Setting up your own company can be daunting at the best of times, but doing so in the middle of a recession takes a lot of self-belief, Hazel Pool tells Fiona Salvage

Setting up your own company can be daunting at the best of times, but doing so in the middle of a recession takes a lot of self-belief, Hazel Pool tells Fiona Salvage

Tracking down Hazel Pool Associates is a bit like trying to find the 1980s TV heroes, the A-Team. You know it exists but, with its no-advertising policy (the company attracts new customers purely by word of mouth), making contact is very tricky for anyone not in the ’business’. According to Hazel Pool, founder/owner of the eponymous company, the no-advertising policy is not a problem for her independent cosmetic science R&D and consulting business, because the cosmetic science industry is a very close-knit and friendly community with members knowing nearly everyone else. Getting work through on personal recommendations alone certainly hasn’t hindered Pool’s 12-year old business: the company’s turnover grew at a rate of about 20 per cent pa for the first eight years, before it reached the critical mass that Pool had been aiming for. 

’My kind of niche’ 
Knowing that she wanted to be a lab chemist from the age of 13 has defined Pool’s life. Inspired in her early teens by ’the most marvellous chemistry teacher, Mrs Binns’, Pool grew up with the idea that she would become a pharmacist because, she recalls, ’I thought that chemistry in a lab was pharmacy’. She later discovered that there was more to chemistry than she had first thought. By the age of 18, Pool had made the decision not to go to university but to get a job and study part-time for an HNC in chemistry and supplementary studies - a decision that she has never regretted. ’I was grateful that I knew from such an early age that I wanted to be a lab chemist.’ 

Pool’s first job was at Reckitt & Colman (R&C), which she joined in 1972 as a laboratory assistant, making her way up to senior development chemist in 1985. ’Right from the start I was involved in shampoos and on the haircare side specifically, which I felt was my kind of niche.’ It was during her time at R& C that Pool had a hand in helping secure four patents and in running a clinical trial for a novel cosmetic product that she had formulated and which she describes as ’of borderline pharmaceutical nature’. 

When, in 1990, R&C decided to close its Derby labs and relocate them to Hull, Pool faced the major decision - go to Hull, or stay in Derby? ’I didn’t want to move to Hull because I was really settled in Derby. At that stage, two suppliers said to me "why don’t you set up on your own?". I thought about it, and I was quite apprehensive at first, but then I realised that if I didn’t do it then, I never actually would. That’s when Hazel Pool Associates (HPA) started.’ 

The timing was not perfect: the UK was in mid-recession and starting a business at that time was never going to be easy, but Pool remembers that the problems that gave her the most headaches were locating suitable premises that could accommodate a laboratory and finding professional indemnity insurance. ’I didn’t want to just work at home at a desk, I wanted to have my own lab’, Pool recalls. She finally found suitable premises and insurance just in time: Pool picked up the keys to her new premises the Monday after finishing at R&C on the Friday. ’When I first got the key I opened the door and just looked at this empty room and thought: "Wow! This is it! Sink or swim, it’s all up to me now". I had a month to set it up and then I officially started business.’ 

Going it alone 
Sticking by her resolve to be a truly independent researcher and consultant is an important issue for Pool. Her strong belief that there was a niche in the market for what she wanted to do has always been paramount, but turning down paid work has sometimes been hard. ’It was very difficult at first because companies would approach me and say "will you be our consultant?" and it was really hard to say "no". I needed business, but I didn’t want to be tied to a company because then I wouldn’t be truly independent and that was the area that I wanted to focus on’, she explains. As Pool became more established, it became easier to explain her independent role. Getting work has not been difficult for Pool though, because in the cosmetic industry people ask around when they need recommendations for someone to outsource work to, she says. ’It’s very much a word of mouth thing’, she adds. ’I don’t know whether industries like paints etc are the same, but certainly in cosmetics it is.’ Pool estimates that she has carried out testing for about 20 UK cosmetic firms (around one-third of the UK market) - not bad for someone who has never advertised. 

Working with some of the major industry players hasn’t caused any problems for Pool in terms of conflict of interest, because confidentiality has always been a fundamental part of her work. ’I remember a couple of years into the business someone asking me who I worked for and I explained the situation. But he kept on and on asking me. I said: "I’m sorry but there’s no way that I’m going to tell you, so let’s just end this conversation here". And at the end of it all he said, "well that’s okay, you’ve passed the test. I knew that if you told me who your clients were, you would similarly say that we were a client". What a way to go about it! I was really annoyed.’ 

Pool finds that one of the most satisfying parts of her work is when she sees a product on the supermarket shelf that she has played a part in producing. This might have involved her doing what she loves most - being at her lab bench, developing formulations for new haircare products. The other side of Pool’s business is in the area of supporting product claims, especially with the recent changes in product labelling regulations under the EU cosmetics directive. To do this kind of work, Pool uses instrumental methods such as tensile testing for hair-strengthening claims and a static field mill for measuring static generation on hair tresses. Claim support work can also involve more subjective procedures, for example half-head salon testing. For Pool, this is an important part of the testing process: ’It is the consumer ultimately who will use the products and if the consumer doesn’t like it or can’t tell a difference she’s not going to buy the product again’. 

Chemistry is an important part of Pool’s life and she has taken this into her free time as an active member of both the RSC and the Society of Cosmetic Scientists (SCS). As a member of the SCS, and with time served on its council and as president in 1997-98, Pool is well-known in the industry. ’The SCS has about 1000 members, so it’s nothing like the size of the RSC’, she observes. Through numerous lectures and symposia, where ’everyone talks to everyone’ regardless of whether they are from rival companies or suppliers, the industry is quite close-knit - ’I think that is why the industry is so friendly’, Pool surmises. But ’when I say I’m a cosmetic scientist’ for people on the outside looking in ’there can be a tendency for them to think that it sounds a little bit "lightweight". There is a lot of chemistry involved and it’s still important’. 

RSC views 
Pool has been involved in her local RSC committee since 1992. ’I got involved on the local committee soon after I started HPA’, explains Pool. The former head of chemistry at Derby College of Technology (now University of Derby), the late Hugo Harries, was responsible for her recruitment onto the RSC East Midlands Section committee: ’I remember Hugo rang me and said "what about getting involved in the local section committee?" I think at the time they were looking to get more people on the committee and they particularly wanted people in industry and women to get involved. I was on [the committee] for two years and then I was chairman! I had my own ideas of what I thought of the local section and I thought that it didn’t offer enough organised activities for people in industry. I suggested that they try to broaden its activities with visits for general interest in the evening. The committee said: "That’s a great idea - you organise it!", which is how I got involved’. 

Pool’s organised industry visits have become a highlight of the East Midlands local section diary for the past eight years, with visits including Castle Cement, British Gypsum, the Loughborough Bell Foundry and Warburton’s bakery. She insists that each visit has a link to chemistry and has managed to organise about four trips a year, but she has now decided that it is time to relinquish her committee position. ’I am coming off the committee at the next AGM in March. I think it’s important that you get new blood, new ideas’, she explains. 

This also fits in with her decision to cut down her workload to a four-day week, thereby increasing her leisure time. 

When Pool’s husband Terry joined HPA as full-time business manager last summer, after taking early retirement from Rolls-Royce, they made the decision to restrict themselves to a four-day working week and to stop the business infringing on their evenings and weekends. Pool now does all the laboratory work herself (she had employed someone else in the lab prior to Terry taking over the business side of things full-time) and relishes being able to get back to the bench. ’It’s just wonderful. I love what I’m doing and I enjoy it, but there comes a point when you realise that it’s important to enjoy your leisure time as well. I have to say that it really concentrates the mind for the other four days! You’ve got a lot to pack in.’ 

Pool stresses that there was never a point where she had second thoughts about running the business. ’The longer you go on, the more and more committed you are, I think. Other people I’ve talked to have said the same thing; that once you’ve worked for yourself, you can’t really envisage going back to work for someone else’. Terry has been very supportive of her venture since it was first set up: ’If it hadn’t been for Terry’s support at the start - I know a lot of people say this - I wouldn’t have set up HPA. I think it would be very difficult if you didn’t have total commitment from your partner’. 

Woman’s touch 
The chemical industry is notoriously male-dominated, but Pool believes that being a woman in the cosmetic science industry has helped her in her work, rather than held her back. ’I tend to think that within cosmetics, especially on the haircare development side, female scientists understand what the consumer wants from a product better than male scientists. It’s probably because women use more products’, she explains. ’I’m not saying that there aren’t some excellent male scientists in the world of cosmetic science. There are. But I do feel that women have more of a feel for these sorts of things’, she adds. 

During the 30 years she has been in the cosmetic science industry, Pool has seen a rise in the number of women involved in chemistry. Recalling her time at Derby College of Technology, ’I was the only woman on the course. But now, in the industry as a whole, there are just as many women, if not more, than men around’. 

Just like the A-Team, Pool finds her work very rewarding. And, as her husband Terry says, ’when it goes right, you can claim all the credit’! 

Source: Chemistry in Britain