It is obvious from the moment she walks through the door that Bettina Mercado is not your typical entrepreneur. The petite woman -that looks taller thanks to her platform shoes- is all smiles as she greets me with the warmth of an old friend, even though this is the first time we meet and talk.
The president of the largest selling brand of nail polishes on the island and the first cosmetics line designed in Puerto Rico is punctual and relaxed as she shows me the headquarters of Bettina Cosmestics in Dorado, a bright and airy open workspace that embodies the company’s ethos. Her eyes sparkle and the pitch of her voice changes when she talks about the humble beginnings of the family business. Far from the old school model of the stony-faced boss, Bettina doesn’t mind showing emotion, being human.
But don’t be fooled by her unorthodox approach, she is an uncanny businesswoman with an innate instinct for business and a management style that seeks consensus, participation and partnerships even from competitors. And it’s working.
Bettina Cosmetics accounts for 49.1 percent of the nail polish market on the island, where it competes with big international names like Revlon, Maybelline, Essie, and OPI. Last year, nail polish sales in Puerto Rico generated close to $49 million, according to the data analytics company Nielsen. This year sales are up and inching to $52 million. Data gathered by the German firm Statista reveals that in the United States, nail polish sales in 2018 generated approximately $569 million.
What is the Recipe for Success?
At the helm of the company since 2001, the former actress infused a new zeal into the beloved brand of nail polishes when her parents Julia and Víctor Mercado asked her to take over the business. As part of her vision, she also broadened the company’s scope by venturing into the realm of makeup (from foundation and eyeshadow palettes to brow fillers and brushes) and, in the near future, will launch a skincare line.
“The sky is the limit,” Bettina told THE WEEKLY JOURNAL.
It’s not just dreaming. Bettina, 50, is a tireless worker and an intuitive businesswoman. After Hurricane Maria ravaged the company’s headquarters forcing the business to shut down temporarily, she joined community initiatives working in the restoration process and listened to women talk about how the disaster had forced them to change their beauty routines. In addition, the losses reported in the coffee industry also moved and encouraged her to take action.
Her community involvement led to the fall 2018 line baptized “Coffeeology” based on the different shades of coffee with milk. As part of the effort, Bettina Cosmetics partnered with the School of Coffee and Baristas to offer scholarships and help develop the next generation of baristas and coffee growers on the island.
“Maria changed the way we did marketing. We create collections addressing needs... We do socially conscious marketing because we want to work with issues that mean something to the country,” the mother of José Remi explained.
For example, Bettina launched the collection “Choose Your Power” to celebrate women but to also create awareness about violence against women. According to the United Nations, 35 percent of women worldwide have experienced physical and sexual violence at some point in their lives. To help women in need, on the bottom of each bottle of the line, the company included the phone number for the Women’s Advocate Office hotline (787-722-2977).
“Sometimes I think of the story and later in the color I feel represents the place or the story or it could be the other way around. With ‘Coffeeology’, I got milk and coffee and started mixing both ingredients looking for all the tones,” Bettina indicated of her creative process.
It doesn’t end with a concept or a deeper connection with customers. Three qualities account for Bettina Cosmetics’ success: price, quality and durability. “It is what we call masstige, which refers to products that are premium but attainable.”
Bettina is five feet, one inch tall. But her presence and energy make her look taller, much taller. She talks passionately about her 150 color collection, her makeup line and her parents’ story.
Like many Puerto Ricans, the couple emigrated to New York in the 50s looking for opportunities. Six years later they were back in Mayagüez empty handed. With the help of her mother’s old employer, in 1963 Julia and Víctor started distributing an Italian brand of nail polishes. The best-seller turned out to be a cream color named Bettina.
“When I was born, they named me Bettina because it had special meaning to them. Later, in 1983 they registered the name as a brand and started an artisan operation. The first line had 19 nail polishes,” narrated the businesswoman.
Bettina never dreamed of being the face of her parents’ company. She studied drama at New York University and had relocated to the Big Apple when her parents approached her to take over.
Since she became the president of the company the operation has evolved and expanded to other markets. The once island-exclusive brand can be found in Florida, where a wave of Puerto Ricans have relocated in the aftermath of Maria, and online. But Bettina, who is married to entertainer José Vega, is also in conversations to sell her products in the Dominican Republic and Panama.
Last year, she also hired a chemist to create her own lab. At present, the nail polishes are manufactured in Puerto Rico but some of the cosmetics are produced in Florida, others are assembled here.
Not everything is perfect in the world of beauty. Bettina has encountered sexism. “I have come across some men that think that I am too young for this position... Others don’t believe that I am the boss,” Bettina exclaimed.
“There was a time when women dressed more masculine, with suits, to prove their competence and blend in the business world. Nowadays women are happy with their femininity. They wear makeup, do their nails and tell men ‘deal with it’. Women are no longer getting the coffee, they are making the decisions.”
After two decades in the industry, the businesswoman has noticed changes. Consumers are embracing brands that are environmentally conscious, more natural, cruelty-free and don’t have harmful ingredients or carcinogens. Bettina does not test its products on animals and has eliminated unsafe additives.
Her next project is to promote entrepreneurship by using her distribution platform to help others sell their products.
“I think that local brands have to come together and not view each other as competition in order to create a solid manufacturing industry. We have to help each other,” Bettina concluded.