Mark Stanlein, CEO of QMS Medicosmetics, is the first to admit he gets bored easily, which is probably why his career in cosmetics companies has spiralled ever upward. He tells Elmari Rautenbach about its trajectory.
Growing up in the countryside outside Deventer in the Netherlands, Mark Stanlein dreamt of being a veterinarian. But the image of a Dutch boy mucking about in wellies and tending livestock with the local dierenarts is a far cry from the long-limbed world traveller lounging on a patio couch at the Stellenbosch Hydro, one sun-kissed hand draped over the arm rest, the other lightly holding a glass of iced cucumber water.
Best of all, says Mark with a charming dose of self-irony, it was a job in packaging that kicked off his journey to becoming CEO of the German skincare brand QMS Medicosmetics. His accent is somewhere between German, French and Dutch.
“I couldn’t get into veterinary science after school, so I opted for business management at the local Hogeschool, an agricultural college at the time. Afterwards, I landed at Eurofill, a company specialising in aerosols. My biggest end customers were Russian. For instance, we produced shaving foams for Nivea and Gillette for the Russian market. I was in Russia quite often. I even had connections in Pakistan because it was the largest market for perfumes and deodorants.”
Skirting the world of cosmetics turned into a full-time career when he spotted a newspaper advertisement for a sales director at the Tokyo cosmetics brand Shiseido in 2001.
To his surprise, he landed the job.
“At one of my first meetings, my manager told me she’d been diagnosed with cancer and I would become responsible for two of the company’s prestige brands, Shiseido and Serge Lutens. I was excited. The brand image had become somewhat stale, so I canvassed for something sexier, more modern. I wanted to take risks. After all, business is about taking risks.
“But the board of directors of Shiseido was not open to new ideas. They were primarily retirees and very set in their ways.” Eventually he left.
“One thing you need to know about me,” Mark says, “I’m a brand beholder, a brand custodian. It doesn’t matter what you think the value of your brand is; it matters what customers think and what they’re willing to pay. Look at QMS today. We’re a selective, exclusive brand and within two years the world is buzzing about us.
“We’re in professional institutes – spas, salons – in Germany, the Netherlands, Switzerland and Belgium, and recently in Italy, Majorca and Ibiza. We’ve launched in the UK and expanded to the US. In London, you’ll only find us in Liberty and Harrods; in the US, in the Four Seasons, Ritz Carlton, Rosewood and Mandarin Oriental hotels; and in Bangkok, the Mandarin Oriental. For our digital expansion, we’re considering teaming up with Net-A-Porter and Look Fantastic. The best of the best. So, don’t call me if you’re unadaptable.”
He does get bored rather quickly, he admits. He calls it his ‘short expiry date’. His LinkedIn profile lists 17 ‘experiences’, each lasting just over or under two years, each exploring a different aspect of the industry since 1998.
“It’s my sign, too, Sagittarius – the Boogschutter, or archer, right? Always hunting for the next opportunity. The next challenge. How will you learn and grow if you’re not putting yourself out there, scaring yourself a little?”
He shares a secret: he interacted with QMS on two occasions before becoming MD in 2020.
“In 2012, I dared to approach the founder of QMS, the German aesthetic surgeon Dr Erich Schulte, with an entire marketing concept. I was the celebrated former general manager of La Mer at Estée Lauder and my newly founded consultancy in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis was picking up steam. But he turned me down.”
In 2017, when Dr Schulte retired, BlueGem Capital Partners acquired QMS and they approached Mark.
“I declined. I was having far too much fun establishing the German professional brand Babor Cosmetics in the Netherlands as its business development manager. In addition, Babor was a sizeable company compared to QMS.”
In 2019, QMS came knocking a second time – and this time Mark said yes. Six months later he was CEO.
If you click on the QMS website, the first page has a surprise. It shows the company’s four leadership team members sharing their skincare routine, complete with their portraits and skincare needs. Better: the 54-year-old CEO is first, boldly listing his skincare musts as ‘anti-ageing and hyperpigmentation’.
“Leonard Lauder, Estée Lauder’s son and the former CEO and chairman of his mother’s business empire, was the one who taught me the value of personalisation,” Mark says.
“Leonard was already in his 70s when I joined Estée Lauder, but he knew the company and its products inside out. He used to say, if you want the customer to engage with the brand, you engage with the brand. If you work for Estée Lauder, you wear Estée Lauder. And if he caught you showing off a Chanel red lipstick on his routine visits – and believe me, he would pick it up a mile away – you were out of there.”
Mark is the first to say his brand experiences helped shape his career.
“Landing in travel retail at Estée Lauder, for example. When people travel, they don’t have time. They shop rationally, not emotionally, and the turnover is vast. Nothing teaches you faster how to be quick, relevant and promotional-driven. I learnt to trust my gut, be brave. We launched the niche line, Pleasures Exotic, over Christmas. Management challenged me: how could I do that? It’s cold; it doesn’t fit. I argued that it was precisely when everyone was on their way to an exotic, sunny destination. We had the best launch ever.”
La Mer followed with extraordinary celebrity events; one on the rooftop terrace of the Guggenheim Museum on the Grand Canal in Venice. “Picture it: Italian skies, mature ladies with gigolos.”
The global financial crisis was a low point.
“I made the mistake of resigning just before the meltdown because I wanted to do my own thing. I was turning 40. But thankfully, it led to the foundation of my consultancy, which I found is far better suited to my nature.”
As Stanlein BV, Mark started interacting with professional skincare brands such as Babor and the prestigious Maria Galland Paris. “As their directeur général for export, I got to know the Asian beauty market exceptionally well. There the attitude towards cosmetics is very different from that of the West. It’s not strange for an Asian woman to have an 8–14-point daily skincare routine, and sunblock is all-important. These women see it as the highest pinnacle of beauty to be porcelain white. We Westerners, in turn, regard a tan as healthy-looking.
“An essential lesson for me was the East’s emphasis on the ageing effect of environmental pollution on the skin. That ties in directly with what we’re doing at QMS. QMS is a German, doctor-founded brand for the high-end professional market. We specialise in anti-ageing skincare by using information gained from conducting ongoing clinical trials as our guideline and two unique ingredients in our products.”
Cell regeneration decreases over time, he explains. The skin starts losing its firmness from 21 and the loss gets more pronounced after menopause. Hyaluronic acid can counteract this process and collagen firms up the skin.
“We distinguish ourselves from our peers by using a combination of hyaluronic acid with a high molecular weight and bovine collagen.”
Hyaluronic acid’s primary function in the human body is to trap water inside tissue cells. It decreases with age, which leads to dehydrated, wrinkled skin. Using hyaluronic acid rehydrates the skin, leading to plumper, younger looking skin.
“The higher the molecular weight, the more visible are these results.”
Collagen, on the other hand, is the most crucial protein the body produces for the skin. It helps regulate the skin’s moisture content and maintain its firmness. A collagen-rich skincare routine can minimise existing signs of ageing and prevent future damage by restoring the skin’s elasticity if the collagen is compatible with that of a human body.
“Bovine collagen has a 97% similarity to the molecular structure of ours, which means it gets absorbed exceptionally well by the skin, something our clinical trials have proved repeatedly.”
Today, QMS has a dedicated following. Hollywood actresses Jennifer Hudson and Meryl Streep are staunch QMS customers – not that this is their image, Mark says.
“La Mer was synonymous with star power and celebs; QMS is with quality. And if that attracts the A-listers, it’s to be expected. I always say QMS is for empowered women. Women who know what they want and don’t mind paying for it. And, yes, we’re expensive, but which part of our body do we present to the world most of the time? Our face. So why not invest in it?”
His happy place is a smallholding in the Netherlands. “We have a forest, an orchard, a small flock of sheep. I plant, weed and prune to my heart’s content. I love what I do. And maybe my expiry date is not so short any more.”