Maintaining beauty on a budget
Astute businesswoman Kate Browne has made looking good affordable again, writes Lucinda O'Sullivan
If Kate Browne of BeU Beauty Clinic in the Dublin suburb of Kimmage was a small food producer, she would be described as a food hero. She is a small individual trader working her guts out to keep a business she loves, and the staff she employs -- with no help, encouragement or tolerance, from bureaucratic government offices or the banks. Behind the soft pink exterior of the beauty world has been a very harsh awakening to the brutal reality of what happens in Ireland when your business encounters a bit of difficulty. It is not pretty.
Kate didn't lick her courage and business sense off a stone, for her mother was Margaret Browne, a former Housewife of the Year and Eurotoque chef, who for many years ran her Ballymakeigh Country House in East Cork before launching the Green Barn Lifestyle Store Garden Centre and Restaurant at Killeagh, near Youghal. Margaret was also a familiar voice on RTE's Radio One's Mooney Show as his "Domestic Goddess". Sadly, she died last St Patrick's Day, from ovarian cancer.
It was a really happy childhood for Kate, her twin sister Theresa, and their brother Michael, on the big dairy farm at Ballymakeigh. With the constant activity of guests coming and going, they would all help out, so they grew up within a small business and knew the importance, early on, of keeping standards up and meeting and greeting people. From the age of 12, Kate was very into horses, and called her first pony 'Bunty', after the girls' comic of the same name. Theresa had a pony called 'Miss Saigon'. "I started competing seriously when I was about 14. We also went to England with the Irish Pony Eventing Team and up to Dublin to well-known trainer Grainne Sugars."
Kate then went to Monatrea Equestrian Centre in Kinsalebeg, Co Cork.
"I then got 'Benjy' and we were off eventing every Sunday, and I started winning quite a few competitions -- dressage, cross country."
When Kate finished her Leaving Certificate she went to Kildalton Agricultural College in Co Kilkenny and got her Green Cert by doing an equine course, following which she then went on to England to Ingestre Stables in Stafford, a prestigious training centre.
"We worked and trained long days, and did our stages there to qualify as riding instructors," says Kate.
After three years she came back to Ireland, where her dad set up an equestrian centre at Killeagh -- but, having had a lot of falls in England, Kate decided to change career. She had always been fascinated by the beauty business.
"I always loved the smell of the wax pots and creams in beauty salons," she says -- but the beauty business was not yet for her. She did a degree in psychology and psychoanalysis, and went into human resources and recruitment.
"I was still drawn by the beauty business and I woke up one day in 2006 and said, 'That's it, I am going to open a beauty salon.' One day I spotted the building in Kimmage. It was derelict and nobody wanted it, but I knew that was the place!"
Get it right Kate did, for she created the fabulous, sleek BeU which was soon awarded five stars by the UK-based Good Salon Guide.
Business and life was good. The Celtic Tiger was in full flight. "Customers were in three or four times a week waxing and tanning, skin rejuvenation, the lot, no expense was spared."
However, in the last 18 months, Kate began to see not only "a significant drop in business, but also the despair of people. This was very upsetting, as I had to listen to the saddening stories of people losing their jobs, and a lot of my younger customers having to move abroad".
Kate says: "Every day became a struggle both financially and mentally, because Mum -- who also looked after the BeU accounts and paperwork -- was in the latter stages of ovarian cancer."
Kate travelled with her to America for treatment, and also had to spend time at home in Cork caring for her, so was missing from BeU, and the paperwork went on the back burner.
"To add to the drop in business due to the recession and my enforced absence, I suddenly had to contend with a huge carbon footprint of letters from the Revenue Commissioners every single day demanding money that simply was not there as I tried to keep my great staff in their jobs and my suppliers happy, so every day became harder."
To add to the Revenue demands, high rent and huge rates for the city council had to be paid.
"My landlord renegotiated my rent downwards, but when I queried the rateable valuation I was told there would be a charge of €140 to come out and assess this, which they said would most probably result in an increase!
"The sleepless nights were kicking in, money getting tighter and tighter, so I decided to call the Revenue and see what we could do to come to an agreement to pay in stages. Silence at the other end is what I received, except for, 'Oh' and 'Actually Miss Browne you owe more than that'. I ended up having to swallow my pride and borrow money to pay off some of the mounting VAT bill. It became a case of VAT or the wages.
"Unfortunately, like many a small business, and in the circumstances of my mother's terminal illness, the VAT fell behind and mounted up, but no allowances were made for this -- so along comes the City Sheriff'.
"It is a horrific experience, particularly for someone who always pays his or her bills and is not used to this sort of thing. When I rang the Revenue for help, I was told it was no longer their problem."
To save money to pay the outstanding VAT, Kate let her rented apartment go and moved in temporarily with an aunt in Dublin.
"I didn't sit alone in the Sheriff's Office, for beside me were a lot of stressed-looking people, mostly young people, also doing their best to keep their businesses open, and all very embarrassed and uneasy at being there."
It is a shocking situation that businesses owing very small amounts are threatened with closure -- and employees put on the dole. It all sounds so Dickensian.
"Of course we have to pay our taxes," Kate says, "but our Government is inhumane. I do not understand how they expect us to pay what we were paying in the boom. I know somebody has to clean up the mess caused by the developers and the banks.
"I for one am not going to let them send me, or my employees, to the dole queue. Our lovely politicians should spend a week in business -- then would they still be smiling from the lampposts?"
Kate is adamant she is not going to "let the Revenue or the Government stop us from looking beautiful". She has opened up a new beauty club called Beauty By The Bit, which allows you to pay what you can, when you can, and build up a balance, so, when it comes to all those special occasions -- weddings, communions, birthdays, anniversaries -- you will not be faced with a big bill. On top of that, the first 20 people to open a Beauty By The Bit account with €20 will receive a free manicure.
Beauty becomes really affordable again, with the innovative Kate Browne.
BeU Beauty Clinic, 173 Lower Kimmage Road, Dublin. 6W. Tel: (01) 4925181