from being put off the idea of starting his own company, Rob’s time with Midven made him more determined. “It actually encouraged me,” he says. “One of the features that started to emerge was the importance of time in growing a business, and also keeping it small and lean.”
Rob also learned that a lack of funds wasn’t, in fact, an obstacle when it came to attracting the right kind of business partner. “You’re able to trade on potential; the right people will make offers to help you with almost no promise of return.
“They’d see the opportunity and give services or advice – and that support became one of the most useful tools. If you have money, many people will just – legitimately – sell services and products to you. But if you don’t, you quickly whittle down to those who want to buy into your idea.”
After lots of research and many meetings, Rob struck the deals he needed to bring Gruhme to market: DCS in Stratford-upon-Avon, a leading distributor of health, beauty and household brands, came on board; so too did the fragrance manufacturer, where an owner has since become an investor in Gruhme.
A Smethwick firm does the labelling, a Cheshire company supplies the bottles and a business in Manchester provides the cellophane wrap. Rob’s already planning new product lines for 2015: a perfume with a more intense fragrance, called No 14, and what he hopes will become the brand’s signature fragrance, Gruhme Oud, made from essence of wood of the same name. Men’s shaving and personal care products, and personal wear, such as cufflinks and wallets, are set to follow. “What I’m trying to create is something unique, but not intimidating, an understated British-ness; if you like, the Aston Martin of men’s fragrance – subtle, no drama, but a British classic. There’s a very strong interest in British branding at the moment.”
Rob, who lives in Edgbaston, has been accepted by the NatWest Entrepreneurial Spark programme, giving him access to a ‘business accelerator hub’ in the city centre. “It will be great for me to have office space in the city, giving the business a focal point.”
As well as scouting for major retailers to buy into Gruhme, Rob’s putting the business out there as much as he can. “Word of mouth is one way we’re seeing the brand grow, and we’re also collaborating with complementary businesses and events. We were one of the sponsors of the Midlands Fashion Awards 2014 and may join up with a major hotel chain this year.”
However, Rob’s already enjoying the buzz of shelf retail: “I don’t have the marketing budget of many brands, nor celebrity endorsements, but I still feel we’re in with a good chance of people choosing us. And I get a real buzz from seeing people enjoy my products. That’s hard to achieve in the legal profession. People say ‘job well done’, but you don’t get clients salivating over a legal document.”
Rob’s top tips for setting up in business