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June 26, 2023

Growing cosmetics company Young Pharmaceuticals readies new Wethersfield HQ, with eye toward additional expansion

HBJ PHOTO | MICHAEL PUFFER CEO John Kulesza stands outside Young Pharmaceuticals’ new Wethersfield headquarters on Progress Drive.
Click below to see what advice Kulesza would have appreciated at the outset of his career.
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After graduating from Yale University in 1977, John Kulesza launched Young Pharmaceuticals with a $17,000 loan from his father and a 3,000-square-foot office in North Branford.

Kulesza began hauling a suitcase full of acne lotion samples — his first product — from dermatologist to dermatologist across Connecticut and into New York City.

Forty-six years later, Young Pharmaceuticals has 150 employees and sells 100 products to markets globally. Only 10 years ago, the company employed about 30 people, Kulesza said.

Today, it makes annual sales worth tens-of-millions of dollars.

“We are on our way to $100 million,” Kulesza said in a recent interview.

The growing beauty-products company is weeks away from occupying a new 20,000-square-foot office building headquarters on 21 acres along Progress Drive in Wethersfield.

Kulesza owns the brick-veneer building that’s been designed with a central section joining two larger hexagon-shaped wings. Built by PDS Engineering & Construction, the building is topped with a clock-tower cupola, and surrounded on three sides by a broad lawn interspersed with trees and bordered by plantings.

The nearly $8 million construction project is modeled after a historic San Francisco-area estate that had impressed Kulesza in his youth, he said.

It will host administrative staff, training rooms and laboratory space.

“It basically gives us room for expansion,” Kulesza said. “We are feeling the pain of growth and we need more space.”

Kulesza has owned the Progress Drive property for two decades. He committed to build there about two years ago as his company’s space needs grew.

In April, Kulesza also paid $1.77 million for a 12,347-square-foot commercial building along the Berlin Turnpike in Wethersfield.

Young Pharmaceuticals had long leased the building for its headquarters, and Kulesza said he opted to buy the property when it recently came up for sale. It will continue to house some administrative and back-office functions, Kulesza said.

“We are a global business and there are markets that are expanding very rapidly,” he said.

Demand in Asian and Middle Eastern markets is booming. People in those regions want “highly transformative” products, including moisturizers, rejuvenating skin creams and products infused with hydroxy acids, he said.

Kulesza said he secured a construction loan with around 4% interest from Liberty Bank. Other lenders were interested, but Liberty offered a lightning-fast closing and a local touch, Kulesza said.

Liberty bankers also kept in touch throughout the construction process.

“We did the deal in like two weeks,” Kulesza said. “It should have taken six months. I love working with a local bank on a project of this nature. It takes a great interest in our business.”

More growth to come

Kulesza said he still has plenty of room for additional buildings on Progress Drive. He is working with architect John Wilcox of East Hartford-based Russell and Dawson to design a 100,000-square-foot incubator building.

The plan is to carve out 3,000- to 5,000-square-foot spaces for startup biotech companies that might find a mentor, perhaps even an investor, in Young Pharmaceuticals. Additional buildings could follow.

Kulesza envisions a campus environment driven by partnerships. He said he’s reached out to Farmington-based genomic research institute Jackson Laboratory, and the proximity of the UConn Health center is another plus.

“I want to sit in my office and oversee incubators and maybe share a little of my experience,” 67-year-old Kulesza said.

His office will be decorated like few others — covered with dark-wood paneling featuring intricate carvings that had graced a library in an 18th-century English manor. Kulesza said he wanted something reminiscent of the impressive libraries he’s witnessed inside Newport, Rhode Island mansions.

His interior designer — Donna Moss — found the paneling for him in a Norwalk auction house.

Kulesza was able to knock down the price to $35,000. OFS Construction in South Windsor restored the faded wood. Pursuit Construction, of Essex, handled the installation of numerous pieces.

“We had extraordinary resources right under our nose in Connecticut to do something so beautiful and wonderful,” Kulesza said of his company’s new headquarters.

Unconventional career

Kulesza began organizing Young Pharmaceuticals during his senior year at Yale. Some of his university peers saw this as an odd choice. Most of his classmates were preparing for careers in medicine or law.

Kulesza said he spent his time at Yale mixing business, science, accounting, statistics and chemistry classes.

Success didn’t come easy. His business plan was to provide samples to dermatologists, who would share them with patients, who would then seek out the products at local drug stores. But without a budget for television and magazine advertising, Kulesza said he found drug stores slow to make orders.

About 10 months into Young Pharmaceuticals’ first year, inspiration came from a doctor in Ansonia. His patients loved Kulesza’s skin lotion, but they couldn’t find it on store shelves. The doctor suggested Kulesza sell him the lotion wholesale, and then he would sell directly to his patients.

The company’s business model was born from that transaction.

Today, Young Pharmaceuticals sells to roughly 2,000 dermatologists and plastic surgeons, everywhere from West Hartford to Dubai to Hong Kong. The products are researched and formulated by the company and made by contract manufacturers, mostly in New Jersey, under labels tailored to individual customer offices.

Kulesza said he began developing formulas by reading medical journals at UConn Health’s Farmington campus. Today, he employs 10 scientists working on product development.

Kulesza said he also spends a lot of time thinking about how artificial intelligence can speed up product development.

“I am asking AI questions all the time when it comes to formulation, and I am always amazed by the answers,” Kulesza said.

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