Bluemercury Rising

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Marla and Barry Beck | Paul Simkin

Marla Beck, wearing a sleeveless black dress and gold cuff bracelet, and Barry Beck, in a crisp white shirt and silvery blue tie, appear as one might imagine the founders of a $100-million luxury cosmetics and skincare company to be: chic, well-groomed and smelling slightly of Barry’s favorite body wash, Molton Brown Black Peppercorn.

Yet the couple, who’ve gone from owning one Bluemercury store at 3059 M St., NW, 15 years ago to 55 nationwide today, revolutionizing the beauty business in the process, would prefer customers to think of them simply as the “mom and pop” of the industry.

“It used to bug us a little when people would say, ‘Oh, those Bluemercury beauty shops.’ We wanted to be this big national chain. The truth is that today, it’s this mom-and-pop shop feeling that’s really been the driver of our success,” said Barry, sitting with Marla in their Georgetown headquarters.

Success in this case means owning the fastest growing beauty and spa business in the country, with 20 to 30 stores opening in the next year, plus an Internet business that earns the equivalent of 60 brick and mortar stores. Indeed, in the District, home to four stores including the Georgetown original, Ward 2 Councilman Jack Evans declared Sept. 13, “Bluemercury Day,” after the District Council voted unanimously in favor of the designation.

The concept of the beauty shop around the corner began with Marla, a California native and self-professed “product junkie” who was getting facials before most people had heard of them. After graduating from the University of California at Berkeley, she attended Harvard Business School in Boston, where she would drive 45 minutes to buy her favorite MAC lipstick because cosmetics were sold only in drug and department stores.

“In the back of my mind, I always loved the business,” she recalled, flashing a smile. “But it wasn’t something I was focused on until I came here to D.C.”

She moved to Washington to head up mergers and acquisitions for a large janitorial services company but was more interested in running her own business. She’d heard Jeff Bezos give a speech in 1997 about the future of e-commerce and “caught the bug.” She knew there was a gap in the cosmetics market and was mulling the idea of bringing luxury cosmetics to the Internet.

It was right around this time that she met Barry, who owned a maintenance company he had started with his brother while at Cornell University. He was trying to sell that company to the company Marla worked for.

“I’m embarrassed to say I never even looked at Marla the whole time during the meeting,” Barry recalled, relishing telling the story. “Honestly, I thought she was the secretary. She never said a word. She was just watching me the whole time. At the end of the meeting, she said, ‘By the way, I’m the head of M&A. I make all the decisions about which companies we buy and which ones we don’t.’”

Afterward, his brother asked him how the meeting went. Barry replied: “I don’t know, but I think I’m resigning. I think I met the woman I’m going to marry.”

She didn’t buy his company, but Barry did ask her out. In fact, the two left their jobs and raised $1 million in investment capital to create Bluemercury online and open one brick-and-mortar store in 1999.

They also started a life together in Georgetown, getting married (at store number four), having three children (stores five, eight, and thirteen) and finally, today, employing 600-plus people.

Like any good partnership – personal or public – the Becks appear to fill in each other’s gaps. In business, she is the CEO, a strategist who handles all things customer-related: merchandising, marketing, staffing and product development. He is the COO, the tactician who oversees finance, real estate and e-commerce.

He is also the boyish talker who clearly loves to tell – and sell – their story, while she’s the quiet listener who occasionally interjects with a clarification or correction.

At one point Barry said that Bluemercury has more stores than Neiman Marcus and Saks combined.

“I don’t think that’s true,” Marla said quickly. “We should count them.”

“Well, yes, we should count them,” Barry agreed “But it’s close.”

At another point, he revealed that next year the company is launching several new brands, including color cosmetics, haircare and sun-care lines, to which Marla said, “Wait, we’re not supposed to be talking about that.”

“We can’t tell you the names and what’s going to be in them,” Barry said. “We can’t tell you what they are. [But] we’re going to build a house of brands.”

Marla remained unfazed, leaving the salesmanship to him. But as soon as the conversation turned to her role in the business, her blue eyes lit up and her speech quickened. She takes a hands-on approach to hiring people and selecting products, she said, personally interviewing every store manager and trying every product that goes on the shelf.

In addition to selling dozens of brands such as Laura Mercier, Trish McEvoy and Bobbi Brown at Bluemercury stores, Marla launched her own line of natural, dermatologically-tested products called M-61 two years ago after seeing a gap in the market.

“A product has to have great quality, great packaging and a great plan for product development,” she explained. “I look for a lot of authenticity. That’s why we have makeup artists’ brands, because there are people behind them creating the product. I don’t like the fads where someone’s like, ‘I think this is cool this year.’ ”

Her perennial favorites are Trish McEvoy’s High-Volume Mascara and the M-61 Power Glow Peel. Here is the latter’s Bluemercury website description: “Marla loves this pre-makeup and pre-moisturizer before a very important event for a radiant glow. She also loves it for hormone-related breakouts, which she seems to get.”

Clearly, Marla, who pens a beauty blog, spends a good deal of time testing these products. Where does all this experimentation take place? They receive so many prospective products at their office, Barry said, that they put them in a spot dubbed “the garage.” Every so often, they pull them out, set them up and Marla goes through them like movie scripts with Post-it notes in hand.

“I’m like: ‘No, no, no, we need more information on this,’ or ‘Who’s doing this?’ or ‘This one I want to take home’,” she said.

“You know a brand is on its way into the store… ” Barry started. “Could be going in,” Marla interrupted.

Barry flashed his brown eyes at her, finishing, “Because the train stop right before that is in our bathroom.”

She did not disagree. In fact, there seems to be little the Becks don’t ultimately agree on, at least in business. Barry describes their partnership as “magical” and “this amazing combination that has really worked well for us.” Their list of professional accomplishments is long, including Marla’s recent appointment as Entrepreneur-in-Residence at Harvard Business School and Barry’s lecturing on entrepreneurship at Cornell and Columbia universities.

They seem to have figured out what works well for them at home, too. They include their three children, ages 7, 9 and 11, in store openings and activities as much as possible. “We’ve never seen our life as, ‘Here is our work life and here is our family life,’ ” Barry said. “It’s a blend. Bluemercury is who we are, who our family is.”

That life includes a considerable amount of business travel. Marla noted that she logged 13,000 miles in June alone and met with every store manager during August. “There was one week I was in a different city every day,” she said. “So it depends. But it’s a minimum of one day a week.”

Even so, they make a big effort to be home at night with their kids. If they need to visit a store together, no matter where it is, they try to make it a day trip. If going to the West Coast, they often fly out in the morning and take the red eye back.

“We like to go to bed under our own roof,” Barry said. “Husband, wife, three kids. The truth is, it’s a labor of love for us. We love what we’re doing. We’re excited to see a store in Santa Monica and can’t wait to get out there. And we also can’t wait to get back to our family.”

Another way they stay connected is by taking nightly walks through their Bethesda neighborhood, or wherever they happen to be. It’s a habit they started when they lived in Georgetown and would walk down to the monuments a few times a week. They’ve calculated they’ve walked halfway around the world.

“Last night, we walked almost five miles,” Barry said. “We were in a great conversation, saw something funny, gave each other a little hug…”

“And I walked into a tree,” said Marla with a laugh.

And if she got a scratch from the branch, she knew she could walk to the beauty shop down the street for the perfect product to cover it up.

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