Women have always found it a challenge getting management positions in Japan. Few make it to the top. Even fewer are front runners. One of those is Reiko Lyster, president of Elle International Co Ltd, which imports and distributes cosmetics brands. Lyster, 78, has a lifetime of experience in the business, having started with the Japanese branch of Max Factor KK in 1960. Later, she worked for Pfizer, then Estee Lauder and Shiseido, as well as Revlon in the U.S., before returning to Japan where she set up Elle International in 1979 to import and distribute French skincare brand Orlane.
Today, Elle International handles three overseas brands – Mavala (a Swiss nail care brand), Gernetic (a French skincare brand) and Rentner (an American cosmetics brand). Lyster transferred the Japan distribution business for Orlane to Pola Japan several years ago by her own decision.
Japan Today editor Chris Betros visits Lyster at the Elle International office in Tokyo’s Shinjuku to hear more about the business.
What was it like for you as a woman executive back in the 1960s?
I was probably the first woman to be promoted to the post of marketing executive in the mid-1960s at the age of 32. Then I went to the U.S. to start my life all over again in 1969. Most likely, I was the first Japanese woman to build a career in the U.S. cosmetics market on her own from ground zero. All of the years I have worked as a salaried executive or as an entrepreneur, I can say one thing. I think I have always been a front runner, challenging new opportunities by opening a path to be followed by younger generations, especially women. I founded Elle International as the first woman in Japan to specialize in marketing imported cosmetics. Each of the manufacturers I represent today started from zero with specific marketing strategies to establish a successful presence here in Japan.
How has the industry changed over the years?
One of the main changes is in the mentality of consumers. For a long time, there was a mentality among women that skincare products, such as creams or lotions, made abroad were not good for Japanese skin. Fortunately, it is no longer a major element. Another trend, more recent, is more emphasis on anti-aging products. For many years, cosmetics manufacturers here were reluctant to even mention products made for mature women. Their target was always younger women. But now, because of a change in demographics, they have to go after women in their 40s, 50s, 60s and older. Anti-aging has become a common term. Also, a big change we see is the distribution system caused by the rapid rise of online sales — something we had not experienced 20~30 years ago.
How was 2012 for you?
We recovered from a tough year in 2011. We expanded our distribution network for Mavala which is our best performing brand.
Where do you distribute the three brands you handle?
With Mavala, we are in prominent variety stores such as Sony Plaza. We have about 450 retails sales points in this distribution channel. For Gernetic, we work with a limited number of perfumeries and aesthetic salons. Rentner is sold in variety stores or drugstores. In addition, we operate 13 nail care salons in selected variety stores where we provide professional manicure service.
Are you selling online?
Not yet. That is a new path for us. One reason we haven’t gone down that path yet is because this is a very personal business. It is important to know our customers and they like to know us. Our sales staff and manicurists provide the best feedback from our customers and the retailers.
Where do you see growth opportunities?
There is still room to grow in the retail business. We are mostly doing business in Kanto and some in Osaka but I can expand even more.
Is it easier to import products than it used to be?
Yes, much easier nowadays. I’ve lived with regulations all my working life in Japan. When I first started, if you wanted to import a new product, it would take six months to get government approval. Now, it is simpler and can be done just by registering the formula in advance, as long as they contain only ingredients already approved in Japan. The products we import are exactly the same as sold in Europe and America. They don’t need to be modified for the Japanese market.
How important is it to introduce new lines regularly?
That is more important for large Japanese manufacturers. They always try to refresh their lines by adding new items constantly to the market at different price levels. In my case, I only select what is marketed in the home market because I would rather develop the existing business with a new approach or new ideas.
How do you market the brands you import?
First, develop specific marketing strategies most suitable to each brand. For Orlane, I made special efforts to make my own employees a fan of the brand and then through them, educate and influence consumers as well as beauty magazine editors and writers. It was a step-by-step approach and I have found over the years that you can get loyal customers without big investment for advertising promotions.
Is your business recession-proof?
Well, even in a recession, women are not going to give up on cosmetics. But they do go for less expensive beauty products. That’s why department stores have seen a drop in cosmetics sales. Many young women are going to drugstores instead or shop online.
Do you check out rival brands?
I have a look at what they are doing because I need to know what is happening in the market—how it is changing, new promotional methods, how consumers react to new products and so on.
What is a typical day for you?
I come here about 10 a.m. and have meetings with employees or attend business meetings outside. I like to visit stores when I can and talk to clients because that’s where everything happens. I usually spend Saturdays seeing my friends, visiting bookstores, or even coming to the office. If time permits, I like to go driving in my car. Sundays are kept free for myself without commitments. However, I can say I am working seven days a week mentally.