Essence Corp.: How to survive – and prosper – over 35 years in business

Essence Corp.’s full leadership team. From left: Liliana Fuentes, Executive Director- Victoria’s Secret & Bath and Body Works; VP-Sales Guillaume Bona; Gabi Medeiros Humbles, Executive Director- Marketing; VP-Sales Antoine Bona; VP-Administration & Finance, Laetitia Bona Piedra, Vice President Patricia Bona, President Jean Jacques Bona.

Miami-based beauty distribution company Essence Corp. has made a lasting and indelible impression on its home town and the travel retail industry throughout the Americas over the past 35 years. From its business success to its charitable and community involvement, the family-owned company demonstrates that it is possible to be successful and a good citizen at the same time.

TMI had the opportunity to meet with the extended Essence Corp. management team to discuss how the company views its many decades in business, why they have been successful and how they view the future.

Despite the challenges from the pandemic over the past few years, the company managed not only to hold on to most of its business, but to grow its brands and market share. It recognized new opportunities and strengthened its operations – all while retaining as much of its staff as possible.

Since 2002, Essence Corp.’s third generation – VP-Sales Antoine Bona, VP-Administration & Finance Laetitia Bona Piedra and VP-Sales Guillaume Bona, along with Gabi Medeiros Humbles, Executive Director of Marketing, joined the company and have recently stepped into senior management positions. They have added depth to the managerial team which is still led by President Jean Jacques and Vice President Patricia Bona, as well as bringing in new talents and experiences.

The Essence Corp. team at the week-long internal meeting held at Jungle Island, in Miami.

A look back

Essence Corp.’s roots actually go back nearly 70 years. Guillo & Bona, a sales agency exporting luxury brands to the Caribbean and Central America, was founded in Paris in January, 1954 by Jean Jacques’ father Jacques Bona, and his partner Maurice Guillo.

The second generation, Jean-Jacques and Philippe Bona, joined the Parisian company in 1974, decided to only focus on perfumes and cosmetics and expanded its representation to South America. Eight years later, in 1982, Jean-Jacques and his wife, Patricia, opened a G&B branch in Panama, and expanded its activities to the U.S. and Canada duty free markets.

In 1988, Jean-Jacques and Patricia moved to Miami and founded today’s Essence Corp. The new company focused on distribution activity.

The company itself has been evolving from its original distribution base.

Jean-Jacques Bona notes: “In 2004, we established a sister company in Miami in partnership with Jean Francois Blanc to handle our own logistics, which was called B&L Corp. (Beauty & Logistics.) This company is still operating today.”

As its business continued to strengthen in Latin America, the Essence Corp. owners also founded Panabel S.A. in 2016, in partnership with Matthieu Castillon, to handle local market distribution in Colombia, Panama and Costa Rica. And just this year, they established a new subsidiary, Essence International, to handle the growing business on the Uruguayan borders.

Essence Corp. held a week of trainings at the end of March for Beauty Advisors on the Uruguayan border to explain the company’s new business model distribution, covering more than 200 attendees from the towns of Rivera, Rio Branco and Chui. Shown here is the group from Rivera.

Future opportunities: New South American operation

The new venture is a full subsidiary, located in Montevideo, to better handle the Uruguayan border. It is overseen by Essence Corp. under the direction of a commercial director, Ignacio Carvallido, who is well-known and respected in the industry from his years as head of supply chain for Dufry and IOSC.

Antoine Bona, Vice President of Sales for Latin America, explains the reasoning behind the new expansion: “In Uruguay, the free shops opened 35 years ago. They were originally supplied by the Uruguayan domestic market, because when the shops opened, they searched for the closest supply. Over the years multinational companies such as DFA and Top International and local chains like Sineriz and The Place made big investments in the territory. Essence Corp. and other companies based in Miami began selling to the Uruguayan Free Shops as it fell under their Travel Retail expertise.

“There are approximately 40 additional points of sale (outside of DFA and Neutral) along the Uruguayan border that carry perfume and cosmetics, which could be supplied by us,” Antoine Bona continues.

Puig and Shiseido Group recently granted us the distribution for the Uruguayan Free Shops which is when we opened a new company in order to hire people locally, to manage the point of sales, and to carry inventory in-bond in Montevideo.”

Essence Corp. also launched Paco Rabanne Fame with Brazilian border store Cellshop in January.

Brazil: new market opens

While the border shops in Uruguay have been operating for the past 35 years, duty free border shops in Brazil began operating only in late 2019.

Despite its proximity to the Brazilian market, Essence Corp.’s new Uruguayan company does not supply the duty free stores on the Brazil side of the border. They are supplied though Essence’s Miami organization through the Miami warehouse and managed by a commercial team in Brazil.

“We also have different distribution agreements for the Brazilian Border stores. We distribute Euroitalia, Interparfums, PUIG, Dolce & Gabbana, Shiseido, Hermes, Victoria’s Secret, Bath & Body Works, Rituals, and L’Occitane. We consolidate shipments in Miami and ship directly to Brazil. We have been doing that since 2020,” says Antoine Bona.

“The first [Brazilian] border stores opened in June 2019 followed by Central Free Shop in September and then New York Free Shop in November. Our first sales were in the beginning of 2020, right before COVID.”

In a very positive development, Essence Corp. was able to keep selling to the Brazilian border stores throughout the pandemic. [Ed. Note: The Brazilian border stores are able to sell to Brazilians, so the border closures did not affect them as much as the lockdowns did in other countries.]

“The Brazilian stores never closed. In fact, many new stores opened on the Brazil border during 2020 and 2021,” recalls Antoine Bona.

“This was a very unique opportunity. It is very rare that a new market opens up like this; one that meets our expertise and is within our distribution agreements. It was a great opportunity for us and not only did we supply the brands that we supply for the whole travel retail, we generally were able to sign expanded agreements with some brands that we distributed only in the Caribbean. So we added new distribution areas for Puig, Shiseido, Hermès, and Dolce & Gabbana.”

Versace Dylan Turquoise launched with Dufry Mexico City, Terminal 1, last October.

Recovery underway

Essence Corp. is seeing some nice recovery in the Americas now and is optimistic that this recovery will continue. “Perfume has just exploded. In the U.S., sales are up 20%. They are way ahead of 2019,” noted Jean Jacques Bona.

“Figures we saw last November from Latin America were already trending 2019, so there was already recovery happening in 2022 and expectations are much better this year,” commented Antoine Bona.

“People can travel, and Latin America is recovering faster than most other markets. Another plus, Miami was the busiest international airport in the U.S. last year,” he said.

Furthermore, the lack of Asian passengers did not significantly impact Essence Corp.’s business, which is primarily fragrance brands in North America and South America, as opposed to skincare brands.

“The airports that generate the most business for Essence Corp. are Miami, Orlando, Dallas, Houston, JFK, Atlanta, and Toronto – and even there we sell more to passengers from the Americas than we do to the Asian passengers,” confirmed Antoine Bona.

A beautiful, newly renovated Clarins counter was installed in Kirk Freeport, Cayman Islands this past January.

Huge market share in the Caribbean

Essence Corp. has a major market presence throughout the Caribbean.

“We have close to 50% market share in the Caribbean, between 45-50%. We work with all the independent perfumeries and with retailers that have stores across multiple islands,” says Guillaume Bona, Vice President of Sales for the Caribbean.

“The Caribbean market has recovered very well. Tourism in 2022 was close to 90% of what it was in 2019. And 2023 will be +10 or more. Tourism is back. That is good for us. It is good for the retailers. And the cruises are booming—and they bring more people. And we distribute to the cruises, so we are happy,” he added.

Guillaume Bona sees the cruise sector as an excellent opportunity for Caribbean growth because cruise ships brought some 30 million tourists to the islands pre-pandemic.

“Remember, one booking brings a passenger to several island ports, giving them several chances to buy,” he stressed. In fact, Guillaume Bona cited figures showing that current perfume sales onboard the cruise ships in the Caribbean are above 2019 levels.

He also points out that sales in the Caribbean are not restricted only to tourists.

“The share of the sales between the tourist and local customer is more or less 50-50, depending on the brand and the retailer, especially in islands like St. Croix,” he noted.

With reports showing full hotels and strong forward bookings, the company expects this market to remain strong.

Essence Corp. held a special promotional event for L’Occitane en Provence with Penha Curaçao earlier this year.

Surviving the pandemic

The Essence Corp. team instituted quite a number of new practices and updated systems to better manage the business during the pandemic.

“We’ve had some very good best practices put into place. I think that our inventory management is way better than it has ever been because we analyze on a daily basis and categorize each sku, we don’t allow ourselves to accumulate bad inventory,” commented Antoine Bona.

Speaking from a marketing viewpoint, Gabi Medeiros Humbles added: “We naturally had to transition our communication into Teams and Zoom meetings, which helped everyone work very efficiently during the pandemic. Luckily, we went back to in-person office meetings, but we’ve learned how to remain well communicated and productive in many new ways.”

Zoom and Team meetings are still in place because Essence Corp. is currently operating under a hybrid system of flex work.

“We give our staff the leeway to work from home and come into office once, twice, three times a week, depending on the division,” noted Antoine Bona. Jean Jacques Bona explains that the company was able to find a balance between being flexible but still being able to give support to the market and meet its goals.

“Many groups became paralyzed during the pandemic, and stopped investing. We continued to support the market and ended up gaining market share,” said Jean Jacques Bona.

“This was not the first crisis we were facing. Remember the year with five hurricanes in the Caribbean? And the difference between Essence and the competition, I would say, is that we don’t cut expenses. We were the first one coming back to St. Marten and St. Thomas. The hotels weren’t even open yet. We stayed with our retailers. We came back right after COVID, as soon as we could.”

Antoine Bona adds: “Also, we had much less turnover in our company, so when we resumed we had staff in place, and did not have to rebuild our buyer relationships. And because we had been communicating virtually with our customers, we continued building our long-term relationships with our retailers and the buyers, more than other companies who may have just hired new people. And now we are back in person. It is hard to break that connection.”

Essence Corp. also expanded its markets, even venturing outside of the Americas.

Essence Corp. began working with Victoria’s Secret and Bath & Body Works for the Caribbean and Travel Retail Americas in 2014; and then in 2021, BBW appointed the company as its worldwide Travel Retail distributor.

Closer to home, Essence Corp. expanded to the Brazilian borders and now in Uruguay, it is able to expand its distribution outside of the major multinationals.

“We also got some new brands,” said Jean Jacques Bona. “We have introduced the lovely high-end Parfums de Marly in the Americas (as of 2021). The brand was #3 in Haute Parfumerie fragrances in the U.S. wherever it was available in 2022.”

“In addition, our current groups have added brands as well,” said Antoine Bona. “Euroitalia purchased Atkinsons 1799 and they got the license agreement for Michael Kors, and Brunello Cucinelli coming soon. And Interparfums added Ferragamo, DKNY, Moncler, Kate Spade and they just signed Lacoste, which will begin in 2024.

“We are seeing a shift among our retailers for fragrances, and niche with higher-end prices are in demand,” he noted

Essence Corp.’s beautiful launch for Givenchy L’Interdit, at the John Bull flagship store in Nassau, The Bahamas. September 2022.

Anticipating and meeting needs

“In order to succeed, I think the key is anticipating the supplier’s needs. Obviously, delivering exceptional customer service and the relationship with the customer is key but the brands expect us to provide service just like they would expect from one of their subsidiaries, in terms of reporting, staffing, investing in software, and partnerships,” noted Antoine Bona.

“To this end, we added a digital manager last year,” said Medeiros. “Marie Claire Lochet was here for 16 years and we promoted her to digital manager because we needed her to manage all the digital material that is out there – everyone wants digital now, and all the stores, even when they were closed, were still doing social media. Everything became digital. By having someone from within she understands the company, the bands and the corporate.

“Part of her role is to track the digital as well. We have a platform that can follow and track digital. So basically she is teaching everyone hashtags and how to post. Often she has to tell them, sorry that hashtag doesn’t go with that brand. It can be complicated,” she said.

“This also helps us sort our KPIs. We can track all our brands, in a certain territory, in a certain period of time –be it one month, two months, three months, be it Mother’s Day. etc.,” added Antoine Bona.

London Supply’s flagship Duty Free Shop in Puerto Iguazú, located in Argentina on the border with Brazil, hosted the launch of the upscale Parfums de Marly, in March.

The Essence Corp. family spirit

“The key factor in our future is the team,” interjected Patricia Bona.

“The one constant over all these years is that Essence Corp. is a family company. This is our third generation and in five years, we could even have one of the grandkids sitting here. We also have another nephew in the business, in Panama, Diego Bolla, Director of Operations of the Panabel companies.”

“We are very proud that we kept most of our people during the pandemic. And then when the business came back we added people. The staff currently numbers 80 people,” noted Jean Jacques Bona.

This connectedness extends to the company’s partnerships as well. In an almost unheard of relationship, Essence Corp. has been working with some of its main companies for decades. Its partnership with Interparfums began in 1993, and has gone from strength to strength over the past 30 years. In 2003, Essence was appointed by the Clarins Group to manage its Sales and Marketing regional office, and today remains the Caribbean distributor for the group. It has been working with EuroItalia for the past 16 years.

“What has stayed the same is our family spirit,” stresses Jean Jacques Bona. “Of course things are more difficult, because now we number 80, so we will have to be more structured and more efficient, using the most modern systems to give us information to manage the business.

“But we need to combine the corporate way of doing business, with our own family spirit. That is the challenge.”

In closing, Jean Jacques issued his own challenge to the “new” generation: “In the past five years we have doubled the business. I challenge them to double it again in the next five years,” he quipped.