Everyone Deserves Beauty
An interview with Siia CEO Changil(Simon) Jeon
As the fall season is ripe with falling leaves, Siia CEO Changil Jeon and Manager Jason Lee visited BNB Magazine’s office. Mr. Jeon did not hide his excitement about the company’s successful showcase in the Georgia Beauty Festival. In February last year, Siia had announced its grand launch in Manhattan, New York. Then, the pandemic happened. Today, it recovered from the Covid-19 blow and moved on to expand business into new markets, which was only possible because everyone at Siia overcame the challenge together as a family under Mr. Jeon’s leadership.
From rushing into the business world as an international student to working as a sales associate, acquiring a hair company, and starting a cosmetics company, the story of Mr. Jeon, self-dubbed Don Quixote of Beauty Supply, is a long one.
Opening eyes to business while studying abroad
Mr. Jeon stepped on U.S. soil in his age of 27 to study rehabilitation medicine. His father-in-law wouldn’t allow him to leave the country without getting married to his daughter, so he came to Dallas, Texas, home of a renowned rehabilitation center, as a family of two. It was a two-year course. He wanted to get license and finish his graduate study for his dream to become a college professor. He never thought about running a business.
As a student with limited means, he started working part-time as a server and some others. His focus was heading sideways. “Once arrived, I realized how big is America. Dallas has particularly many donut shops, and I heard a couple running a donut shop earned $10,000 a month. I thought that I could do other things later in my life after hustling for a while.”
His parents in South Korea were indignant when their son asked for money to start a business. He was supposed to go to school. They scoffed at the notion that their son wants to open a bakery. He explained it’s a donut shop, not bakery, and they said every snack bar sells donuts in a local market in his hometown. They suggested he should be a simple farmer back home if he’s not going to study. Without the money, he and his wife managed a donut shop as a team for a year. Long story short, in about three years, they saved enough money to dream bigger. A beauty supply store naturally became a top contender. “Koreans own and run a significant number of donut shops in the states, but I learned the beauty supply industry is by far the biggest business among Korean immigrants.”
From sales associate to CEO
He did not just dive into business management. In 2010, Mr. Jeon started working at Frisco, the company responsible for Lord & Cliff. He had two reasons: first, he needed an immigration status; and he thought that sales associates get to see stores in person. As he acquainted himself with retail business, he changed his mind about running a beauty supply store.
“In my second year, I decided to go wholesale instead of retail. I learned that the wholesale market is gigantic. Working six years as a sales associate, I kept running simulations. How I would do it differently? How should I respond to this? I kept pondering and learned more because of that.”
He never looked back while pursuing his dream of founding a hair company before the age of 45. Around 2014, however, Mr. Jeon’s interest had shifted from hair to cosmetics. “I traveled across the U.S. and realized that hair market has its limitation.” In 2014, L’Oréal’s huge bid on NYX for business acquisition convinced him. “Right, cosmetics is the way to go. This field I’m standing now is an oil field.”
Well, life is full of surprises. In 2016, Frisco suddenly shut down, and Mr. Jeon all of sudden ended up running a hair company. “People I worked with got stuck in the middle. They asked me to take the lead of the business using the existing inventory and facilities.” Then-Assistant Manager Jeon was reluctant.
In the end, he revived the factory and saved the jobs of the entire workforce. That was how Rose De Nuit started.
Flower at night?
In January 2017, Rose De Nuit began a journey as a new company in Dallas, Texas. Although everyone came from Frisco, it was a freshly minted new company. In fact, Rose de Nuit, or RDN, is a French phrase meaning flower that blooms at night. It conveyed their hope in the middle of despair.
As for the name’s sake, in early days, entering the market was tough. From the beginning, a lot of rumors surfaced. There were baseless speculations and pointing fingers, and some storeowners even sent invoices to RDN for money owed by Frisco. “We took care of that. We supplied our products free-of-charge to the stores to whom Frisco owed money. I wanted to make sure that our sales associates carry that burden.”
It took a year to earn the trust back. When RDN’s business was on track, Mr. Jeon revisited his dream of starting a global cosmetic brand.
Difficulties in developing “Made in Korea” cosmetics
“The product development started in 2018. We partnered with Kyunghee University and sent all sorts of cosmetic samples, priced low to high. At the university’s lab, they melted them for analysis. For a year, we analyzed, made samples based on the results, performed market research on sample products, and kept going. In September 2019, we finally started mass production.”
It didn’t went all smooth. Mr. Jeon shared an incident where he got an earful from his wife. “I brought so many samples of cosmetics home. Our daughter was about four at the time, and you know girls. They like to try them on. When they developed skin troubles, my wife was mad. She asked not to bring them home. Well, Siia is a different story. Being plant-based, it’s trouble free.”
“When I came up with cosmetics, I naturally thought of China.” One day, he visited China and realized the stark difference between Made in China and Made in Korea. In China, all products are already made. In other words, you just give them design and package, and they just re-brand a preexisting product. China has an agency like FDA, but they only regulate drugs. We would never know what’s in it. On the other hand, KFDA regulates even topical cosmetics. You know, Koreans are very sensitive to these matters.”
At the time, there were an increasing number of reported side effects in the U.S. from using cosmetics made in China. A documentary raised public awareness, and more and more people paid attention. “In a long run, we thought we should use high-quality ingredients and have it made in Korea. We were going to enter the Korean market at some point anyway.”
Everyone Deserves Beauty—Siia is born
Siia stands for Success, Influence, Imagination, and Adventure. These represent the Mr. Jeon’s vision.
“We dream of the democratization of beauty. In other words, everyone has a right to be beautiful. Not focusing on a specific race, we developed high quality cosmetics with good ingredients, made for all. We wanted to bring high end cosmetics to the beauty supply industry.”
On February 19, 2019, a global brand launching show of Siia was held in Manhattan, New York, attended by many beauty professionals and journalists.
A month later, they encountered an iceberg that nobody at the event could possibly foresee.
COVID came out of nowhere
“In last March, I was in Atlanta with Manager Jason. We toured a couple of retail stores and were heading back to our hotel. We saw a long line of people at a grocery store. We turned the TV on and watched the news. The president had declared a national emergency.”
Mr. Lee also remembered the day like yesterday. “I thought it’s a hoax. We received calls from the home office asking for an immediate return. We doubted between ourselves and made our way to Jacksonville. The store in Jacksonville called. They asked us not to come. They’re closing the store.”
Lessons from the fall
Marketing strategies and meeting appointments were lined up. They all evaporated by the pandemic, and the loss was felt immensely. “I couldn’t sleep at night, so I stayed all night sitting in the empty office. What did I do wrong? I kept thinking.
One day, Mr. Jeon fell unconscious on the street. “It was due to the stress. My jaw was broken in three places. It knocked off a tooth. I had to undergo a plastic surgery and wear orthodontic braces because of that.”
The injury was actually a turning point for Mr. Jeon. “I would’ve never realized if I didn’t experience it. I never stopped and looked back, but that moment I made a pit stop. I decided to restart with what we currently have.”
During the pandemic, Siia reorganized the company structure and focused on product development, waiting for the right time. Siia’s starting display was worth $24,000, but it worked its way down to $16,000 and $5,000 displays, diversified too. This fall, they showed off Siia’s full potential at Georgia Beauty Festival.
Do you have a business philosophy?
To this question, he did not hesitate before quoting Mencius’ version of the Golden Rule. “I learned as a sales associate. If you put yourself in others’ shoes, you can see what’s wrong with yourself or your proposal. I would not force something I don’t like. That prevents mishaps.”
Nowadays, even his English-only employees understand when he mentions it in Korean language. Mr. Lee had to say something about Mr. Jeon’s implementation of the Golden Rule. “He always say, ‘be patient
and wait and see for at least three months’ (regarding training a new employee), but he’s already helping out a new employee himself. He would go and say, ‘don’t ask for money from parents, I would lend you some money instead.’ He recently signed an apartment lease for an employee with no credit history.”
We are not family!
He’s rather cold to his real family. In charge of sales and procurement and having been with Mr. Jeon since the days of RDN, Mr. Lee is his brother-in-law. CFO Kevin Choi who joined Siia before its launch is another one. They are real family. However, Mr. Jeon always says, “we are not family!”
“Everyone knows we are related, so I ask them to show up early at work to set an example. When a truck parks at the loading dock, we run ahead of everyone to open the boxes. I just appreciate them so much for following my lead.“
CEO’s patience for employee’s growth
Mr. Lee tried to judge Mr. Jeon as a boss before a family. “Mr. Jeon does not judge by outcome. New employees often make a plan to sell hundreds of wigs singlehandedly. Mr. Jeon would support them despite knowing it’s impossible. When the employees return after a failure, he would never reprimand but review the plan together to let the employees find their own answers. It actually worked quite well for many employees.”
There is a simple reason for Mr. Jeon not to be swayed by today’s sales number. “I think business is a marathon. We don’t want to be a shooting star that evaporates in seconds. We need to gradually rise up.” For Mr. Jeon, every employee is his running mate in a marathon.
Don Quixote envisions “the democratization of beauty”
Siia is preparing for a second leap. To target all ethnic groups, it created a Middle East team in addition to an America team and a Korea team in preparation of the global reach beyond the U.S. market. Under the slogan of “the democratization of beauty”, it asks its customers, “Everyone deserves beauty. What’s your beauty?” Inspired by Siia’s story, James Kaliardos who has worked with numerous luxury brands as a makeup artist became a brand ambassador of Siia.
Now, we cannot help but wonder why Don Quixote? “Beauty Master’s Chairman Park gave me this nickname, and I personally love it. I think the beauty market has become a part of Korean history. People like me work hard and compete to improve quality and offer a better price; then, companies will make a better, healthier product. Now, retailers are happy, and so on. In this manner, we can continue to lead the beauty market, around which many Koreans built their livelihood. With that thought, I want to continue my business journey like Don Quixote.”
As I conclude the interview with Mr. Jeon and Mr. Lee, a thought came across my mind: Don’t we need at least one Don Quixote in the beauty supply industry?