Stories of Growth

Miles Dunkley, SLG Brands: “Pulled by duty and destiny”

As part of our Stories of Growth series, we interview the founder of a high-growth beauty brand and incubator business.

11 May 2023

In March 2015, BGF invested £10m into SLG Brands, to support the company’s growth plans, and to help with succession planning for its family shareholders. As part of the deal, BGF introduced SLG to its non-executive chair, former Simple Health & Beauty CEO Geoff Percy.

We later provided £10m in follow-on funding, to accelerate SLG’s growth in the US. With BGF’s investment and guidance, the business has successfully developed numerous brands in-house, acquired several others, significantly increased its distribution, and rapidly expanded overseas.

Miles Dunkley joined his family’s manufacturing business in 1996, as employee number four. Now, they have a high-growth beauty brand and incubator business, with a team of 130. Find out how Miles created SLG Brands below or watch his video interview.

The credit for where SLG came from goes unreservedly to my parents. They were the spark that ignited the story. It started in 1985, when my mother and father stumbled upon a makeup sponge product made from latex, which was a breakthrough of sorts at the time. They started a small manufacturing business in our home, making these sponges from what essentially was bedding foam, with cutting machines in the garage, and then packaging them off in our spare bedroom for the likes of Boots and M&S.

As teenagers, my sister and I watched the business grow, quite literally from within our home. We would spend weekends helping to pack sponges. Even now, when we’re together, we talk about the business. It’s woven into the fabric of our family.

“The credit for SLG goes unreservedly to my parents”

I didn’t go to university or even take A-levels. I went straight from school to work, moving from one job to another, until I eventually found myself in the branding and design industry. I spent 10 or so years in that sector, ultimately in the London design agency scene. I developed a knowledge, passion and understanding of the power of design, working for clients such as Unilever and Diageo. During those years, the business my parents started in 1985 had grown steadily, but now it was beginning to plateau.

In late 1995, my father called me and asked if I would join the company. The business was at a size, and my dad at an age, where succession planning was becoming a key consideration. I was pulled by a combination of duty and destiny to leave my exciting career in the bright lights of London to join what was then a small manufacturer on a rather grey trading estate in Gloucester, making cosmetic applicators. It was quite the culture shock for me but also the unlikely happenchance that set in motion our journey to becoming the design-led beauty brand innovator that we are today.

An upwards spiral

I joined the family business, Synlatex as it was called then, in 1996. At the time, it was turning over around £750k a year, with 30 or so staff, most of whom worked on the factory floor.

I took a fairly significant pay cut to join the business. I recall that my overriding feeling was that the company needed to grow quite quickly if I was to return to the income levels I had enjoyed in London. At a basic financial level, it was a clear and pragmatic motivation for me. So, I asked myself, how do we move this thing out of niche contract manufacturing and onto a far more scalable and profitable pathway? What’s the quickest route?

Design was the answer. We started to innovate and design our products, not just make them. I hired a brilliant freelance designer I knew to help me create exciting new shapes, forms, and packaging for our commodity applicator product. This approach had an immediate impact, generating more customer demand, higher margins, and an upward trajectory for the business.

The expansionist thinking then became: why don’t we augment our manufacturing capability with imported products?

I travelled to Taiwan, Hong Kong, South Korea, Philippines, Thailand, all over East Asia in fact, seeking new supply partners. We quickly became a sourcing company as well as a manufacturer for all manner of beauty hardware—makeup brushes, manicure implements, false lashes and nails, and so on—always with eye-catching design at the forefront of our approach.

I was hungry to grow and impatient to make my own mark. Businesses of scale have gravity—they attract bigger clients, larger contracts, and better staff. An upwards spiral is created. It’s a powerful thing. So, in 1999, somewhat naively in hindsight, we bought a competitor company that was bigger than us (Lambournes Ltd) and more than doubled in size overnight.

“I was hungry to grow and impatient to make my own mark”

I had been at the business for three years and Lambournes was an obstacle to our growth. While we were winning the battle for market share, we wanted to take them out of the equation altogether. It was a risk, but it worked. We acquired Lambournes, and that’s when we became SLG (Synlatex Lambournes Group). With the competition gone and critical mass attained, we were off and flying.

SLG Brands studio

From garage-made sponges to TikTok marketeers

In the 20 years since then, there’s been an escalation of our design-led approach, which very much defines and differentiates SLG today. We have become increasingly skilled at creating beauty collections for our retailers, as well as our own brands. As a result, the manufacturing division of SLG has become more of a legacy thing for us—less relevant to our future ambitions.

In 2018, we made the decision to sell our manufacturing business, to concentrate on developing our own-brand portfolio and creative incubator business. We also work with and licence well-known brands across the fashion and influencer space, brands that want to move into beauty, like Superdry, Laura Ashley, Radley and FatFace.

We have fashioned a remarkable design studio and lab in Cheltenham, where our incredible team does everything from brand concept creation through to formulation innovation and global brand marketing for TikTok. Today, SLG is an IP-generative, passionately creative business, where we subcontract manufacturing, warehousing and shipping.

We’re proud to still have a small pocket of manufacturing in Cheltenham, where we make our iconic Velvotan self-tan mitt. It’s a high-growth, high-volume product for us, and one that my father invented. It’s backed by a global patent and sits as a separate company, wholly owned by SLG Brands. We’ve sold more than 70 million mitts since the product came to market in 2001. It’s a reminder of our origins and how the family business first started.

SLG Brands lab

Bringing on a minority partner

Back in 2013, we had an inbound acquisition interest from a large PLC. At that time, I wasn’t looking to sell any equity in SLG, but it did get me thinking. We were experiencing tremendous growth, and I was keen to professionalise the business further and make the most of the global opportunity. My corporate finance advisor introduced me to BGF, as a potential investor that could come in to SLG on a minority basis.

The business wasn’t for sale, so we didn’t enter a sale process. Our choice of BGF was quite surgical in that respect. And since then, BGF has given us tremendous support across a whole range of areas.

While we were already a well-organised unit, BGF helped to take us to the next level with board and management structure and to perfect our longer-term strategy.

“BGF helped take us to the next level. Their professional network is huge.”

They introduced us to our non-executive chair, Geoff Percy, who still holds that post today. BGF investor Ned Dorbin initially joined the board as well, shadowed by Alex Garfitt, who became our non-executive board director four years ago. Both Ned and Alex have really enriched the board level discussions.

BGF’s professional network is huge. They supported us in areas including high-level financial management, HR, IT and M&A—all the aspects of the business that needed thinking about. And they continue to provide this support and vision.

Looking back, it was absolutely the right decision to partner with BGF. They didn’t try to rewrite the SLG script. They fuelled our belief in the company’s mission and helped us plan for our bold future ahead.

Belief not naivety

We’ve faced a lot of challenges during our growth. It’s difficult to always keep pace with the flightpath, and to find the right people as the team expands. Relentless attention is needed. The pandemic was also a real test of SLG’s strength and momentum; we made a number of tactical pivots during that time and saw our store distribution numbers almost double in 2021.

There have also been personal sacrifices along the way; if one wants to create a tremendously successful business, this is inevitable. You have to put the hard yards in and remain focused, as considerable mental bandwidth is taken up with business. I won’t be alone with this fact, but numerous occasions have been destroyed by that work email that lands at precisely the wrong moment. It comes with the territory. But I don’t regret any of it.

“You have to put the hard yards in”

When I first joined the company, there were just four of us in the office. Now, we have 130 people at SLG. I like to think that we go about our business with kindness and good humour, as well as determination and discipline.

We’re set up now for an incredible next chapter in our growth story. We have a portfolio of amazing brands, with the vision that they will lead the charge for SLG in the years ahead. We want to be known as the most creative beauty brand incubator business in the world, and I don’t feel we’re far off that.

I’m as ambitious now as I was when we started. In the early years, a lot of what I did was fuelled by ambition and intuition, but also some measure of naivety. I feel all entrepreneurs need that last ingredient especially. But what I also have now is a couple decades worth of battle-hardened experience. As a design-led business concept, SLG has proven so many important principles that now, the ambition I feel is fuelled by belief not naivety.

SLG Brands team photo

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