How it not only survived, but thrived, in over three decades of operation is no trade secret: No matter what, VMV Hypoallergenics stuck to its guns.
The 37-year-old brand has a history of unconventional business moves—and CEO Laura Verallo de Bertotto had a front row seat.
She remembers all too well how hypo-allergenicity earned its hard-won place in the modern-day skin care vernacular, because nobody knew what it meant back then. It did not sound marketable; it sounded like “it was for sick people.”
Still, her mother, VMV’s founding dermatologist Dr. Vermen Verallo-Rowell, rolled out what then seemed like oddball products on cosmetics counters—hard to market, but easy on her patients’ complexion. The gutsy risks to champion hypo-allergenicity not only propelled VMV into that rarified circle of industry first-movers, they also warded off would-be copycats
“We’re a funky company. We make decisions that are very bizarre and make products that sound absolutely insane,” Bertotto said.
Its days of pushing the envelope still lie ahead of this brand gone global, especially with Bertotto at the helm. The Brown University alumna was wrapping up her doctorate, en route to life in the academe, when her career took a detour into the family business. After her father took ill, Bertotto was asked to return to the Philippines to lend a hand with VMV; and later, in assuming the mantle of CEO, wherein she brought a sense of flexibility, experimentation, and sheer nerve to the brand.
She admitted, “Every single day, my confidence is shaken by something,” though least of all by her lack of business experience. What others might see as a shortcoming, she turned into an asset: “The best thing was that I didn’t rein the company in,” she said. “I was never like, ‘It doesn’t make good business sense!’ If it’s ‘us’ and our customers need it, then why not? Let’s give it a go.”
She has held strong to this forward-thinking approach from the get-go, recalled Anna Anastacio, VMV’s chief business development officer. “She’s fond of looking at situations in both extremes—the worst and best scenarios—and plan around them.”
She still remembers how the changes Bertotto enforced “shook the organization to its core” at first, but these also built within the company an intuitive filter to find and draw in the right talent. “She would rather have people around her who know how to think and stress-test ideas—people who also sharpen people,” said Anastacio.
Finding their identity
Bertotto took the reins in 2004—a precarious time for the company. While its stance on formulations was crystal clear, its identity was muddled: VMV Hypoallergenics was in deep flux, then unable to commit being either a premium or a mass-market brand. It offered a pharmaceutical-grade skin line, but did not want to come off prohibitively exclusive.
As CEO, Bertotto demanded decisiveness when the company needed it most. “I had the backbone to go up to my parents and say, ‘Okay, crunch time. We have to think and make these decisions.’”
After much soul-searching, VMV finally decided to put product formulation first. Prioritizing volume would have meant trading off the quality of their ingredients or the rigorousness of their studies—the kind of compromises the firm was not willing to make. “That wasn’t who we were. It wasn’t in our DNA,” she said.
VMV Hypoallergenics has returned to its roots in more ways than one: Taking stock of her in-depth familiarity with the brand, Bertotto has steered the company back to its stable of core values—which are now applied to everything from hiring staff to product formulation. “Your product, your mission, all that can change, but your core values don’t,” she said.
Maricris is the former managing editor of Entrepreneur Philippines magazine.
This article was originally published in the June 2014 issue of Entrepreneur Philippines magazine. Minor edits have been done by the Entrepreneur.com.ph editors.