Jo Malone: ‘Walking away from my business was the biggest mistake of my life’

Rachel Cocker
Jo Malone, one of Britain’s biggest self-made businesswomen, left school at 15 with no qualifications - Martin Pope

"I lost my best friend,” says Jo Malone, simply, of the day she stepped away from her eponymous fragrance brand in 2006. “I know it sounds odd, but that’s how I felt – I didn’t talk to my best friend.” 

Having relinquished full control of the company she had built from scratch to beauty behemoth Estée Lauder, Malone found herself in self-imposed exile from the cosmetics industry for five years. A ‘lock-out’ clause meant she wasn’t even allowed to say she liked a lipgloss in print, let alone participate in the world she had been part of since leaving school in Bexleyheath, aged 15, to set up as a beautician.

“I’d spent seven hours a day creating that business, building it and seeing the visions through. I’d still keep having the dreams, but there was nowhere to put them, so I became utterly…” she pauses, “I wouldn’t say depressed, but I was very anxious. I’ve always suffered from anxiety but I really suffered from it then.”

When Malone, 56, first sold her namesake brand to the Lauder family for undisclosed millions in 1999 –  staying on as founder and creative director – it wasn’t a difficult decision, “not in any way, shape or form. 

“We were growing at a rate of knots and they approached us. Well, we had had a lot of people approach us – some wanted to buy a franchise, some wanted to invest. A great friend of mine, who was in the oil business at the time, said ‘You’re sitting on a gusher and everyone can see it’,” she laughs. “And it’s easy to invest in a gusher isn’t it?” 

Jo started her business by mixing bath oils at her  little rented flat in Chelsea in 1983 Credit: Martin Pope

She and her business-partner husband Gary – who she describes as the right brain to her left – still owned 100 per cent of the brand, “but we reached a point where it was becoming very difficult to open round the world - and the world was calling.” 

They were were looking for three things: “Distribution – somebody who understood the world, and [Estee Lauder] understand it better than anyone – finance and heart. They loved the industry, I adored Leonard and Evelyn (the couple then at the helm) and I adored the people that I was working with, so it was a very, very happy relationship.”

And so it might have continued, had Malone not been diagnosed with a particularly aggressive form of breast cancer in 2003, aged 37. The family moved to New York for her to undergo a powerful form of chemotherapy, but a year later, “they found something in the other breast.” 

Something had to give. “I had a young son (Josh, now 18), I was terrified it would come back and I wanted to be there morning noon and night for him, and my husband,” she explains. When she finally went back to Jo Malone HQ, “I didn’t identify with it. I felt like it was a job, and I’d never had a ‘job’ – that was why I decided to walk away.” 

It was only as her last day drew nearer, that she realised: “I’d made the biggest mistake of my life. I lost my purpose, I lost my values, I lost my way in those five years.”

At first, it was painful to even pass the stores on the high street - her name still plastered over them: “It hurt, it hurt.” It didn’t help that chemotherapy had robbed Malone of her sense of smell. “That took about a year to come back and that’s when I think my anxiety really triggered,” she says. “I thought at one point I was having a stroke, because all my face went numb.”

It’s hard to imagine one of Britain’s biggest self-made businesswomen suffering with employment anxiety, yet she insists she found herself drafting a CV: “Of course, I’ve got no qualifications. I left school at 15, I’ve never really had a job apart from my own and I thought, ‘I feel foolish,’ so I ripped it up and threw it away.” 

Surely any brand in their right mind would have bitten her hand off? 

Malone laughs. “When I tell that story now, honestly, if I could tell you the people… someone looked at me the other day and said, ‘Have you any idea how stupid that sounds?’. At the time? No. Now? I still don’t like to presume.”

It was while working on the BBC entrepeneurial series, High Street Dreams that she had an epiphany. “I was trying to inspire other people to build and I thought, I’m one of them – these people who had such courage and aspirations and dreams, and wanted to build, with very little. I had more in common with them than I did with the big conglomerates, although I’d lived in both worlds. So I thought, ‘I’m going to try again.’ I felt that life was too long to sit there and regret; too short not to live your dreams.”

The Jo Loves shop front in London's Belgravia Credit:  Andrew Meredith

So, as soon as her five years in purdah were up, it was back to the kitchen table. “Actually, first time around, I didn’t even have a kitchen table,” Malone recalls, of the little rented flat in Chelsea where she began mixing bath oils, in 1983. “I had a little kitchen with four plastic jugs. A kitchen table was definitely a luxury we couldn’t afford.” 

If anything, even with a Conran table in the kitchen and a global success under her belt, starting again was even scarier. “I thought, I’m going to create one bottle of fragrance and then I’m going to create a global brand. Gary was saying to me, ‘there’s a lot of stages in between that’,” but then he fell desperately ill, with adrenal failure. “And that’s when I made my big mistakes. In the first two years of building Jo Loves,” which launched in 2011, “we nearly lost it all.” Malone has previously spoken of her disillusionment with the brand’s initial red packaging, which she couldn’t afford to change for four years and which she felt “humiliated” her. 

Of course, Jo Loves is now thriving, with an idiosyncratic flagship store in Belgravia, and a platform in SpaceNK and on Net-a-Porter. “She’s a little springboard of creativity,” says Malone, fondly, of her new “best friend”. 

And when she passes her old one - that still bears her name - she is proud. “Sometimes I’ll walk past the windows and go, ‘Wow! What a good job they’ve done’,” she says. “I don’t feel jealous. I don’t feel any more competitive with them than I would anybody else – it’s another brand to me and I look at her with love.” 

As for building another? “There won’t be a third time,” she laughs. “Well, never say never.”