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The Sweet Smell of Success

Gendarme was meant to fail from the very beginning, insists its current president and chief executive officer, Jonathan Risco. “I went to business school and the model that we have at Gendarme shouldn’t work. If you try to replicate the business model now it’s very hard. It’s like a scene from Forrest Gump. Despite weird circumstances, everything just fell into place,” says the 20-year veteran of the fragrance industry in his West Hollywood drawl. Without celebrity endorsers, without advertising, and with a scent that was easily overpowered by the strong colognes that were the trend during that time, Gendarme seemed doomed to fail in California’s heavily competitive market. But today, with its boutique in glamorous West Hollywood, Gendarme has become one of the best selling fragrances at Bloomingdale’s, Nordstrom, and Macy’s’ and is the number one selling fragrance in Barney’s for over 18 years now.

“We did not sell to or call any of the shops that carry Gendarme now; the distributors called us. And for business models, that is unheard of. Until this day I have presidents from other corporations calling me up and asking me, ‘How do you do it?’ They spend millions and millions of dollars in advertising yet we spend zero.”

No doubt, Gendarme has become a cult classic fragrance that boasts a clientele of “who’s who” like Tom Cruise, Debra Messing, Sharon Stone and former US President Bill Clinton. Their current expansion in Asia with their first boutique at Rustan’s Makati is testament to their growing power.

“Some people assumed that we would go to China first for our franchise in Asia, but Filipinos know how to speak English and Filipinos already have a connection with the US, so you don’t have to work so hard. Opening up a boutique in the Philippines is not smart, it’s common sense,” says Jonathan matter-of-factly.

But one cannot talk about the success of Gendarme or the success of Jonathan without mentioning the man behind the fragrance, Topper Schroeder.

Topper Schroeder, the creator of Gendarme, was neither a perfumer nor a businessman but an asthmatic, scent-sensitive executive from the music industry who could not find a fragrance that suited him. With the help of a friend who worked at Chanel’s perfumery, they customized a crisp and fresh scent that Topper loves. Topper bought the minimum order of 700 bottles of the perfume, 699 more than he needed. To make use of the remaining hundreds, Topper gave then away as gifts to friends in the music industry until Gendarme – the name he had given his fragrance, a French moniker for “policeman” – was picked up by the chic and trendy California clothing store Fred Segal. And the rest, as they say, is history.

But this in only the beginning for Jonathan Risco. Jonathan had contributed o Gendarme’s success even before he took any executive position with the company. Jonathan, a graduate of California State Polytechnic, was introduced to Gendarme when he worked part-time selling fragrances at Nordstrom as a student. Jonathan admits that he was not the type of guy who fancied cologne – “I use to be in the army, I wore only deodorant” – but after trying on Gendarme, he became an instant convert. The store where Jonathan worked as a fragrance sampler became the best selling store within weeks.

From fragrance sampler to regional distributer to president, Jonathan has since increased the brand extensions by becoming directly involved in the creation of Gendarme products like Gendarme EDP, Green and Gendarme SKY, which are three of his outstanding contributions. Jonathan is also currently working on three exclusive fragrances for Rustan’s 60th anniversary.

“I’m very hands-on with Gendarme. From packaging to marketing to sales, I have counterparts in different companies who spend a lot of them with the executives. But I’ve never heard or seen one of them sell a fragrance in their life. You should spend your time with the people who sell your stuff, which is why I always talk to the people at the counter. I love talking to them because how they react is a reflection of how they get treated at the top.

“As a boss, I’m very laid-back in the sense that I will never ask from you what I myself have never done. I personally want to work with the team and I don’t want people to fear me. I never want to be a dictator type.”

With his charisma and easy-going stance, one would not doubt that his is the type of boss one could invite over for Thanksgiving dinner.

Jonathan is proud to have worked his way up the ranks and prouder still of how his passion and dedication to the company has lifted Gendarme from being a cult classic fragrance to now industry bellwether.

Article by Kristel Dacumos for People Asia