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Sunday, Nov. 25, 2001

Key insight spells riches for Hollywood nail care magnate

Staff writer

All it took for a small dental supply business to become the world's largest independent manufacturer of nail products was one man's realization that some of his biggest buyers of dental acrylics weren't dentists at all they were manicurists.

It was in the early 1980s that George Schaeffer, now president and CEO of Hollywood-based OPI Products Inc., first discovered that there was a huge and highly lucrative market for nail care. Today, the company's annual sales of over $70 million (in 2000) include some 20 million bottles of nail lacquer, gracing fingers in 56 countries including Japan.

"To wear a bright color is just absolutely wonderful. If you think of color as a flower, your nails are really like the petals. It's a very beautiful way of expressing yourself," says Schaeffer, who was in Tokyo to promote OPI's two latest collections one exclusive to Japan, the other already retailing in the United States.

A Hungarian immigrant, Schaeffer went to the U.S. with his parents in 1956. There, his parents manufactured and sold garments in New York's rag trade, and though Schaeffer later took over the family business, he didn't like it. In 1981, Schaeffer moved to Los Angeles and bought a dental supply business, naming his company Odontorium Products Inc. But dental products didn't hold his interest either.

"It's what you do with yourself," he says. "If you don't like something, you need to make a decision."

According to Schaeffer, what rescued him from a life spent selling dental supplies was manicurists coming in and purchasing acrylics. He learnt that the acrylic powders and liquids used in making dentures could also be used to craft fake nails.

And that was the beginning of OPI Products Inc. Founded in 1981, the company at first sold acrylic nails, nail tips and nail adhesive; eight years later it expanded into the manufacture and marketing of nail lacquer.

"Nobody saw what I saw. There are still ways of looking at things and discovering the opportunities and that's the fun of it," says the 54-year-old Schaeffer.

In 1999, the company made a foray into the Japanese market as Yokohama-based OPI Japan Ltd. It wasn't easy setting up the Japanese company cost $500,000, but, according to Schaeffer, a positive attitude and a knowledge of the rules helped him.

"I want to be part of the Japanese marketplace," Schaeffer says.

He knows that the country has immense market potential. Compared to 27 years ago when he first came to Japan and saw a sea of black hair, fashion consciousness has changed, and more and more women now dye their hair. In the same way, Schaeffer believes that interest in nail care has grown among Japanese women in the past few years. But Japanese customers still come back to the same conservative colors pale pink or beige.

In addition to the 12-colored "Sheer Romance" series, launched in the U.S. last year, his Japan-exclusive "Yokohama 2001/2 Twilight Collection" will be released next month, the latter adding another dozen colors to the original Yokohama Twilight Collection. Both collections will be on sale at major nail salons, beauty salons and at Sephora stores.

The Sheer Romance collection is being marketed as a wedding collection, but the colors, such as a pale pinkish-beige, or a soft and natural pearly finish, can be worn to the office just as well.

The Twilight Collection, which was inspired by the colors of Yokohama's evening sky, play around with an abundance of color, glitter and texture, to create shades such as a playful blue, a fruity orange and a sparkly pink: the colors that Schaeffer believes Japanese women should use more often.

"Nails should be looked at as an accessory, a very inexpensive accessory much cheaper than a diamond ring. And you can do so much with them," Schaeffer says.

Minako Okada (not her real name), a 24-year-old editorial assistant who tried OPI nail lacquer for the first time, said: "I put on the color and felt so refreshed and excited that I wanted to dress up and head out." Although Okada owns 80 nail colors, she says that OPI's was the best. "It was absolutely the easiest to coat, and I was amazed at how quickly it dries," she says, showing off her bright pink nails, so smoothly lacquered that they look artificial.

"In every way, I stand behind quality, quality, quality," Schaeffer says with a smile. "And that's what Japanese women want. They don't want imitation. They want the best."

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