Michelle Feeney: The pale queen of St Tropez

An evangelical Michelle Feeney tells Alison Shepherd how tanning boosts self-esteem, and how profits help the poor

One of the first things you notice about Michelle Feeney, the chief executive of St Tropez, the world's leading self-tan company, is her alabaster-like complexion.

But that doesn't mean she has fallen in with the popular papers' representation of her range as cheap and nasty, used only by orange WAGs and wannabes: "I do use it," she says. "It's a myth that you have to look overly tanned with self-tan; one of the myths that I've tried to bust in my three years in the job. It's about skin perfection and about enhancing your own skin. Giving it a glow."

And, keen to convince that these are not just the words of the consummate beauty PR, Feeney tells the story of how she decided – on second asking – to take over the running of the leading company in an industry worth £100m to the UK.

"I had never had a self-tan before, as I had been living in the States and missed the decade when St Tropez grew. But I came out of Debenhams having had a spray tan thinking, 'Oh my God this is phenomenal'. It makes you feel much better about yourself and people react differently to you. It was then I decided, 'I've got to take this message out there'."

And now, three years on, spurred on no doubt by Feeney's evangelical drive, and the largely successful buffing-up of its image, profits at St Tropez are believed to have risen from £2.6m to £4.7m in 2009, with like-for-like sales rising 24 per cent to £60m in the recession-ridden year to April.

Evangelism clearly runs deep in Feeney, now 47; her professional and personal lives seem rooted in the drive to share all the benefits of life. It's a drive that has taken her from the suburbs of Solihull, which can still be heard in her faint Brummie burr, to the very centre of the massive US beauty market as a senior manager with Estée Lauder, via Newcastle polytechnic and London's bedsit land.

But despite her glowing marketing credentials, she does not cite creating the cult branding around the £500-a-tub Crème de la Mer wrinkle cream in 1994 as her career high. Nor her time as head of marketing for the now discontinued Prescriptives brand. But she does mention the time she was able to hand over $75,000 from the MAC Aids Fund to the UN to help fight the disease in Africa.

"I was thinking of leaving Estée Lauder, when it bought [the make-up brand] MAC," she recalls. "It had something that was close to my heart – the Aids Fund, set up by the founders Frank and Frank [Toskan and Angelo], partners in business and life. They had very bravely started the fund, with a 6ft4in black transvestite, RuPaul, as their frontman.

"They had to be persuaded to go big on the fund, but I got stuck in. After discovering that Aids/HIV rates were increasing among young black American women, I signed up Mary J Blige and Lil' Kim and learnt how to use the power of commerce to do real, true good."

MAC had launched the Viva Glam Lipstick, with all proceeds to Aids charities. "That lipstick was literally saving lives, [and] businesses began to give in much bigger numbers than we could." Viva Glam, which has just signed up popstar Lady Gaga, has so far raised more than $100m for Aids causes across the world. "That is my professional high," says Feeney.

This need to become involved in her community is why she and her family have just returned from Kenya, where they are using their own money to help fund a village school, and why St Tropez is now involved with the Prince's Trust. "I was challenged by the board about giving money to a charity but the benefit is everyone feels inspired and part of something. The Trust link has really worked for us – as trust is all about self-esteem, for those people who society forgets."

Feeney is chair of the Trust's health and beauty leadership group, which is bringing out a charity lipstick called Trust, made by Karen Alder, singer Pixie Lott's make-up artist, who was given her first make-up set by the Trust.

While riding the crest of the MAC wave, launching in 40 countries and raising sales from $65m to $1bn in seven years, Feeney met her husband, Mark Neale, the managing director of Mountain Warehouse, which has 120 stores in the UK, and decided she wanted to move back to London. After the birth of her daughter in 2005, she stepped down from MAC and "took a back seat" doing consultancy work from home. "I wanted to take time to be with my children [she also has a teenage son]. But when St Tropez came calling, I was ready for the next challenge."

The St Tropez spray was invented in LA but the product made its name under the stewardship of entrepreneurs Judy Naake and Norman Oley, who distributed it in the UK to salons and spas, where it came to the attention of celebrities such as Victoria Beckham. In 2006, LDC, the private-equity arm of Lloyds Banking Group, paid £70m for the firm and gave Feeney the top job.

"I wanted to learn more about the business of business. Because a lot of women get to the point where they shy away from that and this thing called 'private equity'. It's talked about as if it's some mystical thing, but it's so not. It was the next phase for me. Time to layer on the hardcore stuff, the bottom line, the PNL [Profit aNd Loss]."

And learn she obviously has, as St Tropez now has 40 per cent of the self-tan market, which itself grew 10 per cent last year, and now there's the impending sale. Talks with suitors, whom Feeney would only narrow down to two, took place over the summer and a deal is expected soon. Analysts predict the sale price to be around £50m.

Feeney says a sale is necessary, as St Tropez needs capital to develop the technologies that will keep it ahead of its peers. "We need to invest in beauty technology if we're to go into skincare and other things. You always have to be moving on the technology. That's the life blood of any brand."

Feeney's plans for St Tropez's future are centred around growth in north America, where the brand has grown by 48 per cent in the past year, based on slots on the TV channel QVC, a website, and social media. "Self-tan is in its infancy in the States, so we have been able to lead the process there.

"What's brilliant about new social media [is] it spreads much more quickly. What would take me seven years to do with MAC would take seven months now. You have to be bloody good, or people will tell you so directly."

There are also markets to break in to in Europe, particularly in the east, and again new capital will help the brand expand in those countries where salons, with their staffing costs and overheads, are the way to consumers' hearts.

Whoever ends up owning the company, Feeney is convinced it will flourish. "St Tropez is strong and good and that's my legacy. But I've got lots of other ideas for other brands as well."

She certainly has no plans to sit back and take it easy. "The next few years should be the most exciting of my life. I love being back in London. I have a real affinity with the industry, small brands as well as retailers like Boots.

"And I love the mentoring aspect of this role and feel very strongly for the non-profit side. The confidence of having had success with St Tropez means that whatever I do in the future I think I'll succeed."

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