The new Deciem store in Manhattan has only been open for six weeks, but the company’s CEO, Nicola Kilner, is already at home there. It’s just beginning to feel like spring in New York when Kilner—who is 30, British, preternaturally cheerful, and approachable—pops into the pristine, wood-floored space wearing an ankle-grazing blue floral sundress under a leather moto jacket. When the store’s employees notice her presence, they beam with delight that feels sincere—not just a performance of excitement because the boss is watching. “Hey, guys!” Kilner squeals.
“The last time I saw you, you were pregnant!” shrieks one female employee, miming a giant belly. Kilner giggles. Her three-month-old daughter, Mila, has accompanied her on this business trip, but this afternoon, the baby is back at the hotel with her caretaker for the day. “Mila’s with my husband, Sean, at the moment,” Kilner says. “She’s been good, but I think he’s finding it a bit tiring.”
Kilner turns to me. “Do you want to be color-matched and try out one of the foundations?” she asks before calling over Anthony, the store’s resident foundation expert. Six years into her tenure, Kilner still has a deep enthusiasm for Deciem’s products.
The environment is eerily jubilant, given the turbulence the company has experienced for the last 18 months. In January, after a year of erratic behavior, Deciem founder Brandon Truaxe was found dead after reportedly falling from the top of a downtown Toronto condo building—it’s still unclear if he jumped or fell. Yet entering a Deciem store these days (its front-and-center slogan, “the abnormal beauty company,” has proved prescient), you’d hardly know anything was amiss. This is largely a result of Kilner’s steely determination and relentlessly upbeat sensibility, as well as a tireless work ethic that has her doing 18-hour days and flying across the world multiple times a week. Since she met Truaxe at age 24, Kilner has been working, largely behind the scenes, to execute his bold vision of what skin care can be. Now, in the wake of his passing, she is transitioning from the role of cleaner-upper and operational backbone to leader of a company that could be on track to become a billion-dollar-per-year business. And the brand-new mother who just lost her business partner and best friend doesn’t seem fazed by the magnitude of the task she has before her. But perhaps that’s because she’s been in charge all along.
Truaxe had always been unusual, but that was part of what drew Kilner to him. Kilner met Truaxe in 2012, when she was a buyer for the British beauty and pharmacy chain Boots. She was instantly energized by his overwhelming positivity and excitement about the skin-care industry. Joining him at his nascent beauty start-up would be risky, but as someone who grew up reading entrepreneurial biographies and watching Dragons’Den (the UK’s answer to Shark Tank), she also found the prospect thrilling. Truaxe, an Iranian-born former computer scientist, liked to move quickly, speak loudly, and sign his emails with copious emoji and gestures of a affection. And his vision of beauty was invigorating: He wanted to strip skin care of its pretense and outrageous prices, to respect women’s intelligence by referring directly to the products’ ingredients, and to sell items at near-wholesale prices. Coupled with a clean and approachable design, this strategy worked. By 2018, Deciem, which is based in Toronto, was projected to bring in$300 million in sales that year. The company owns nine brands, including NIOD and Hylamide (with a tenth, Hippooh, set to launch this year), but its crown jewel is The Ordinary, a collection of elixirs that make consumers feel like chemists.
But along with the rocket ship of success came a worrisome cloud. In late 2017 and early 2018, Truaxe’s behavior grew increasingly odd. He stripped some employees of their titles and decided to take over the brand’s Instagram account himself, posting videos from far- flung locales and bickering with customers in comments. He also became increasingly stubborn and resistant to pushback. When Kilner called him out over his harsh treatment of a business partner, Tijion Esho, MD, Truaxe did something inconceivable: He uncer-emoniously fired her. At the time, some of Deciem’s employees and partners were willing to chalk up this dysfunctional behavior to Brandon just being Brandon. After all, his unusual leadership qualities had brought Deciem this far—maybe this was just another aspect of his genius.
Despite the tortured circumstances of her departure, Kilner was powerless against Truaxe’s magnetism. When he begged her to rejoin him at Deciem last summer, she agreed. But upon returning, she quickly learned that the situation was dire—Truaxe’s behavior seemed to be a sign of deteriorating mental health. He spent most of 2018 traveling internationally; when he would check in with his employees, the exchanges were alarming. “He was very angry. Very angry at the world, angry at everything. Nothing was planned,” Kilner says. “He would just make sporadic decisions, post on Instagram, and be quite mean to people around him.” In October, Truaxe posted an Instagram video (geotagged with “The White House”) announcing he’d be shutting down Deciem “until further notice.”
There is perhaps nobody who has cleaned up more messes than Kilner, who was thrust into the role of mother, protector, and crisis control manager.
Three days later, an Ontario judge ruled that Truaxe be removed from the company and that Kilner be installed as interim CEO. “Urgent relief is necessary in order to save this business,” the judge said. “We wanted to protect Deciem for Brandon, because it’s his baby,” Kilner says. “We thought, ‘We’ve tried being kind, we’ve tried holding his hand; maybe now let’s see if we take it away from him. Maybe if he sees that he can lose Deciem, it might be the trigger he needs to go get treatment.’ ”
The plan ultimately failed. Kilner was breastfeeding Mila when she received word, in late January, that Truaxe had been found dead. “One of my very last phone calls with him was extremely difficult,” she remembers.“It was the ending nobody wanted.”
The image of the ingenious, typically male start-up founder is one that has deeply permeated our ideas of entrepreneurship, and the pervasive notion of “disruption” is the underpinning of the celebrated Silicon Valley mind-set. Extreme quirks and erratic behavior have become an accepted part of building a groundbreaking business. (Just look at Elon Musk.) And yet behind every zealous, public-facing genius is usually a rigorous, hard-working team of employees keeping the operational trains running and, in many cases, cleaning up the messes of those in charge. There is perhaps nobody who has cleaned up more messes than Kilner, a woman who, despite her own entrepreneurial yearnings, was thrust into the role of mother, protector, and crisis control manager for a company being driven toward a wall.
“I can remember when some of the social media things started last February, and Nicola would still consult with Brandon on absolutely everything,” says Dakota Isaacs, director of Deciem USA. “She would make sure that he was in the loop. I don’t know that there was another person who could have done that.”
On paper, Kilner and Truaxe’s relationship was bewildering. Kilner’s father died when she was 20, leaving her with a fierce desire to provide for her widowed mother, Shirley Kilner, who has worked in a Deciem factory in the UK since 2015. When I ask Shirley if Truaxe stepped in as a father figure, she corrects me, explaining that he was “more like a second husband” to Nicola. (There was no romantic component to their relationship. Publicly, Truaxe insisted he was straight, though it was reported in Canada’s National Post that he’d been in a long-term relationship with Deciem’s factory manager, Riyadh Swedaan.)
“The way that I saw it is that they were yin and yang,” Isaacs says. (She was also fired last March; Kilner convinced her to return late last year.) “It has really been the two of them from the ground up. I remember hearing stories of them hand-filling samples.” Truaxe shared a birthday with Kilner’s husband, Sean Reddington, and Kilner would often spend the day with Truaxe instead of Reddington. They also used a private language in emails and texts; early on, Truaxe jokingly called Kilner the “snail” to his“jaguar.” He’d sneak the snail emoji in anywhere he could. When Truaxe died, Kilner left herself little time to grieve, but Isaacs argues that she’d likely spent most of 2018 saying good-bye to a friend who was no longer recognizable. “I guess I almost equate it to a breakup, where the person has changed long before the end,” she says.
Where Truaxe ran the company with zeal and disorder, Kilner has provided a steadiness and organizational prowess that has brought great comfort to Deciem’s employees and board of directors. (The beauty behemoth Estée Lauder has held a 28percent stake in Deciem as of October 2018.) Ulta Beauty had long been in conversation about distributing Deciem products, but those negotiations were put on hold in early 2018, during the worst of Deciem’s turbulence. When Kilner returned to the company as CEO, she quickly set about getting those conversations “back on track,” according to Monica Arnaudo, Ulta Beauty’s senior vice president of merchandising. “Nicola is a bright light,” she says. And yet Arnaudo is also quick to point out that Deciem is, first and foremost, carrying a flag for Truaxe: “Brandon was an absolutely brilliant individual, and he’s left this legacy of brands. And Nicola has kept that alive.”
Ask any of Deciem’s employees about Kilner, and they’ll respond in a kind ofsuperlative language that sounds too good to be true. “She’s a superwoman,”says Mira Singh, Deciem’s head of retail and consumer engagement. “We traveled to the UK in November. Nicola was six or seven months pregnant. We had a full day of work in London, and it was around 6 p.m. We were all yawning, and she was like, ‘What’s next?’ Her focus and energy are really, really uncanny.” I’ve spoken with Kilner several times—once just after she was red, and again two months after the tragic death of her business partner. Despite the circumstances, she demonstrated an unflagging sense of optimism. She took no leave from her grueling career after giving birth, and at just three months, her infant daughter has been on dozens of flights, some of them transatlantic. Her husband, equally sanguine, has shouldered much of the child care, joining Kilner on her constant business trips. “I have only seen her tear up on one occasion that I can think of, and it was only because of the pain she felt for someone else,” Isaacs says. “Sometimes I’m like, Is she real?”
As dark as it sounds, there is the acute sense that Truaxe’s absence makes everyone’s jobs easier. Kilner can conduct high-level meetings with major U.S. distribution channels like Ulta Beauty or Sephora without fearing that Truaxe will detonate a grenade. And as much as Truaxe was a liability for Deciem’s board members, his public demise has only bolstered the business. “The sad thing is, both in October and in January, there was an uptick in sales,” Kilner says. Isaacs, for her part, confesses that when she was fired by Truaxe last March, she felt some relief. “It had just been so emotionally exhausting,” she says.
“Now I think it’s so exciting for a lot of the people to be joining us,” Kilner admits. She says she’s been interviewing candidates for human resources and development roles. Candidates will ask what infrastructure is already in place at Deciem. “I’m like,‘Nothing.’ One of my biggest things now is, How do we support our people?”
“It’s funny, it’s the way people thought Brandon should be,” Isaacs says. “He was always the creative genius, but maybe Nicola is the emotional genius.”
Top look: Coat, Jacquemus. Top, St. John. Pants, Tom Ford. Sandals, Manolo Blahnik. Story syled by Schanel Bakkouche.
This article originally appeared in the July 2019 issue of ELLE.