Women in wellness: interview with ESPA founder Susan Harmsworth

Danielle Woodward meets the ESPA founder who shares her advice on getting ahead in business, tips on coping with stress and the secret to maintaining her youthful glow


Women in wellness: interview with ESPA founder Susan Harmsworth

Susan Harmsworth is in her early 70s but you wouldn’t know it. She exudes a youthful energy that she says is down to a positive mental attitude and prioritising her health and wellbeing, while living a life that has not slowed down at all, since she started her business almost half a century ago.

Here, she talks about how she started out in the wellness industry and her inspiration and perserverance that led to the launch of the brand we all know and love today, ESPA. And I was lucky enough to experience the ESPA ‘hero treatment’ at Macdonald Hotel & Spa Craxton Wood, near Chester, which left me feeling the most pampered and relaxed I’ve felt for a long time (more details later). But first, let’s discover the ESPA founder’s secrets of success…

Tell us how you started out in the wellness industry.

I started off in journalism as feature editor for Vogue in the 1960s and I went to live in Toronto with my first husband. There was a huge community of Eastern European therapists who lived there (most of them survived the concentration camps) who were trained medically before being massage therapists, so their knowledge was extremely thorough.

I set up a salon with 20 hairdressers, colour technicians, sauna and steam-rooms too –more advanced holistic therapies than I’d seen in Britain. Then I went to France to run a Thalassotherapy centre, so I learned the medical side, then I came back to the UK to run Grayshott Hall [now Grayshott Health Spa], with doctors and nurses. I merged all of those different disciplines, and nobody had done that before.

The 1980s were when lots of women went into the workplace, air travel became more accessible and I wanted to bring therapies up to date, combining the beauty, therapy and medical aspects. It was way ahead of its time; I followed my instincts and learned from complementary therapists and put together an amazing team of yoga practitioners, osteopaths, acupuncturists – I may have my faults, but I’m good at choosing people to work with! 

I was then headhunted to work on cruise liners, but I couldn’t bear the standard of service and that’s when I thought, I’ve got all this knowledge from my past experience and I could see how negative stress was becoming a problem for women. I’d also taught stress-management, so I understood the difference between positive and negative stress. I was lucky that the managing director at the time believed in me and allowed me to have my first spa that offered five-star treatments, and that’s when I combined the head and body, which hadn’t been done before. I developed the formulas and retained ownership of them and ESPA was born in the early 1990s.

What’s your advice for someone who wants to start a business in the wellness industry?

People think they can do things quickly but you can’t – I think it takes around 10 years to build a business. You need huge energy, to be a leader and it helps if you have a passion for whatever it is you’re going to do and a conviction – you have to be single-minded, as it can be lonely.

Don’t over-borrow – so many people get in too deep then have to sell their business too soon. I’m glad I held on as sole owner for as long as I could and took outside investment when I wanted to grow the business exponentially – the business was proven and profitable by then. Get your formula and the basics right. If you have to take outside investment too soon, you’ll lose control of your business.

Much of my success is to do with timing – people ask me if I was lucky and timing is key, but also you need to be the sort of person who will seize opportunities and run with them. 

How do you deal with negativity?

I did a ‘people detox’ recently, cutting ties with those who take and take and give nothing back. If someone’s angry, it’s usually their anger, and the minute you get angry back, you’ve lost. There’s a difference between being assertive and aggressive, and if you’re aggressive, you’re not doing yourself any favours.

As businesswomen, we have to learn to work with men, there’s no point having a war. I’ve never had any glass-ceiling issues or problems with powerful men because I know what I’m doing and I keep a sense of humour about it.

How do you take time out of your busy schedule to relax and recharge?

Years ago, I saw a sleep specialist as I was going to sleep easily but waking at 2am, and I realised I was going to sleep still processing what had happened during the day. The specialist taught me to take five minutes for me to look at myself non-judgementally, and unwind my day from end to beginning so I’m letting it go. I always knew that writing lists helps you let go of things, but I hadn’t realised how much I was actually overthinking.

Breathwork and essential oils help too, as does a bath with Epsom salt, oils and seaweed. In the mornings, I practise deep abdominal breathing, remind myself to be grateful for what I have, drink hot water with a slice of lemon and do my stretching floor exercises to get the glutes fired up! 

Then I focus on skincare; I don’t cleanse again in the morning, I just use the ESPA Spafresh and wipe with cotton wool, then use oil, serum, eye cream, and moisturiser and sealer on top. Then I have a big protein breakfast – eggs, mushrooms, avocado on sourdough – and prepare my lunch with greens and protein, and try and have broth twice a week at night – it’s all about my health at this point in my life.


Danielle Woodward experiences the ESPA ‘hero treatment’ at Macdonald Craxton Wood Hotel & Spa

The Back, Face and Scalp Recharge Treatment is designed to do exactly what it claims, targeting three key areas: the back, face and scalp and includes a back exfoliation and massage, personalised facial and scalp massage.

My friendly and knowledgable therapist asked me to inhale different ESPA products to see which I was naturally drawn to. Initially, I was sceptical that choosing in this way would give me the ‘right’ products for my skin, but I ended up going for the fresher, more citrusy scented ones, rather than the floral, and those were the ones targeted for combination skin, which is exactly my skin type.

There followed a gentle back exfoliation and massage to ease the knots of tension in my shoulders and with every move of the therapist’s expert hands, I felt myself relax that little bit more. The personalised facial showed up areas that needed attention – the dark shadows under my eyes indicated tiredness and dehydration (yup!) and the heavenly scented products worked their magic to make me feel refreshed and renewed.

I imagined the thoughts moving around in my head, while I was having the scalp massage, the therapist’s fingers re-ordering them and casting out those worries that have a habit of going round and round, with the result that I was thinking of nothing at the end of the treatment – a bit like meditation when you acknowledge thoughts then let them pass.

I felt pleasantly dozy after the treatment, like I’d just woken up from a good night’s sleep, and luckily, the spa had comfortable facilities on-hand, and I spent some time in the relaxing room (pictured above) to get ‘back into my body’ again before venturing out into the world! 

A wonderful treatment, I highly recommend it for relieving stress and for feeling a renewed sense of energy that lasts a surprisingly long time afterwards. It must be those magic oils…

The Back, Face and Scalp ‘hero treatment’ at Macdonald Craxton Wood Hotel & Spa lasts 90 minutes and costs from £90. For more information and to book, click here

For more about ESPA, visit espaskincare.com and espa-consulting.com