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The power couple that turned a passion into a $230 million retail empire

Husband and wife team: Marla and Barry Beck, founders of BlueMercury
Source: BlueMercury

Some disruptive business ideas are ahead of their time, but with a little luck and perseverance, they can ignite and become a big hit. Take Bluemercury, a luxury cosmetic store and spa chain founded by husband-and-wife team Marla and Barry Beck. While many brick-and-mortar retail chains are struggling in the United States, this business is one of the fastest growing in the industry.

The company purchased by Macy's in 2015 for $210 million has 150 stores, and another 10 are expected to open by year-end. The latest: a high-tech flagship store at the NY Hilton Midtown that's getting a lot of buzz because of its artificial intelligence mirror that allows instant information on products and 30-minute delivery on purchases to any location in the city.

In addition, Bluemercury has a prestige line of natural cosmetics called M-61 that can be viewed as an extension of the store's beauty expertise. The line contains Retin-A, glycolic salicylic acid, as well as natural ingredients, like tamarind and aloe.

The company's success can be attributed to the fact that the Becks realized that both urban and suburban consumers yearned for a neighborhood alternative to the department store and mall beauty-buying experience, when they founded the business in 1999. Back then, it wasn't easy to convince brands and investors that the emerging trend would grow — spurred on by demographic shifts.

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Their 'aha moment' came when they noticed a small store selling Kiehl's and Nars products in their neighborhood in Georgetown, Washington, D.C. "It was then that we got the idea for a national beauty chain," CEO Marla Beck recalls. So they bought the store and launched Bluemercury, a name that's a combination of Marla's favorite color and ancient Roman messenger god Mercury.

"Oddly enough, our first business plan was to launch an online luxury cosmetics business after I was inspired by Amazon's Jeff Bezos, who spoke about the future of e-commerce while I was at Harvard Business School working on my MBA," Marla recalls. "But the idea fizzled out. It was 1997, and VCs and brands didn't see the potential of online retail."

So Marla and Barry quickly pivoted and set their sights on Main Street. They purchased that local store and launched their business.

To build their brand, they opened stores and embedded themselves in the lives of the communities they operated in. By offering expert services to busy suburban supermoms and urban power women, they grew a cadre of loyalists who loved the services and social experience at the stores — from spa services like facials and rock massages to makeup applications.

Demographic shifts and the rise of social media have fueled the company's growth as more and more millennials have become conscious with their appearance. "We live in an Instagram world," says Barry Beck, Bluemecury's COO. "More and more people are concerned about their image and how they look, and it's driving sales in many product categories."

Launched in 1999, Bluemercury was purchased by Macy's in 2015 for $210 million. Ten new stores are scheduled to open, bringing its total to 160 locations.
Source: Bluemercury

"We help people make sense of all the cosmetic products out there," Barry says. "We offer a personal retail experience many people yearn for."

So how did the couple forge a profitable partnership in life — and in business? According to Marla and Barry Beck, these three factors are needed for successful partnerships to work.

1. Love each other, and love what you do.

That's important, says Barry, since people look for authenticity. Everything you do builds your brand and your company's culture, says Marla. Find what you are best at and become an expert at something you love. Over time, people will recognize your know-how and business will grow.

2. Be each other's tailwind.

Partnerships work best if partners complement each other's skill set. In Bluemercury's case the duo is a kinetic mesh of tactic and strategy. Marla is a beauty junkie who is able to draw conclusions from large amounts of data and spot market trends. Barry is a serial entrepreneur who manages the company's business operations.

The couple never separates their business and personal life. For them it's all one thing. Neither go to a key meeting of consequence alone. They go together.

3. Keep the intimacy alive at all costs.

Communication between partners in life and in business is key to success. The Becks have been married for 15 years, and they say daily dialogue helps their relationship stay on course. According to Marla, "You have to continue to reconnect and dream together." To make sure they stay in tune, the Becks have a daily ritual. "Every night at 10 p.m. Barry and I go for a 4-mile walk to discuss the events of the day, hash over business and our personal affairs," says Marla. "It reaffirms our commitment to each other."