Get the scoop on Sorbet: Meet the CFO behind the growing beauty brand

Ashley Wood's tactile relationship with the company's products gives her edge at the Sorbet Group.

“It’s not so much about being a woman as it is having a relationship with the products and services of the business,” explains Sorbet Group CFO Ashley Wood. Since 2004, Sorbet has earned a cult following with its fresh and often unexpected approach to personal wellness.  

Ashley says, “Having an intimate understanding of the brand as a consumer, as well as having access to the data and numbers, allows me to make decisions that are good for the business, but also resonate with me as a someone who is an end user.” For instance, the drybar is an offering she relates to, “A blow dry in a fun, vibrant environment which is the perfect pick-me up when you’re busy and don’t have enough time for a full on hair treatment, but still want to look great.” 

The Group’s brisk growth and expansion rollout in has been accelerating steadily for the last half decade and Ashley has been a key player in navigating the company’s journey in a time when brands can grow exponentially in months and equally, can keel over any day.

Born and bred in Johannesburg, Ashley grew up in a close-knit family, with a father who was a chartered accountant and older sister who studied accounting. With her natural knack for numbers and also bolstered by her family’s background, she pursued a career in finance in and has never looked back.

Leaving her comfort zone and discovering new abilities along the journey has been a constant thread in Ashley’s life. She points to her first major growth spurt when she left home for boarding school, “Before then, I was quite a shy child. But moving away to school helped me develop my own voice and be able to assert myself.”

She says it was a big shift to find herself in a co-ed environment, navigating life side-by-side with boys, following on a girls-only experience. One of her pivotal ‘out of the shell’ experiences was when she joined a community programme visiting elderly people. She says the cross-generational conversations forced her to engage on an adult level, but also absorb stories and exchanges that gave her perspectives that motivated her to live her best life.

And when she went to UCT to study Business Science, this growth was further compounded, bolstering her confidence.  
 
On-the-job growth
A once-in a lifetime secondment to the British Virgin Islands with Deloitte, which is one of the British Virgin Islands’ largest professional services firms, was pivotal for her. In the last year of her articles, she was charged with planning and executing the audit managing audit teams, reporting to senior management, and assisting junior team members communication with the client in a vastly different market from South Africa. Finding herself thriving on the other side of the world further cemented her self-confidence, especially since the initial feedback was that she wasn’t good at the work, but she set her mind to more agile, strategic thinking, acting as a shareholder or business owner and not an auditor, which pushed her to develop a more rounded view of the business. This initial challenge was a crucial steppingstone to pursuing ever bigger opportunities, the benefits of which she reaps at her job daily.
 
Serving up Sorbet
Innovation is at the centre of what Sorbet does and excelling as the CFO of a dynamic company like that requires passion and drive, both of which Ashley has in spades. Now in her third year at Sorbet, she leads a team in one of the most recognisable, fastest growing brands in beauty and self-care. A case study in home-grown success, the Sorbet Group has grown from just four branches in 2005 to over 200 stores in 2019.

“A market such as South Africa demands ingenuity, creativity and leaving behind preconceived notions. We have a diversity of customers which defies text-book norms and attempting to ‘cut and paste’ from other markets, simply won’t work.” Ashley explains, “To excel in this business, you need to respond to rapidly changing demographics, tastes and influences. For instance, the stores initially offered only Dermalogica products which have a high price tag, and while excellent, they were out of the reach of many consumers. Thus the Sorbet line of skincare was launched in collaboration with Clicks, catering to a wider base of beauty lovers who wanted to have excellent products at a more accessible price point. My role requires resourcefulness, an appetite for continuous learning, agility and readiness to take calculated risks.”

When she came on board, Long4Life was acquiring the Sorbet Group and she was tasked with the formidable responsibilities of looking at projections, keeping an eye on the balance sheet, the group’s profitability as well as that of franchisees.

As the brand’s footprint has expanded, and new products and services have been added to its offerings, they have had to roll with evolving consumer tastes.

The portfolio which now comprises of Sorbet Salons, Sorbet Man, Sorbet Dry Bar and Candi & Co has developed at a pace which has kept Ashley on her toes. “As we have grown, I have paid close attention to smartly introducing retail products which tick all the boxes in terms of taste, price point, quality and brand affinity such as the bath and body line of shower gels and body butters, spritzers, foam baths, creams and scrubs. As our brand has become entrenched, and we have become the market leader and enjoy visibility, there is now the threat of being copied. We strive to stay one step ahead, so that we are always fresh and distinguishable to the customer.”

As the brand has expanded to launch a makeup line and go toe-to-toe with established global brands, enter the tenuous ethnic hair market with Candi & Co, the balancing act of such endeavours has been at times nail biting, such as when signing the ground-breaking agreement with Foschini, to establish a store within a store, which was a foray into uncharted territory.

For Ashley, the non-traditional, experimental, entrepreneurial culture at Sorbet aligns very much with her own sensibilities. “While I am very analytical, I love being able to communicate with people who aren’t financial and share the story that numbers can tell. I value strong relationships and invest in building meaningful connections”.

She believes that opportunities to have a fuller life and richer experiences come through people  and that, “while technology and other tools create new prospects, strong human connections give you the insight to make better technical decisions and be a stronger business leader.”
 
Leadership and growth
Describing herself, Ashley says, “My leadership style is a collaborative one, taking responsibility and respect for those you work with. I have an open door policy and even though I have an office, I like sitting with the team and feel part of the collective. I believe in giving others the space and opportunity to grow.”

Looking ahead, she sees herself going from strength to strength, though she has learned that infusing fun and light-heartedness in her life is important. “If I was to give my younger self some advice, it would be to have more fun. Yes, achieving your goals requires some focus and hard work, but you can still get ahead while enjoying the journey.”

When she’s not at work, spending time with her family, who she’s very close to is a priority, I am an aunt to two nieces and four nephews who have me wrapped around their finger. “I also enjoy keeping active and participating in Park Runs and going to gym. My wide network of friends also keeps me connected and balanced away from work. Travel is also a bug that has definitely caught hold of me. I have travelled to 39 countries and the list is growing with many items still on my bucket list including the Serengeti and Maldives.”

Ashley’s toughest day
While there have been many triumphs in her career, these have been tempered by difficult times. Ashley’s toughest day came about as the result of making the inevitable foray into digital while she was with Flight Centre, before Sorbet. “As a forward thinking company, digital was a key part of how we connected with customers, had ongoing engagement with them.  Unfortunately, the cyber world exposed us to an online fraudulent scam where someone charged flights to a credit card fraudulently. When I became aware of this scam, I gathered all the information, immediately assessed the situation, and went to the CEO with options of how we should address it.” From then, the team put proactive controls in place to protect consumers.