Great ResignationInflationSupply ChainsLeadership

Nicola Kilner quietly saved a multimillion-dollar beauty empire

September 11, 2021, 9:00 AM UTC

Nicola Kilner, the 32-year-old CEO of the quirky, science-based multimillion-dollar beauty empire Deciem, was nursing her 3-week-old daughter when she found out via a press inquiry that the founder of her company—and dear friend—was dead.

Kilner’s ties with Brandon Truaxe, her partner at Deciem since its inception, ran deep. They had become friends during her time at Alliance Boots—her first job out of Nottingham Trent University—when they had run off in 2013 to do something seemingly absurd: try to launch 10 beauty brands all at once. Truaxe and Kilner spent five years building a lab-based, affordable beauty product idea into what is now a near half-billion–dollar empire with stores across the globe, including in the U.K., Canada, Australia, South Korea, and the U.S. 

In the year leading up to Truaxe’s tragic passing, the numbers point to a success story. Deciem had landed a major investment from the Estée Lauder Companies, and it was opening its first store in the U.S. One of its brands, the Ordinary, was flying off the shelves at Sephora, and the company was struggling to fill orders. Truaxe and Kilner’s startup had, quite suddenly, turned into a booming business. 

Yet, internally, everything was spiraling. 

There were the erratic Instagram posts from the corporate account, the sudden termination of key partnerships, and the instantaneous firings and C-suite resignations. There were press reports of drug abuse and hospitalizations. Truaxe tried to fire Kilner on several occasions in 2018, Kilner tells Fortune; he only officially had the authority to do so once, and he asked her to return a few weeks afterward. Truaxe reportedly denied he struggled with mental illness.

“He quickly pushed away anyone who was close to him,” Kilner says. “He ultimately didn’t want anyone who loved him or cared for him challenging his behavior or wanting to get him help.”

It all escalated in October 2018, when Truaxe, unbeknownst to the rest of the executive team, posted from the company Instagram page that Deciem was shutting down. Investor Estée Lauder stepped in and filed a lawsuit in Ontario, which ultimately removed Truaxe as the company’s chief executive and formally severed his ties with the company. Mere months later, Truaxe fell from an apartment in Toronto. His passing absolutely shook the company, but it took a uniquely devastating toll on the woman who had been quietly assembling Deciem by Truaxe’s side, but always in his shadow: Nicola Kilner.

As part of Estée Lauder’s lawsuit in fall 2018, Kilner, the longtime champion behind Deciem’s sales growth and retail partnerships, would now be responsible for saving it.

Late nights in the lab

Kilner, originally from Sheffield in northern England, was captivated by Truaxe’s passion and vision when they first met during her time at Alliance Boots. She was only a few years out of university, having worked her way up from junior project manager while she was still in school to buying manager; he was at Indeed Labs, another Canadian beauty company he had founded. Kilner had her own entrepreneurial idea at the time: a review website called Beauty Wise (“almost like a Tripadvisor for beauty,” Kilner says). She recalls long conversations between the two of them about the industry, life, and the world.

Nicola Kilner was pregnant with her firstborn, Mila, when she became CEO of Deciem in 2018.
Courtesy of Deciem

When Truaxe approached her about his plans for Deciem, it was a no-brainer: She would help him build Deciem, and he would help her build Beauty Wise. Almost immediately, their focus solely turned to Deciem. “It just became clear that it was growing into something really special,” she says.

Deciem began as most startups do: with an idea and few resources. The company’s name stems from “decima,” which is Latin for the 10th. Truaxe wanted to launch 10 brands at once—they could share a lab, production facilities, a design team, back-end systems, and scale together. Initially, Deciem wouldn’t be allowed to touch facial skin care, as Truaxe had a noncompete from his former company, so they explored hair care and supplements and tried to garner attention.

Kilner speaks fondly of those initial years, though Deciem has always required an enormous sacrifice of her time: her honeymoon; others’ birthdays and weddings. She recalls many late nights, working behind the machines and making the products. Some of the brands they launched no longer exist.

But it was the Ordinary, the suite of 27 products—now more than 58 (including its sets)—launched in August 2016, that really put Deciem on the map. The skin care line was radically different from comparable products on the market: simple, bare-bones skin care formulas at a fraction of the price. A vitamin and mineral blemish product comes in a cloudy glass bottle. It’s named after its ingredients (“Niacinamide 10% + Zinc 1%”), and a 60-milliliter container costs less than $6.

Courtesy of Deciem

“Luxury should be about authenticity, not just because it has a high price point,” Kilner says.

In early 2017, Deciem released a foundation for the Ordinary, which triggered a 75,000-person wait list prelaunch, and Sephora added the item to its stores that year. Kim Kardashian and a host of Reddit fans began swearing by the product line. The company posted $300 million in sales that year.

When the Ordinary took off, Deciem was doing its own manufacturing, and it didn’t have the infrastructure in place to support the newfound demand. “We were out of stock everywhere,” Kilner recalls, mentioning that the company had to keep revising its forecasts. In the 18 months after launching the Ordinary, Deciem had quadrupled in size, going from about 200 to 800 employees, Kilner says. 

Throughout the company’s evolution and scale, Truaxe had been center stage: first, as the visionary; later, as more or less a villain. Kilner, though she was an instrumental cofounder of the company, was rarely under the spotlight.

“Nicola was as integral to building this as Brandon was, in a different function,” says Stephen Kaplan, the chief operating officer of Deciem. Truaxe was behind the innovation and the product development, and Kilner drove the sales, partnerships, and growth. From inception, Kilner has been a steady hand, quietly developing the company as it grew. By the beginning of 2019, she was the glue holding it all together.

The most powerful force

Most leaders can summon their run-ins with adversity in an instant: the moments that changed them, the decisions that defined them. 

After Kilner learned of Truaxe’s passing in January 2019, “just everything came crashing down,” she says. She had become CEO of Deciem in October and a mother in December. She was trying to scale Deciem to support its ever-growing orders, shortly after it had been nearly dismembered publicly. 

It wasn’t Kilner’s first stint as CEO. She had held the position briefly at the time of its founding, and a few years later served as its co-CEO. But now she was at the company’s helm without Truaxe. And she was grieving. “Brandon was truly one of my best friends in life,” she says. 

The respect was mutual—as is evident from a letter Truaxe published in a brochure for the annual Cosmetic Executive Women Achiever Awards, where Kilner was recognized in late 2017:

“Life teaches many valuable lessons and these lessons over time form what we broadly call maturity. One important such lesson is skepticism—which is really an honest recognition of the limits of how good something, someone, or life itself can be.

“Your boundless passion, intelligence, commitment, perseverance, humility, and love have taught me and us that good doesn’t really have a limit. The day you came into our lives was the day we learned to do the undoable—to unlearn skepticism because limitless good is the most powerful force in life.

“Thank you for bringing so much goodness, so much energy, so much care and so much love to everything you touch. Deciem would not exist without you. You deserve this recognition more so than words can ever be written or said about it.

“I love you. We love you. You are ours. And we are lucky, proud, and—more than anything—thankful that you are you.”

The glue

As the sole CEO of Deciem, Kilner did what she had always done with Deciem: She built. Soon after Estée Lauder had ousted Truaxe, Kilner brought back Kaplan and Dionne Lois Cullen, the chief brand officer, who had both parted ways with Deciem during what Kaplan refers to as “the dark times.” The three of them, along with Prudvi Kaka, Deciem’s chief scientific officer, have carried the beauty company into its next iteration.

Deciem has more than doubled its revenue growth each year since 2017—posting a record $460 million in revenue in the 12 months ended in January 2021. It now has more than 1,300 employees. Estée Lauder purchased a majority stake in the company earlier this year after pouring another $1 billion into the company. It currently holds a 76% stake in the company and plans to purchase the rest after three years. Deciem’s executive team will stay intact.

But apart from getting bigger, the company has also gone through a series of changes, though it still has the outspoken and bold marketing it’s known for. Kilner underlines the importance to her of loyalty and of kindness: Deciem employees stuck with the company when it was falling apart in 2018, and it “works both ways,” she says.

When the pandemic struck in 2020, Kilner committed to not lay off any of its workers. The company purchased new software for retailers to do virtual at-home consultations, and had all of its office employees working from home. Production employees who could not work remotely received pay premiums to cover any additional expenses like private transportation. Employees could choose not to work in the facilities and stay on staff at a 20% pay reduction. The company set up an independently-run fund during the pandemic where employees could privately seek financial aid. The company gave $200,000, and Kilner herself and other executives put in their bonuses.

Unsurprisingly, Kilner is acutely focused on the mental health of her employees. Shortly after Truaxe passed away, Deciem brought in therapists for group and one-on-one sessions. Since then, the company has continued to bring in counselors for traumatic or global incidents, such as the worldwide racial reckoning spawned by the murder of George Floyd in 2020. Deciem also offers access to 24/7 independent counseling and mental health days for all of its employees. 

But Kilner hopes to focus as well on Deciem’s impact outside its own walls, drawing more attention to the beauty supply chain and spotlighting animal abuse in the industry. Kilner has plans to establish Deciem as a B Corporation in 2022, which is a private certification requiring companies to meet social, environmental, and transparency standards. “We want to power more growth so we can do more good, and that’s ultimately what we’re trying to achieve in the next couple of years,” Kilner says.

Truaxe’s fingerprints can still be seen across the company, and that’s by design. While the traces of any erratic Instagram posts have been removed, his words, his personality, and his ideas are still featured prominently on the website and the social media pages—his legacy is discussed, and it is felt. 

Kilner refers to herself as “very underqualified” to be Deciem’s CEO; she talks more about the strength and skill of the company’s executive team and its employees than she does about herself. Most of all, she speaks of the influence of Brandon Truaxe. 

“When I first met Brandon—he’s someone who just captures your heart and your spirit, someone who’s just so energized and truly believes in changing the world and the ability to make things better.”

One could use exactly the same words to describe Kilner.

More must-read retail coverage from Fortune:

Nicola Kilner is among the rising entrepreneurs, influencers, creators, and executives we highlighted on Fortune’s 2021 40 Under 40 list.