Services for entreprises Rue St-Jean, Vieux-Québec - Crédit: Chantal Gagnon

Key sectors

Health and Nutrition

Visionary entrepreneurs = successful businesses

Charles Boulanger
President and CEO
Unipex Group
Daring and excellence at a
cutting-edge cosmetics and
pharmaceutical company

In May 2008, Atrium Innovations spun off its active ingredients and specialty chemicals division to form the Unipex Group, based in Quebec City. Since then, Unipex has achieved and sustained an impressive record of growth, having become an essential partner and daily supplier to the world’s leading cosmetics, pharmaceutical, specialty chemical and nutrition companies.

Unipex Group
  • Number of products: over 2,700
  • Number of clients: over 2,500
  • Markets: cosmetics, pharmaceuticals, specialty chemicals and nutrition (70% of the company’s revenues are derived from sales to the cosmetics/pharmaceutical industries)
  • Network: Unipex has operations in 54 countries; it also has agreements with 48 distributors worldwide and sells directly in Canada and France
  • Revenues: US$221.5 million in 2007; approximately US$250 million in 2008
  • Number of employees: 155
  • Offices: Quebec City, Montreal, Toronto, Paris, Toulouse

Acquisitions to date: Unipex (2001; this French company became Unipex Solutions France when it joined the Unipex Group); Chimiray/Interchemical (2003); Siricie-IRIS (2003); Active Ingredients and Specialty Chemicals (2004); Multichem (2005); Amisol (2006); European Institute of Cell Biology (IUBC) (2008)

Unipex Group has three business segments:
  • Unipex Innovations, focusing on worldwide development, production and marketing activities of proprietary active ingredients for the cosmetics industry
  • Unipex Solutions France, operating in the distribution and services sector alongside manufacturing companies in Europe (cosmetics, pharmaceuticals, nutrition and specialty chemicals)
  • Unipex Solutions Canada, operating in the same sector in Canada

Chanel, Dior, Estée Lauder, L’Oréal, Shisheido, Clarins... “I’ll bet you can’t name a single internationally renowned cosmetics brand that’s not a client of ours!” says Charles Boulanger, Unipex’s president and CEO. The company he heads is a proven leader in its core operating areas: manufacturing and distributing active ingredients and specialty chemicals to various industries, including cosmetics, its largest market. Serving over 2,500 clients in 54 countries across North America, Europe and Asia, Unipex has more than 150 employees and reported revenues of nearly US$250 million in 2008. Yet despite its successful track record, it has yet to become a household name in North America.

“We’re not well known here because our clients are located all around the world, particularly in Europe,” notes Mr. Boulanger. “France is the world leader in cosmetics, exporting more than the four other major European producers combined (Germany, Spain, Italy and the UK). It also sets the trends and stays two to three years ahead of the rest of the world. That’s why our first acquisition was in the French market.”

The former subsidiary’s solo adventures began in 2001, when it purchased Unipex, a specialized French distributor. This was quickly followed by the acquisition of three other French companies, ensuring Unipex an enviable distribution position in France and across Europe. Today, Unipex is the leading supplier of active ingredients to the French cosmetics and pharmaceutical industries. It has also bolstered its North American presence with two Canadian acquisitions. “It’s a little odd that we’re based in Québec while our markets are primarily on the other side of the Atlantic,” acknowledges Mr. Boulanger. “But you can get lots done if you’re resourceful and are willing and able to travel extensively and adapt to cultural differences.” And there’s definitely no advantage in being timid: “We deal with all of the major brands on a daily basis. You have to be assertive!”

Gaining independence

Despite his impressive track record as an entrepreneur, Charles Boulanger pulled off an especially daring move when he decided to turn Unipex into an independent company.

“I was in charge of the division’s development and positioning right from the start. We’d reached a crossroads,” he says. But things were far from easy: “It was a very high-risk proposition under the circumstances. Even my advisors were against the idea.”

Nevertheless, three key factors—motivated employees, a high-performance management team and an extremely enticing niche market—soon convinced him to pursue his passion: “We had a first-rate company and I felt quite confident,” he says, clearly pleased with his decision.

Science in a jar

So what exactly are active ingredients? “They’re the ingredients in a cough syrup or a pill that cure you,” explains Mr. Boulanger. “In a top-of-the-line cosmetic product, active ingredients delay the onset of wrinkles or prevent skin cells from degenerating, for example.” However, jars of cream and bottles of pills are conspicuously absent from Unipex’s product line. “That’s because we don’t sell finished products. We deal exclusively in active ingredients—often the most costly part—and the speciality chemicals they’re made from,” he explains.

According to Mr. Boulanger, creating formulas for cosmetic products is one of the industry’s biggest challenges. “It’s difficult because they can’t have any side effects. Consumers aren’t willing to put up with undesirable aspects like they would with a medication. They also expect the aroma and texture to be as nice in the jar as they are when they put the product on their skin. They’re looking for short-term as well as long-term benefits. So if we don’t meet these conditions, they won’t buy our product again,” he notes. For that reason, Unipex has to maintain high-level expertise in the sector—a goal it has accomplished brilliantly given that the company’s 2,700 products have gained worldwide recognition for high quality. According to Mr. Boulanger, it’s all worth the effort: “In our field, science is placed at the service of people’s dreams. It’s very exciting!”

An ambitious team

Mr. Boulanger’s current projects are centred on his staff, whose praises he is quick to sing. “We have an extraordinary and ambitious team, both in Quebec and overseas. In the near future, many of our employees will be becoming company shareholders—not because we need the money, but so they can benefit from the value-added we’re all creating together!”

Another goal is to build on Unipex’s leadership position by boosting its revenues from US$250 million in 2008 to $500 million in 2012. “We’re still in acquisition mode and we have a number of attractive projects on the horizon.” The company also plans to reinforce its client partnership role by offering a range of comprehensive solutions, from researching and developing active ingredients to manufacturing, marketing, distributing and providing services, in addition to “cosmetovigilance,” i.e. post-sale consumer evaluations of cosmetic products.

“We’re trying to grow in line with the needs of the major companies and market trends. Even though people are growing older, they want to stay young. Not only are men using cosmetics nowadays, they’re starting to buy them for themselves, rather than having their better half buy them for them. The sector is always changing, so we have to stay on top of things and keep our passion alive!”

Véronique Lord

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