Online Extra: Dr. Irena Eris: Poland's Estée Lauder

Her eponymous beauty business is a capitalist pioneer in the country. After May 1, Eris expects life to get a whole lot easier

Polish cosmetics and skin-care brand Dr. Irena Eris hardly has beauty written all over it. Its clinical-sounding name and no-fuss pastel and white jars evoke its communist-era origins, while its product lines, Pharmaceris, Forte, and Privi, lack the cachet of such global beauty giants as Christian Dior and Estée Lauder.

Yet this $21 million-a-year company, which employs 300 people, is holding its own against international competitors such as L'Oréal, Procter & Gamble (PG ), and Johnson & Johnson (JNJ ). The brand's creams and lotions lead the Polish skin-care market with a 17% share. It's gaining ground in 18 export markets, including the U.S., where sales rose 50% last year, to $300,000.

GOING ALL OUT.

  Haven't heard of it? Not surprising. Unless you're Polish or frequent one of the exclusive salons that sell the products outside of Poland, Eris remains a brand for those in the know. But with Poland set to join the EU in a matter of days, its founder, Dr. Irena Eris, is going all out to ensure her eponymous brain-child will seduce a bigger, more mainstream clientele.

"We're already in advanced talks with a European department-store chain for shelf space," beams the stylish 50-year-old, a former pharmacist who started the company in 1983 with her businessman husband, Henryk Orfinger.

Recent legislative changes should help. In January, the Polish government slashed corporate taxes from 27% to 19%, and on May 1, excise duties on makeup and perfumes will drop from 20% to 10% (skin-care products have none). For Eris, this should translate into higher sales at home of its makeup line, Privi.

HUMBLE ORIGINS.

  Entry into the EU will be the topper. No more will Orfinger and Eris have to juggle retail orders because of uncertain delivery dates for raw materials. "At the moment, I never know how long a shipment to us will take, even from France, Germany or Italy. Sometimes it's a day, sometimes one week, sometimes two," she sighs. With no more border requirements after May 1, Eris will also be able to ensure more reliable delivery times to her EU export partners.

The brand was born in communist Poland with just one skin cream. Eris and a single employee worked out of a 500-square-foot laboratory. Obtaining ingredients from foreign suppliers was a struggle. It took hours of arguing to persuade wholesalers to ship small amounts of raw materials to Poland. Given the reams of paperwork involved, the suppliers felt it wasn't worth their time, Eris says.

Within six years, the company had a workforce of 30. But Eris says it couldn't have grown much larger if the Berlin Wall hadn't fallen in 1989. "The end [of communism] came just at the right time for us," she says. "Before, I was persona non grata in Poland -- a capitalist who took money and work from other people. After '89, I was suddenly a great businesswoman who found jobs for other people and paid her taxes."

"LET'S HAVE LUNCH."

  And by all accounts that role is set to continue. In a country where unemployment languishes at a crippling 20.5%, the company plans to open another five or six franchised Dr. Irena Eris beauty salons this year alone. By yearend, Eris hopes to have upped the number from 13 to 21 worldwide. Just last week, she traveled to Bogotá, Columbia, to crack open the champagne at her initial South American institute, where she bought the first pot of cream there for good luck.

Not that she appears to need it. Eris products are sold at about 1,000 beauty salons in the U.S., where they're attracting fans such as marketing executive Leslie Petrovski of Denver. "It combines the best of nature with the best of skin care -- perfect for Colorado's dry climate," says the 43-year-old, whose aesthetician recommended the brand. Petrovksi loves Eris Fortessimo Lifting and Moisturizing Day Cream, which sells for $40 for a 1.7-ounce jar -- a reasonable price compared to the $100 or more that folks fork over for such upscale competitors as Crème de la Mer.

Eris and Orfinger say they've been courted by some large European beauty and skin-care companies. "They call me and say, 'Let's have lunch,'" she chuckles. "And I reply, 'The day I decide to sell, I'll call you back -- for the moment, we would just be wasting our time.'"

Eris wants to make sure herself that her baby, which turns 21 in September, matures into adulthood under her steady, loving hand.

By Rachel Tiplady in Paris

Patricia O'Connell

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