Ali Mithavayani, founder and CEO of Miami-based Xtreme Beauty International, the maker of OKAY Pure Naturals, has been an entrepreneur for decades. He forged his start by locally distributing products as a teenager, working as a beauty salesperson from age 13 until he moved stateside to seek an education after graduating high school.
“Back home, I was a salesperson for a company in Kuwait as a kid. I had responsibilities to take care of my family even then,” Ali says. “In our country, you always work hard and strive for the best. The goal is always to do something big, and that was my goal.”
After arriving in the U.S., he obtained his college degree and became an electrical engineer at General Electric in 1982—a career that lasted for 27 years. In 1989, Ali decided to get back into the beauty industry, and would eventually own and operate everything from salons to beauty supply stores to overseas manufacturing of hair dryers and curling irons. Ali’s wife, Mira, managed the stores, handling purchasing and payroll until the decision was made to sell the stores and focus solely on manufacturing.
“Satisfy the different categories, from head to feet; that increases your chances of being successful.”
“My father first had a couple of beauty salons in the States, and that evolved into beauty supply stores—that’s when I jumped into the family business,” says Osman Mithavayani, Ali’s son and vice president of Xtreme Beauty International. “Then, the operation became a wholesale business, as we’d buy products from other brands and resell them to stores.”
Seven years ago, an irresistible opportunity cropped up to buy a small manufacturer that consisted of two brands: Clear Fast and OKAY Pure Naturals (the latter then consisted of a single SKU). They took it. “In 2010, President Obama was encouraging people to bring businesses to the United States, so we decided to purchase a small company,” Ali says. Over the past seven years, that humble venture has soared to remarkable heights as OKAY Pure Naturals has morphed into the company’s flagship brand—think hundreds of products and multinational reach—even as the family learned some harsh lessons along the way.
ON THE RISE
With decades of experience in the industry between the family members behind OKAY Pure Naturals, manufacturing a quality product in the U.S. was always the most important priority—and the key to achieving that goal was maintaining control of the entire process. Mira pitches predominantly on the finance side, and today acts as treasurer and office mastermind for OKAY. Meanwhile, Ali focused on creating and developing the business, and Osman, now 32, has spent half his life learning every facet of the industry.
“Manufacturing for ourselves really pays off: We have control over quality and quantity. We can produce whatever we want,” Ali says. “If we used a manufacturing contractor, we’d have to abide by their rules. We did not have much experience in manufacturing products but started hiring chemists and designers to help, and we learned from the company we purchased from.”
“We struggled a lot along the way, but those experiences have given us a great edge.”
Indeed, their various strengths have contributed to a business that has grown exponentially since it was acquired. “We started out very small, but now we’re much bigger, dealing with so many major retailers (including Walmart, Target, Marshalls, T.J. Maxx, Rite Aid, Bed Bath & Beyond and Harmon Discount), plus nationwide beauty supply stores in general, and exporting to more than 35 countries,” Osman says. “We manufacture more than 500 items in-house, so we’re able to sell to all markets: professional salons and barber shops, spas, traditional OTC beauty supply stores, supermarkets, pharmacies and boutique stores. We sell products that care for the top of your head to the bottom of your feet—the only things we don’t do are makeup and nails!”
For the Mithavayanis, remaining a family business has always been a priority—even today, with 50 staff members on board. Osman stresses that their painstaking attention to process helps monitor profit margins, keeps overhead low and delivers top-quality products to customers. Even ingredient sourcing and brand image are carefully cultivated.
“It always gets easier, but we have a good team,” Ali says. “Many people have been with us for years, and we treat them right while being very family-oriented. My son is instrumental in closing deals with major retailers, we have salespeople who travel the world with us, and I’m just back from China meeting with buyers. I wear multiple hats! As a family business, we have to be involved. If a customer needs something, he or she can talk to us directly, without waiting.”
But it wasn’t always an easy road. When Ali was juggling a career at GE, even he experienced a period of failure. “We had no one there managing the business in wholesale, and my father’s partner at the time was robbing him,” Osman recounts. “The warehouse stood still for several weeks, so I stepped in and started managing—while doing everything else, like packing and shipping orders by myself. We struggled a lot along the way, but those experiences have given us a great edge.”
START TO FINISH
Despite some rocky moments—or perhaps due to them—the family now focuses fully on its fast-growing enterprise, having learned from past follies. With a two-story office that houses accounting, sales and marketing, plus an attached 54,000-square-foot manufacturing facility in Miami, the Mithavayanis keep a close eye on operations at all levels, and they’re decidedly hands-on at every step. “We manufacture in-house literally every item we sell, except for the actual plastic or cardboard packaging—everything in the product is made by us,” Osman says.
As of 2017, the company manufactures only OKAY’s brand of products, which boasts “tons of collections,” Osman explains, most labeled according to the main ingredient featured. For example, coconut (the star ingredient in a top-selling collection for OKAY Pure Naturals) infuses formulas such as shampoo, oil, conditioner, facial scrub, body butter, lip balm and foot scrub, all helping add moisture to dehydrated skin and hair. Meanwhile, the Black Jamaican Castor Oil collection promotes healthy hair growth and conditioning in products from hair gel to a hot oil treatment.
“We try to maximize those natural ingredients’ benefits to combat certain conditions, and when developing products we always try to find the next best category to add to our current offerings,” Osman says. “We want to remain close to our core without going too far off-path, so stores that already carry our line can easily add extras, from body butters to soaps.”
Most products from the brand are all natural; even those that aren’t remain a healthy choice for consumers, sans silicones, parabens and sulfates. Happily, consumers’ increasing knowledge of and demand for natural products has certainly helped fuel the company’s success. “When I was a kid, you didn’t hear ‘natural’ in beauty, and most thought that ‘natural’ meant bad results,” Osman says. “For example, some African-American consumers would use relaxers years ago, which caused breakage; 10 years later, that same customer can get great results with natural products, instead growing and maintaining healthy hair.”
And, because there are fewer natural products on the market than traditional ones, Ali and Osman believe this category presents the biggest opportunity for future development. “We started as a multicultural brand, but as we grew, we expanded into all demographics—Latin, men, teenagers, babies, international customers,” Ali says. “Everyone loves using natural products ... We want to keep growing the business and perhaps get a big investor to grow further, but right now we have zero debt. That’s a miracle in itself. Our goal is to bring the business to $500 million or even $1 billion per year, within 10 years.”
“Our goal is to bring the business to $500 million or even $1 billion per year, within 10 years.”
Unsurprisingly, the brand’s hands-on approach extends beyond its inner workings, all the way to its customer connections. OKAY Pure Naturals ensures its presence in events and trade shows, but the majority of the company’s outreach takes place on social media. In only a few years, the brand’s fans and followers have grown to more than 2.3 million on Facebook alone. OKAY also connects directly with consumers through its own website with a rewards program that allows buyers to rack up points, coupons and discounts. (Though the website may charge higher prices, fans have access to all 500 SKUs.)
The family also understands the importance of intimately working with stores to ensure retail success. Ali and Osman believe beauty stores must foster trust with customers, which can be aided by working with a manufacturer that offers help and support in selling products. “The main thing I learned in my earlier beauty businesses is that honesty—with yourself, your employees and your customers—pays off,” Ali says.
When a brand brings confidence and trust, Osman believes, customers who might have bought one or two products often purchase several. He says, “Work with companies that invest their time—we go out to a store, help set up banners or provide anything the owner needs, even something customized for the store. ... Satisfy the different categories, from head to feet; that increases your chances of being successful.”
But perhaps the company’s most personal relations form when asking users for their input. “For a recent product, we sent 50 samples to consumers for feedback; then we take that input and modify accordingly,” Osman says. “Over our years in the business, we’ve met so many stylists, store employees and owners. We personally deliver the product with only its name and usage directions, and then we’ll send someone to get feedback in person or ask a list of detailed questions on a phone call.”
Osman insists that OKAY Pure Naturals doesn’t have a specific target demographic; and with an international reach, the company finds pockets of success around the world for different formulas. For example, henna-based products thrive in India, but they’re also a hit with Indian expats who live in the States.
“That’s been the joy of our company: I’m most proud that we’re able to offer something for everybody, and we don’t depend on any single customer for our business,” Osman says. “I remember when we were smaller, there were always a few customers who would make up the bulk of our business, but now we’re spread among so many markets, we don’t have a slow season.”
There’s proof in the company’s numbers, which have steadily increased each year since inception; its worst year, Osman reports, logged 25-percent growth. “We’ve been able to bring in more retailers every year, and we have very big things happening with some major retailers in the year ahead,” he says. “We’ve grown a great reputation and respect for our brand. We started from nothing, and I believe this company will be worth well over $1 billion one day. I know we’ll be one of the big brands out there.”
Meanwhile, the Mithavayanis are seeking stronger bonds with stores, including a focus on customized marketing materials according to retailers’ needs. For example, beauty supply stores can obtain printing and installation of any necessary graphics, from signage to stands. Recently, Walmart wanted to revamp its footcare section and tapped OKAY for inspiration, leading to a new look now in development. Osman says, “We want to give unique, independent service to each store, to create something specific for them ... We have great leaders, and we have the passion that consistently drives us to the next level.”
[Photography by Marc Hickman]