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Business Observer Friday, Jul. 29, 2016 2 years ago

Ideal leader

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The hunt to understand detailed data, combined with the constant pursuit of why, drives Deborah Ellinger. Will the formula work in her new role?
by: Mark Gordon Managing Editor

Executive Summary
Company. Ideal Image Industry. Laser hair removal, health and wellness Key. Company has new executive and seeks to expand services.

Several top performing employees at Ideal Image are former customers at the company, which built a business with nearly $200 million in annual sales starting mostly with laser hair removal procedures.

A high achieving saleswoman, for example, initially came into an Ideal Image treatment center to have facial hair removed. The woman had an elevated level of social anxiety over the problem, says Ideal Image President and CEO Deborah Ellinger. The procedure worked so well, the woman not only felt comfortable about her face and herself, but she decided to work for Ideal Image.

Named top executive of the Tampa-based company June 10, Ellinger likes to recount that story because it illustrates the why behind Ideal Image's employees — not just what they do.
A focus on why has been a rally cry for some major executive successes in Ellinger's career, which includes top leadership posts at The Princeton Review and Restoration Hardware.

“She works here now for her family, but she's also here because it changed her life,” says Ellinger, a native of Cambridge, England and a University of Cambridge grad. “Our people need to know not only what we do, but why we do it. The why you do it is much more important than the what. It's what gets people here in the morning.”

Ellinger, 57, has been both a banker and a barrister/litigator in England. Early in her career she worked in senior management at CVS Pharmacy, Staples and the Boston Consulting Group, where she worked with multiple Fortune 500 companies on strategies. Ellinger has several of her own whys for why she took the Ideal Image position.

One is the challenge of leading a business into new phases of growth. The company, with 130 centers in 31 states and Canada, had $196.9 million in revenues in 2015, up 4.7% from $188 million in 2014. It has about 1,100 employees, including 260 in Florida.

“The entire health and wellness space is expanding, and non-invasive cosmetics is a rapidly growing part of that,” she says. “It's a big opportunity.”

Another why is the opportunity to work again with Greenwich, Conn.-based L Catterton, a consumer focused private equity firm with more than $4 billion worth of companies under management. Ellinger ran The Princeton Review and Restoration Hardware for Catterton, which closed on a $925 million deal to buy Ideal Image's parent firm, Coral Gables-based Steiner Leisure, late last year.

A third why is more personal: Ellinger, after 20 years of living in Boston, and five years in Pittsburgh, sought refuge from winter.

While Ellinger comes at a time of potential growth for Ideal Image, it's also mixed with some tragedy. She replaces former president and CEO Bruce Fabel, who died March 10.

Data review
Ellinger is spending a solid portion of her first 100 days as CEO meeting with employees and managers. Her quiet, soft-spoken proper British style is a marked contrast from two previous top Ideal Image executives, Fabel and Dean Akers, who each had a resounding presence when they entered a room.

“I'm not a big charismatic leader,” Ellinger says. “I lead in a more relaxed but still passionate way.”

Scott Kirkpatrick, who worked alongside Ellinger when they were both executives at The Princeton Review, says what she lacks in rah-rah she makes up in resolve. “Deb is one of the best executives I've ever seen,” says Kirkpatrick, now president and COO of New York-based education firm General Assembly. “Deb is an extremely deep thinker. She really diagnoses things.”

At The Princeton Review, one of the leading college test prep companies nationwide, Kirkpatrick and Ellinger took the company private and oversaw a two-year turnaround. Ellinger, says Kirkpatrick, excelled at a de-averaging approach, where she probed what price points worked for what set of products and services. “She always wants to bring data to the conversation,” he says.

That's been a staple of Ellinger's career. “If you look at a business you can take it apart,” Ellinger says. “And then if you look at the numbers in the right way, you can run a much better company.”

Internet giant IAC, through its subsidiary tutor.com, bought The Princeton Review in 2014.

Before The Princeton Review there was Restoration Hardware, a high-end home furnishings retailer, and Wellness Pet Food, one of the largest all-natural pet food companies in the country.

Ellinger ran Restoration Hardware for about a year in 2009, commuting from Boston to the company's San Francisco area headquarters. Also using de-averaging and data analytics, she led Restoration Hardware into new, more lucrative markets. She also helped increase earnings by $30 million, which led the way for an IPO in 2012.

While the work at Restoration Hardware was fast and frenzied, says Ellinger, Wellness Pet Food was a slower, methodical four-year stint. Revenues tripled under her leadership, and the company introduced multiple new sales outlets and distribution points.

Stay cool
While Ideal Image isn't an all-in turnaround assignment, Ellinger does have some ambitious big-picture goals. “I like being in a business where you can change someone's life,” she says.

For some aspects of the company, she plans to follow the path Fabel set, in expanding the company's services and revenue streams outside laser hair removal. Again, from a data and de-averaging standpoint, Ellinger is on a mission to find, and push, the most profitable services. That includes CoolSculpting, an FDA-approved, patented, non-surgical cooling technology process that eliminates fat cells.

Ellinger is cautious about growing too quickly. That's partly to make sure customer service and employee training meets high standards, another project Fabel started, but also to pare down expenses. It costs roughly $1 million to open a new Ideal Image center, Ellinger says, including equipment and labor. That doesn't include marketing, another large expense. “This company has a large amount of space to grow,” she says, “but it costs a lot to grow.”

On its corporate office, Ideal Image is moving, from One Urban Center at Westshore to the Tampa Commons building at the corner of Dale Mabry Highway and Kennedy Boulevard.
The new space, about 30,000 square feet, will have a larger training facility, lower cubicles and a more open and modern floor plan. “I will be out there in a cubicle,” says Ellinger. “I don't like being shut out” of the floor.

Ellinger's biggest worry at Ideal Image, she says, is doing enough to make sure the company doesn't get shut out of the right chance to grow. “Sometimes it seems like there are so many opportunities,” Ellinger says “We have to decide what to do and what not to do and sometimes saying no to an opportunity is hard.”

Run, Deb, run
For someone who had never run more than a mile straight prior to training, Deborah Ellinger scored a major life accomplishment April 20, 2015. That was the day Ellinger, now president and CEO of Tampa-based Ideal Image, ran the Boston Marathon.

That was the first, and so far only, marathon Ellinger, then 56, has ever entered or completed. “I would have never thought I would run a marathon,” she says.

She was driven by a personal push goal, and a charity she raised money for, Bottom Line, an organization that helps low-income high school students get into and stay in college. Ellinger raised around $35,000 for Bottom Line.

A rower when she was younger, and now a kayaker and tennis player, Ellinger says the training, particularly in the winter and on Boston's windy hilly roads, was grueling. “I'm not a fit person, but I'm not unfit,” she says. “I found a good training partner to run with.”

Ellinger says she might enter a 5K here and there in Tampa. But she doesn't anticipate any more marathons. “I still run,” she says, “even though I really don't much like it.”

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