A Nose for Branding

Elena Villarreal, the visionary behind the family-owned Grupo Ultrafemme, founded a luxury fragrance, cosmetics, and jewelry empire based on the premise that women across the globe share a love for all things beautiful.

SCENT OF A WOMAN Elena Villarreal turned a penchant for retail into a thriving beauty empire that she plans on passing down to her son and, eventually, her grandson. Her advice to other entrepreneurs? “Focus on what you love,” she says.

While trends and styles may change from one place to another, women across the globe share a love for fashion, shopping, and all things beautiful and feminine. Elena Villarreal, author of the book Perfume is Passion and owner of the Mexico-based Grupo Ultrafemme, founded a business on this premise 35 years ago. Today, the family-owned Grupo Ultrafemme has more than 800 employees and over 30 retail stores throughout Mexico’s Caribbean coast and Los Cabos, all carrying top-designer brands and labels. “Growing up in the US as a teenager, I had a part-time job working for Julius Garfinckle,” Villarreal explains. “I loved being in sales and wanted to go into buying … It was my dream to one day become a buyer and travel throughout Europe buying beautiful things. [Now, that’s what I do].”

Today, Grupo Ultrafemme boasts 36 retail stores across Mexico and is divided into two distinct retail divisions: Utrafemme, the cosmetic, skin- care, and fragrance division featuring 500 of the most prominent cosmetic and fragrance brands including MAC, Clinique, Lancome and Chanel; and Ultrajewels, a prestigious retailer carrying world-renowned jewelry brands and the official retailer of Rolex watches throughout Quintana Roo and Baja California, Mexico.

Whiff of Inspiration
But, like most entrepreneurial-fueled companies, Grupo Ultrafemme had meager beginnings. Villarreal began by opening a small perfumery in Cancún, Mexico, in 1975. Located in a growing commercial zone and duty-free area, the store was well received by tourists. Following the perfumery, Villarreal added additional perfume and cosmetic stores. As the first few stores became successful, she wanted to do more. While traveling in Canada, she saw a shopping area that inspired her. “I saw it and thought, ‘this is what I need,’” Villarreal says. “The main store was surrounded by smaller boutiques. Each store was a perfumery or jewelry store, rather than them being altogether in one store … Each had something special and they carried big brands like Cartier.”

Consejos para mi hijo

“My son, Pepe, is now general manager of Grupo Ultrafemme and president of our board … I asked him: what are the most important things he has learned from me over the years? He said that he learned perseverance and the art of being humble. When dealing with people, emotional intelligence is vital. Today you may be dealing with person X and tomorrow he may be president of Cartier.”

Elena Villarreal, Owner

Drawing on her inspiration, Villarreal went back to Mexico and created an innovative concept in retail: Located in Cancún’s hot hotel zone, Luxury Avenue Cancún debuted in 2004 as the first designer boutique mall of its kind, where shoppers revel in the selection of merchandise from designers such as BCBG, Burberry, Cartier, CH Carolina Herrera, Coach, DKNY, Fendi, and Louis Vuitton, among others. The mall also offers VIP services such as a shopping concierge, professional-image consulting, and distinct personal-shopper packages. But, Villarreal says these types of services and top brands don’t always mean outrageous prices. “You can purchase perfume for $50 or watches for $5,000,” she explains.

Convenience, personalized service, and a wide range of top-brand products at duty-free prices made the mall a hit, and after only a short time, Villarreal’s brainchild became a highly sought after shopping destination for tourists in Cancún. The mall also managed to survive Hurricane Wilma in 2005, which Villarreal jokes is due to her lucky number 13. “Luxury Avenue is on kilometer 13 in Cancún and there are 13 stores within it,” she explains. “People think 13 is a bad number, but for us, it’s lucky.”

With so much success in Cancún, the company opened a second Luxury Avenue mall in Los Cabos in 2008. And although the mall had a prime waterfront location and wowed aesthetically, Villarreal decided she needed to add some variety to the type of products being sold. “Being in Los Cabos changed my perspective on luxury,” Villarreal explains. “We are targeting American clientele and we have many beautiful things for them, but now we are bringing in Mexican art to expose Americans to Mexico and they can say, ‘Wow, I’ve never seen this, I don’t get this at home.’ To accomplish this, we are inviting Mexican artists to come display their art in galleries and trunk shows.”

A Family Heirloom
In addition to infusing her Mexican culture into her business, Villarreal instills her own family values in the company and says she plans to keep it a family business and pass it down through the generations. “My son Pepe now takes care of the business and
he’s done a great job,” Villarreal explains. “He just got married and I’m going to be a grandmother, so I’m hoping one day my grandson can be involved [in the business] too … It’s nice that the business is not going to end [with me].”

As Villarreal passes the business reins onto her son and perhaps eventually her grandson, she says the company will continue to diversify and grow, with Mexico being just the start: “We plan to break into the international market,” she says. “I’m very proud of myself and what we’ve done, and now we can take our knowledge anywhere.”