Talking to...Eleanor Heatley

Having bought nine Dove Spa sites last year, Eleanor Heatley is now rebranding them as Luminis. She tells Eve Oxberry why an independent feel will win out on the high street

Eleanor Heatley Luminis When Unilever pulled its investment in Dove Spas last year, for many it was indicative of a wider shift in the UK salon market.

“In my opinion it was a very sensible move,” says Eleanor Heatley, who was at that time director of operations, training and HR for the Dove Spa group. “The spa business is entirely operational. Unilever is a marketing-led business so there was a bit of company disconnect.”

Shortly afterwards, PZ Cussons announced closure of its three high street Sanctuary sites, both corporations choosing to focus on the retail, rather than service arms of the brands. “Consumer perception was another challenge,” says Heatley. “Dove is a very well known and respected brand but it was hard to understand why you’re paying £2 for a deodorant in Sainsbury’s and being charged £65 for a facial in a Dove Spa. I think it was the same for The Sanctuary. The general public aren’t aware that very different products with a much higher ingredient spec are used in the treatments.”

So when Unilever put Dove Spa into administration in early 2013, Heatley was keen to lend the business a more personal touch. “Initially they wanted to sell the entire group [which comprised 16 sites] but it was a lot for anyone to take on,” she says. “I was always interested in an MBO [management buy out] but not for the business as it stood.”

A deal was struck but fell through just days before the sale deadline, prompting the administrators to sell the business in parts. “The group that took on the Northern sites was originally going to buy the business as a whole but couldn’t get the funding for the southern sites, which was perfect for me because those were the ones I wanted,” says Heatley. “However, I had three days to complete on the deal, including due diligence, so it was a very fraught time.”

Effecting change
She secured a 25% investment from an enterprise fund owned by her husband’s property company. “The rest is mine,” she says. All salon staff stayed with the business and with the deal finalised at the end of August, Heatley began work on a rebrand of the sites, which are in Chorleywood, Lakeside (Essex), Bromley, Canary Wharf, Purley, Reigate, Chiswick, Egham and Jersey. It’s ongoing but she expects all nine salons will have transitioned from Dove to Luminis, with new stock and pale green and gold signage, by mid June.

One of the first things to change was the product and treatment offer. With Dove discontinuing production of its professional products, Luminis has taken on Elemis and Murad, and expanded its partnership with CND for nails and St Tropez for tanning.

“Murad have some great skin-changing products and that’s the direction I’d like to move the business towards,” says Heatley. “Dove Spa is a great brand but people are looking for much more results-focused treatments and if you compare it with a Murad Vitamin C facial, for example, that’s far more efficacious.” She will also look to boost the machine side of the business to reflect a general shift in consumer demand.

However, she has noticed a move in the opposite direction at colleges. “It used to be that if therapists had NVQ Level 3 you knew they were electrotherapy trained but it’s now changed so they can do advanced massage instead. Colleges don’t need to invest in expensive machines but out in the market people now know electrical facials are generally more efficacious than manual massage and that’s what they’re asking for, so there’s more onus on salon owners to train new therapists, but as a small independent that’s very difficult.”

With nine sites, Luminis will still be a major player in a salon market dominated by single-site operations. However, Heatley is adamant that she will give each site its own identity. “Beauty is such an intimate business and when you’re part of a big brand you can’t have that focus, that sensitivity to the locale of the people coming into your salons,” she says. “So one of the things I want to change is to make sure each of the salons has a community feel because the demographic we have in Lakeside is not the same as we have in Chiswick, for example.

“Even if you look at a big company like Starbucks, they have started to tailor the way their sites look and feel to suit different locations. I don’t know if it’s a recession thing, but people are going back to that local community feel and mourning the loss of independents.”

Therapists have already started going out into the local community. In affluent Reigate that involves demos at coffee mornings, while in Canary Wharf it’s corporate events. The treatment offer will also vary between sites.

School of thought
To grow that community feel, Heatley is also keen to expand her therapists’ personal experiences. “If you leave school at 16, go straight into college then straight into a salon, you’ve not necessarily had world experience,” she says. “I try to show the team things from different walks of life. It’s little things like making them try new food when we have a group day out. I once had a therapist who wouldn’t recommend Elemis Pro-Collagen Marine Cream because she couldn’t comprehend that anyone would spend £95 on a cream. Of course she couldn’t, because she was 19 and on £6.50 an hour, so it’s partly about widening that experience and giving them comprehension that clients often think differently to them.”

And once the business has bedded in, Heatley will be on the hunt for additional sites. “When opportunities come along we’d absolutely look to expand,” she says. “I’d certainly like at least another one London salon.”

Another key difference between Dove and Luminis, says Heatley, will be a tighter rein on discounting. “We were a reasonably promotion-led business but we have some exceptionally talented people in the team so we shouldn’t need to discount,” she says. “It’s a bit like John Lewis – I’d much rather be known for offering really good, strong treatments that work. No, they’re not the cheapest out there anymore but you get what you pay for and you get the level of service you’d expect to go with that.”

Key Dates
2002 - Eleanor Heatley qualifies as a barrister
2005 - Takes an interim role as in-house legal counsel for the UK office of Dutch fashion retailer Mexx
2006 - Promoted to franchise manager at Mexx, controlling legal, HR and operations
2008 - Moves to skincare and homewares company Rituals to set up its UK operations
2010 - Joins Dove Spa as head of operations and people
2012 - Promoted to director of operations, training and people
2013 - Unilever puts the Dove Spas business up for sale in January. Heatley buys the nine southern sites in August
2014 - Rebrands the nine salons to Luminis, focusing on advanced skincare