A Legend: Rick Norvell
There is a timeless adage that warns, “If you play with fire, you will get burned.” But, in some cases, playing with fire sparks a new idea. In Rick Norvell’s case, playing with fire ignited an industry.
Fascinated with matches, he sneaked a matchbook into his pocket to indulge his curiosity. But, on this day, the fun turned to flames. After piling up match upon match and then striking one, a stray string on Rick’s shirt was set ablaze. Feverishly fueled by a synthetic polyester blend, the flames increased. Still a year from attending kindergarten, and more than 20 years before the world was engrained with the stop, drop, and roll technique, Norvell panicked and dashed off for help. With every step, the flames were fed and he became more and more engulfed.
Whether Norvell’s salvation that day was divine intervention or merely coincidence depends on whom is asked. “The story seems so outrageous that I am sure some people think I am making this part up,” he says. “But, as I sprinted toward my house, a passing car stopped to help. The driver ran to meet me. He took off his coat, threw it around me, and did everything he could until the flames were extinguished. It was only then, after the immediate danger had subsided, that I realized I was saved by a Catholic priest. Myself, parents, family members, and friends all sought him out to express our appreciation, but no one was able to locate him. No one knew his name or where he came from.”
Though the fire was out, the long and painstaking road to recovery had only begun. Norvell had burned over 40 percent of his body. The shirt that had once been there to adorn him had been replaced with raw remains. He spent the next five months in the hospital enduring excruciating skin grafts and a restrictive body cast.
In the years after being released from the hospital and into the care of his beloved mother, Norvell’s journey of healing continued. The initial burns turned into tight, dry, scarred skin. The older he became and the more he grew, the more the scars became an issue. Norvell shares, “When you are burned, the skin’s oil glands go too. The essential moisture the skin needs to be pliable is not there. Talk about growing pains!”
The physical discomfort continued and was soon joined by emotional pain. With each passing summer, the ribbing from Norvell’s peers heightened. The winter months shielded him, literally and emotionally, but, when the temperatures rose and everyone began to shed their clothes for pool parties and dips in the lake, Norvell became a target for teasing. Keeping his shirt on protected him from environmental elements, as well as the looks on the other children’s faces, but still, bullying abounded.
“We all know how difficult growing up can be. I have three children and I have seen how rough kids can be on one another,” says Norvell. “But, I wouldn’t change the way I was treated. It made me the soft-hearted person I am today. It helped me to truly understand the self-esteem struggles of those with skin conditions like vitiligo, psoriasis, and albinism.”
As a teenager, Norvell began experimenting by mixing up remedies in his kitchen. Constantly curious and in what seemed like a never-ending pursuit of something to soothe his skin, he decided to take things into his own hands – as well as his mother’s pots and pans.
Their home kitchen became his laboratory and his mother’s vanity cabinet and pantry became his supply closet. From his mother’s cold creams to emollient Crisco, he blended and whipped up a multitude of mixtures. In the years to come, he tried countless concoctions. Finally, landing on a remedy that hydrated the skin while softening its appearance, Norvell used it daily and, soon, his mother, Joy, and sister, Debbie, became fans.
Being an entrepreneur seemed to be in his blood. At six years old, just a few years after that fateful day, he began a lawn mowing business. “Now, this wasn’t the days of powered or ride-on mowers,” Norvell reminds. “I used the old push reel type and everyone in the neighborhood was my customer.” From six to 14, he saved his earnings and, eventually, a new business had begun. Before he could even obtain a driver’s license, Norvell bought his first Volkswagen Beetle. His idea was to fix it up from bumper to bumper and sell it. He did this over and over again. Working on cars was the first time Norvell got a paint-spraying gun into his hand. Little did he know, it would not be the last.
As time seems to do, the years flew by. Having survived the accident and his adolescence, Norvell graduated from college with a double major in Industrial Technology and Education. Although working as a woodshop teacher tapped into his love of sharing knowledge, something was missing.
Once an Avon Representative, Joy was now channeling her enterprising spirit into designing and manufacturing women’s bras. She had been a distributor, but now it was her turn to manufacture. To house her blossoming business, Norvell, Joy, and Andy, his stepfather, headed south from Dayton, Ohio to Alexandria, Tennessee, where they bought a former Kraft Cheese factory. A few short years later, Norvell’s brother, Greg, and sister-in-law, Lynn, moved to Tennessee to make their mark on the family business.
With the bra business on track and steadily growing, Norvell and Joy looked to what was next. For many years, Norvell was continuing use of his homemade moisturizer with his mother and sister as raving fans. Each batch he made became larger and larger in order to keep up with the promises made by his family to others who wanted to try it. Realizing the true potential of this effective cream, Norvell dubbed it Bosom Lotion and began to sell it via their lingerie business.
Concurrently, the indoor tanning business had just begun to pop up all over Nashville. It seemed as though everywhere he looked, there was a marquee that welcomed sun worshippers. Norvell took these signs as a sign. Ever industrious, Norvell repackaged his Bosom Lotion and positioned it as an all over after-tanning moisturizer. It was at this very moment that the brand Body Drench was officially born.
“My first customer was a friend of the family who had just opened a tanning salon,” Norvell says. “The next customers all came the old fashioned way. Rubber to the road, feet to pavement, and knocking on doors.” Body Drench became a line that was sought-after by retailers and consumers alike. From a business perspective, salon owners enjoyed repeat sales with some customers buying more than one at a time. From an end-user standpoint, consumers loved the way their skin looked and felt with every use.
With Body Drench’s business booming and proof that tanning was not a passing fad but a formidable beauty category, Norvell looked to widen his reach. A meeting with respected tanning industry distributor, Four Seasons, ended with a handshake and started what would be a multi-decade relationship. Others soon followed suit and Body Drench took over more and more of the manufacturing space in Alexandria that was originally purchased for the bra business.
Thanks to distributors, Body Drench became widely available and could be found on the shelves of respected beauty stores and as part of the amenity offerings with renowned names such as Trump Tower, Canyon Ranch Spa, and Reebok. Consumers clamored, retailers requested, and distributors demanded more from Body Drench. This demand paved the way for Norvell to expand the brand.
Tanning beds had become a household term, making the expansion of the Body Drench tanning category the natural choice. Norvell was already primed with an arsenal of ideas and began formulating. “Body Drench brought many ‘firsts’ to the market,” says Rick. “We added new products that the consumer had never seen, but that we knew they would want. Base Tan, Tan Accelerator, and Tan Amplifier took the industry by storm and solidified that this was a brand to be reckoned with.”
Distributors, retailers, and consumers were not the only people taking notice of the success of Body Drench. There was an entirely different group who had the brand in its sights. Investment companies had been tracking the tanning trend as well and it was not difficult for them to notice Body Drench as it seemed to be everywhere that they were – spas, casinos, gyms, hotels, and more.
Although the sunless tanning product had been part of the Body Drench line since 1986, it was the one product that did not get much attention from investors. Focused more on the “now” of the indoor tanning trend than on the possibilities of a bright sunless future, the stock keeping unit was all but ignored. That bottle, however, was the beginnings of a multimillion dollar industry.
“I came across the features and benefits of DHA,” mentions Norvell. “In an instant, I saw the possibilities. As someone who struggles with skin issues, I knew that even the desire for darker skin can be complicated without the proper products.” Housed in a bottle with a pressurized expandable bladder, their first sunless tanning product was realized.
Even though his revolutionary sunless product was not getting the consideration he believed it deserved, he set his reservations aside and entered into an agreement with Styling Technologies to procure Body Drench. It was not a decision easily or quickly made and took months of courting and contemplation. Norvell was filled with what-ifs and sleepless nights. However, assurances were made to Norvell and his family, which now included his younger brother, Greg, at the helm of manufacturing. To him, his word was his bond and he went into the Styling Tech deal believing they felt the same.
The honeymoon period between Norvell and Styling Tech was short-lived. Promises made were promises broken and, with it, his heart. Thankfully his spirit was not broken. Norvell left the company, but vowed to remain in the industry he loved, and that had enthusiastically supported him. Within two years, the family’s treasured Body Drench was bankrupt.
The story does not end there for Body Drench or for Norvell and his family as all are enjoying a second chance. Body Drench, by then down and out, was brought back to life and is, to this day, experiencing success due American International Incorporated. For Norvell, the moment his non-compete agreement expired, his new life launched.
“As you can imagine, I was filled with mixed emotions after leaving Body Drench,” states Norvell. “In a way, I was grateful that investors didn’t see the potential in sunless products. It allowed me room, upon my return, to really develop the category.” And develop the category he did!
The former Kraft Cheese factory, which had housed the beauty brand, was not part of the Styling Tech transaction. Together with his family, Norvell hung a new sign on the old door that had brought them previous success: Norvell Skin Solutions.
A new era had begun for the family, which was now all working together, and for the business. His goal and, soon, the filter by which all decisions were made was, “Make a quality product, sell it at a fair price, and service the heck out of it.”
The word solution in the business name was no accident. It was purposeful and meaningful. Norvell would solve the problem of wanting an ultraviolet-free tan. He would resolve a difficulty for those with skin issues and design equipment and professional juice that allowed the industry to think outside of the booth.
Harkening back to his days as a fourteen-year-old restoring Volkswagens, as well as his Industrial Technology degree, Norvell and his brother developed a handheld spray tan machine. “Spray tanning is not like painting a fence; it is more like painting a car. There are curves and shapes that must be considered when applying,” Norvell expertly states. “That is part of what sets Norvell apart. We make a solution that is science based, providing just-off-the-beach color every time, but we also believe the application should be treated as an art.”
Using the unique approach that a great tan begins in the shower, Norvell Skin Solutions became revered for its Core 4 System of Prime, Bronze, Optimize, and Enhance products. “The idea is that you can do simple things pre- and post-tan to ensure a beautiful bronze. From pH balancing sprays that keep brassiness at bay to color-extending lotions that replace DHA as dead skin cells wash away, Norvell cares for the integrity of one’s color from beginning to end,” states Norvell.
It is this passion for a flawless tan on the healthiest skin possible that has drawn critical acclaim, an army of spray technician loyalists, back-to-back awards, and even the notice of the ever-popular Dancing with the Stars franchise. However, it was not until the launch of Norvell University that Norvell got the notice of someone who would eclipse all others.
Like something out of a romantic comedy, Norvell regales, “I was in the middle of a presentation for Norvell University, which is our on-demand and live school for all things that lead to success in the sunless industry. During my speech, I couldn’t help but notice that this beautiful blonde in the audience and I kept locking eyes.” He continues, “It got to the point where I kept losing my train of thought, so I just stopped and said, ‘Y’all please forgive me for a moment, I gotta do something.’” Then, with his southern charm, in a class filled to capacity, Norvell asked the blonde, Stacie, to have a drink with him. She accepted and, soon after, also accepted his marriage proposal.
Stacie, a successful entrepreneur in her own right, founded a sunless-only salon in Dallas, Texas called Smart Bronze. Now, surrounded by his new wife and family, which included his children from his first marriage, Cale and Ellen, and niece, Lexi, and brother-in-law, Jim, the company possessed renewed energy. Meetings with his dedicated and talented team led to industry-changing innovations, such as Venetian, which employs color theory via a proprietary blend of violet and brown bronzers to eliminate all chances of orange, and a competition bodybuilding centric collection entitled BlackOut.
Norvell’s 64th birthday approached and, along with it, an unexpected offer from top competitor, Sunless, Inc. Once a week for the past five years, Norvell and Stacie made the flight back and forth from Tennessee to Dallas where they had made another home and were raising his stepdaughter, Izzy. The timing of this proposition seemed right and, after meeting the leaders at Sunless, Inc. and their parent group, The Riverside Company, the worries of yesteryears upsetting acquisition washed away.
“Like all life lessons, you tend to learn more from the hardships and difficult times. You figure out what you don’t want – and that can be more important to realize,” says Norvell. “Having learned from my Body Drench days, I knew what to look for this time around. This time, it didn’t feel like a difficult decision, it felt like the right decision because of the written assurances about quality and direction from Sunless, Inc.” He continues, “They are the only team that I would entrust with the brand that bears my family name, along with all the amazing people that helped me build it.”
The sale of Norvell Skin Solutions to Sunless, Inc. became final on April 29, 2016. However, the Norvell spirit and passion will live on via the loyal and trusted team members that Rick refers to as extended family, including Faye Underhill. Underhill was Norvell’s first employee over 37 years ago and is with the company to this day.
Norvell will retire on New Year’s Eve of 2016. As a parting gift, and a love letter of sorts, to all who have supported him, he developed his most natural, yet innovative, sunless solution to date. It is aptly named, Legend. “I have a lot of love in my heart for my team and for the industry as a whole. I will be forever grateful for all it has afforded me personally and professionally, but now it is time to enjoy my family. My first grandson is here and I see, more than ever, just how fast time flies,” Norvell thoughtfully shares.