Marlene Thompson had never listed owning a business on her bucket list, but recessions destroy and create opportunities in unexpected ways. Thompson went from personal leave, to being jobless, to consulting, to starting her own company—Pravada Private Label—thanks to the 2008 recession. Fifteen years later, she has 47 employees and a new building that the company has already almost outgrown in south Lee County’s Alico Business Park.
Pravada makes moisturizers, cleansers, toners, shampoos and conditioners for private label companies. Thompson started Pravada in Toronto, after working as a marketing executive for American Express, Citibank, Bell Canada and the Royal Bank of Canada.
“I never thought I would be an entrepreneur,” she says. But Thompson found herself doing consulting work for the Ontario Center of Excellence, an investment arm of the Ontario government, after losing her job to the recession.
She began writing a business plan for a nail salon that wanted to franchise its business. The nail spa was making its scrubs and lotions in its kitchen, which wasn’t cost effective. Thompson couldn’t find a manufacturer in Canada, and when she went looking in the U.S., she couldn’t find a manufacturer willing to spend time helping startups or small and mid-size customers.
“I had an inkling of an idea that maybe there was a market there, and started doing some research on it and spent a few years building the business plan, and—lo and behold—started Pravada,” she says.
She had three criteria for starting a company: It had to have recurring revenue, be as recession-proof as any business can be and be fun.
Thompson is having fun filling products for about 1,000 active clients, mostly small to mid-range companies. But Pravada does have some larger clients: One had an order of 50,000 units of vitamin C serums and another for 2,000 bottles of shampoo and 2,000 of conditioner. Thompson doesn’t reveal the names of her clients because of confidentiality agreements, she said.
Pravada offers 250 formulas from which companies can choose. Some of the manufacturing is done at the Alico Road site, some is contracted out. It also works with clients who want to add fragrances or develop their own formulas. Her customers range from spas and online retailers to those who sell through Amazon, Walmart, Instagram and other social media sites. They generally find Pravada through the internet, she said. Sales reps explain the process.
“Private label skin care isn’t something you can really go out and cold call,” Thompson says. “If someone is not interested in it, it’s hard to convince them to start a line of skincare.”
Pravada allows companies to start small—filling orders as small as 12 units. “Given my background in marketing, I firmly believe everyone should have the opportunity to test-market their products,” Thompson says.
And Pravada does more than fill formulas; it’s a full-service provider that works closely with its clients to figure out what they want and to put together a line of products, down to helping create labels via its graphics design department. “We want them to be successful,” Thompson says. “If they’re successful, we get a lot of repeat business, and that’s how we get the much larger runs.”
Stephen Aikman’s company is a perfect example. Aikman started a skin care company near Toronto about a decade ago, and knew he couldn’t compete with large companies, such as L’Oreal, he said.
“What Marlene was able to do was to help us grow at the pace that we could without over-extending ourselves,” he says. “We didn’t have to go and buy 30,000 units. We were able to start smaller and build our brand, build our reputation. Because of what she’s done for us, we went from this small, little business to the number one skincare company on Amazon Canada.”
Bigger companies have gobbled up Aikman’s business twice in the past four years, he said.
Taking care of customers similar to Aikman is working. Thompson wouldn’t reveal the company’s revenue, but she said 2023 has been a good year—Pravada has added 10 employees so far.
The company moved to Naples in 2015 because much of its growth was coming from the U.S., and there were sometimes delays exporting products because the FDA regulates cosmetics, Thompson said. Shipping across the border was expensive for clients, making it the number one competitive disadvantage. Pravada could have picked anywhere, she said, as her husband had just sold his company and was semi-retired. She selected Naples because of the lifestyle.
“We knew we wanted somewhere warm,” she says. “We had been to Naples on vacation and love it. It was a ‘Why not?’ decision.” The company closed its remaining office in Canada in 2022 after the pandemic. It quickly outgrew its Naples facility and couldn’t expand it, so she picked Alico Road for relocation because it’s closer to Cape Coral and Lehigh Acres where many of its employees live.
Private equity firms are snapping up some private label companies, but Pravada won’t be one of them, Thompson said. The executive who worked in the corporate world of Fortune 500 companies for 30 years and never thought about owning a company of her own is happy with her decision: “I really love running my own business.”