The conflict expert-turned beauty distributor with a passion for flexible working

Claire Hurst, managing director of Primo Distribution - the UK distributor of Freeman Beauty. Picture Bruce Rollinson
Claire Hurst, managing director of Primo Distribution - the UK distributor of Freeman Beauty. Picture Bruce Rollinson
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How do you grow a business and work a four-day week? Beauty distributor Claire Hurst reveals the secret of flexible working and why corporates should follow her lead, writes Lizzie Murphy

Claire Hurst was visiting her in-laws in Holland when an opportunity arose to set up her own business.

A neighbour, who was the Dutch distributor of US beauty brand Freeman, mentioned the company was looking for a UK distributor.

“We knew we wanted to set up a new business,” says Hurst. “My husband, Adam, was in a high pressured job. I already ran my own business consultancy and we’d just had children. We were like ships that passed in the night and we thought ‘this has got to change’.”

She adds: “It was that coffee table moment where you sit and say ‘let’s do it’.”

Within four months the couple had set up Primo Distribution and secured Superdrug as their first client.

US-based beauty giant Freeman produces nature-inspired products. In 2018 it was voted the number one face mask brand in the US, with 25 per cent of all face masks purchased being a Freeman.

Ikley-based Primo Distribution, which has a £1.3m turnover and a team of seven, distributes five face mask and foot care brands - Barefoot, Dead Sea, Feeling Beautiful, Feeling Legendary, and Beauty Infusions - to clients including Boots, Tesco, Amazon and, most recently, Sainsbury’s. It also sells through its own website.

Freeman’s customer profile has changed dramatically since it launched in the UK.

“At the core you’ve got someone who is sub-30, who enjoys skincare, loves to buy new products but actually cares about what they put on their skin and are drawn to the natural ingredients in our products,” Hurst says.

“The peel-off face masks attract a younger demographic. But for Dead Sea, you find it’s an older demographic. I think that’s mum buying a peel-off for her daughter and buying the Dead Sea for herself. What’s interesting is that 30 per cent of purchases in Tesco for the Charcoal mask are men so we’ve now got a man’s product.”

Face masks are currently the fastest growing format in facial skincare, currently accounting for 3.4 per cent of the total facial skincare category.

“We’ve grown in a really nice way,” says Hurst. “Five years ago there weren’t many face mask brands around. Now this market’s gone crazy so we got in at the right time and with the right brand because they’re so well known.”

She adds: “There’s been a shift and a recognition that you don’t have to buy the most expensive product. There is kudos in getting a product that is amazing and works and we have loyalty from our customers.”

Hurst believes that a key to the company’s success is its ability to offer retailers a global brand but with a small business mentality. “When a buyer rings, they speak to me or to (project manager) Katharine and get the decision made so we’re easy to work with from a big retailer perspective, which goes a long way.”

Now, the business is at the stage where it needs to employ another member of the team. “We’re thinking about doing an apprenticeship or taking on someone with a learning difficulty who we can nurture. I think there are skills here that people could learn and really enjoy doing,” she says.

One of the most important aspects of the business is the working culture Hurst has created. The all-female team works on a flexible basis and everybody works a four-day week unless there’s an urgent deadline.

“The need for everyone to work 9-5 and have everyone sitting in the same office is daft,” she says. “There are days when you have school commitments and days when you want to work from home. That’s fine because we don’t micromanage and the work gets done.”

She adds: “If you’ve have children you have to adopt that flexibility at home, which equips you at work to think ‘nothing is insurmountable’.

“We need to stop expecting this 9-5 sitting in front of a computer screen in the office because there are lots of amazing parents and people who have other commitments and they’re not allowed to be utilised because the system says you must work a certain way.”

Hurst believes a four-day week is something more companies should introduce. “It makes people really want to be there Monday to Thursday and they work hard. When you tell major retailers, they say ‘what a good idea’. I think this model would work in a massive corporate because it’s scalable. The research behind it is really powerful.”

Prior to setting up Primo, Hurst was a conflict management instructor teaching businesses how to manage drugs and violence in the workplace. She worked with large breweries and brands including Virgin Airlines where she helped to write its drug and alcohol policy.

“Could it be more different (from what I’m doing now)?” Hurst reflects. “I’d be in the pubs at 1am after a stabbing to do a risk assessment. I had to manage lots of different personalities and understand emotive situations.

“However, I was left on my own - trusted by big corporate companies to do a good job. That self motivation was always there and I’ve worked for myself for a long time. My husband says I’m completely unemployable now.”

The role stopped being practical when she started having children and that’s when she discovered the opportunity for Primo.

Initially Hurst and her husband ran the business together but three years ago Hurst took over when her husband took on a role in another company.

“For two years I ran the business on my own - just me and the dog - and now I feel that this business is on the edge of something really exciting,” she says.

Last year, after taking on project director Katharine Collinge, she restructured the business to target further growth. “The market for face masks has exploded over the last 12 months and I needed to make sure that we were the right brand for that market and that we were shouting about it,” she says.

Looking ahead, Hurst is keen to secure more big retailers. She is also preparing to launch a new own-label range of body care, although details are currently under wraps. “It’s a very different proposition,” she says. “When I can tell you about it, I will.”

Curriculum Vitae

Title: Managing director of Primo Distribution

Date of birth: March 7, 1973

Education: QEGS Blackburn; politics and european studies with french degree at Liverpool John Moores

First job: communications officer at John Moores University

Favourite holiday destination: Anywhere in the three valleys for a family ski holiday

Favourite film: The big blue, Luc lesson ( I was big into scuba diving when younger )

Favourite song: Hotel California, by The Eagles.

Last book read: How to stop time, by Matt Haig

Car driven: My lovely old BMW ( I will driver her til she falls apart)

Most proud of: My children