A decade of hard work was enough for Rachel Du Preez to build a model business in Perseverance Works. And her efforts paid off in early 2015 when listed US giant Wilhelmina Models, founded by Dutch supermodel Wilhelmina Cooper, bought Union Models.
Now known as Wilhelmina London, the marriage of both companies was based on a long-term relationship; Union had been working with Wilhelmina in New York, Miami and LA for around four years. “We got on really well and it just organically grew into something great,” explains Du Preez, who approached Wilhelmina directly when she decided now could be the right time to sell.
“Wilhelmina had been looking to buy an agency in Europe for a while, but they just hadn’t found the right fit,” says Du Preez. A transatlantic call with Wilhelmina’s vice president, who said he would put the idea to the company’s private equity backers, set the wheels in motion and, before long, a due diligence process was underway, with stock purchase agreements and Nasdaq procedures to follow.
The personal touch
With ten years’ experience under her belt, Du Preez founded Union Models at Perseverance Works in 2005 with just six models on the books. The organic development of the business was underpinned by its East London location, with models dropping by while on shoot in nearby studios at Perseverance Works.
“I felt the agencies then weren’t offering the personalised management style that I thought I could offer,” she explains. But dedication to a personalised management approach prompted a predicament for the blossoming business: how to remain personal but still scale up?
“We turned down a lot of girls at the start because we wanted to be a boutique, smaller agency and focus on a core group of gorgeous girls whose personalities we liked. It wasn’t just the face we were looking after, it was the overall package,” explains Du Preez. And with the relationship a two-way affair, with models acting as Union ambassadors out in the industry, the personal touch was essential. “I didn’t want to be small equals weak,” says Du Preez, “I wanted to be small equals personal.”
Though Union has always had an international outlook, the new partnership means the agency is now able to pack a stronger punch in the global arena. “We have the support and commitment of this much bigger player, which has such a solid reputation. We’re enjoying that already,” says Du Preez. With the support of Wilhelmina’s 90 headcount, Union’s seven-strong staff base is now part of a much larger family.
Du Preez has stayed on-board at Wilhelmina as a consultant, excited for the unknown challenges that lie ahead and more time with her three under-fives. But for now she keeps her seat at the desk around which all staff sit, at the centre of an open-plan space in the heart of Perseverance Works: “I don’t want an office! I want to be at that table. That’s where all the action is!” she says.