Deborah Duffey’s story of growth in business and in life

Deborah Duffey says she is an extremely private person.

Happiest at home, in her garden, spending time with her family, she lives a fairly quiet life, even if she has leadership positions at a handful of companies.

She is president of Dermazone, chief executive officer at Kara Vita and chief operating officer at NuVessl. Chances are, by this time next year, she will have a few more companies to add to that list.

All told, this bundle of businesses has a valuation of $22 million and Duffey says she has a goal to increase that valuation to $70 million, in four years.

The line of businesses started with Fountain Pharmaceuticals, in 2001, when Duffey and her business partner, Joseph Schuchert, took the business private and relaunched it as Dermazone.

But Duffey’s story began in Hanover, Massachusetts.

***

Duffey, in her own words, says she had a lonely childhood, despite having two kind and supportive parents.

“I was raised as an only child in an extremely Catholic community. So, when I grew up, the average family had five children, or more. And I was an only child. I was also a Unitarian,” says Duffey. “I was sort of born an outsider, if that makes sense. Between being a Unitarian and being an only child, I always felt like I didn’t fit in.”

Duffey with her rescue, Indi.

She says she spent a lot of time reading and playing with her dogs.

“They become your best friends when you don’t have a big playgroup and you don’t have a lot of friends to play with,” she says.

To this day, there is no shortage of puppy love in Duffy’s home. She has three dogs, Stella, Toby and Indi.

Her father was an entrepreneur. He owned an insurance brokerage firm and Duffey says she spent a lot of her free time at the office with him.

“I watched what went into him building that successful business. And I think he, at the end of the day, taught me grit,” Duffey says. “He had just as many ups, and downs, as anybody else. And he was transparent with me about [it] at a young age.”

Her mother worked for a bank for some time and then became a stay-at-home mom.

“She taught me grace. She was the driving force behind how one must constantly look out and care for the people around you,” Duffey says. “She was an extremely kind human being. I try to be as kind as she [was.] I don’t think I’ve quite succeeded but it hasn’t stopped me from trying … I say, thanks to my parents, I grew up with grit and grace.”

Duffey moved to Tampa Bay in 1993. She had been working with a company called Applied Strategic Planning, in the Boston area. It was a strategic planning and feasibility company and they were getting ready to start a project in the Dominican Republic.

“It was a multiuse facility being built on the North Shore,” Duffey says, adding that this particular part of the Dominican Republic remained relatively untouched at the time.

“I said, I’m in. I’ll brush up on my Spanish and do the best I can. And so that’s why I came to Florida,” she says.

***

After the project in the Dominican Republic ended, she began circulating her resume to headhunters in the Tampa Bay area.

She interviewed with the CEO of Fountain Pharmaceuticals and later took that company private, along with her business partner Schuchert.

“I was hired by the CEO, at the time, to come in and do an analysis of how the technology could best be monetized. It was a delivery system technology. And then, how to go about doing that? w\Was it licensing? Was it branding? Was it a combination thereof? So that’s what I was actually hired to do. And then I got to meet the majority shareholder, at the time, who then called me and said, ‘I’m going to take this company private, will you run it with me?’” Duffey says. “We launched Dermazone together, as partners, back in 2001.”

At the time, the company was only doing about $400,000 in sales, the bulk of it coming from burn centers because of a lotion created to help penetrate damaged skin that had been grafted.

Schuchert passed away in 2013. In 2017, Duffey sold her shares and partnered to start a new company, NuVessl, based in Calgary, Canada.

NuVessl develops products to carry active ingredients in innovative, and difficult, conditions using a patented nanotechnology encapsulation platform.

“The business model that we put together for NuVessl is an incubator model, which is unique,” Duffey says. “They do very well when you have a constant pipeline of products and product development. And that fascinates me because I have to be growing something. I have to be inventing something.”

Duffey at her home in Safety Harbor.

Since establishing NuVessl, it has spun out additional companies such as, Origin Scientific, which Duffey describes as a “cannabis play,” Spiked Adult Frozen Desserts and a new brand, My Pet Immune, an all-natural alternative health and wellness product. Next up for NuVessl is dipping into psychedelics, with a purpose of helping people with post traumatic stress disorders.

“When you’ve got this incubator model, it’s really unique because it allows you to launch, and commercialize, products in a particular category,” Duffey says. “You just have to make sure that what you’re launching in that category is perfectly aligned with its audience. And then, of course, that audience appreciates either the disruptiveness of the product or the value enhancement.”

***

Duffey and her husband, Michael, have been married for 27 years and they have two daughters, Alexis and Ashlynn.

While raised a Unitarian, Duffey has made the transition to traditional Christianity.

“I guess you could describe me as an information seeker. I studied philosophy, a lot of philosophy, in college,” Duffey says. Adding that she also studied a number of different religions, but never felt connected to any of them.

“Then I had Alexis, my daughter. I can just remember staring at her and my dad came down [to Tampa] and I said, ‘Dad, there’s so much more to life that we don’t understand,” she says. “I don’t know how anyone can look into a child’s eye and not believe in God.’ Then I said, ‘Well, I have to figure this out.”

Duffey started to “church surf.” Her daughters attended Rainbow Garden Preschool at Bayside Community Church.

“That’s really when I started to feel like [I found a] home,” Duffey says. “It started to feel like this is making more sense. And the more I would read the Bible, the more everything seemed to make sense. And, so, I became a believer when my daughter was a year old. And then I got fully baptized as a believer about 10 years ago.”

“I finally feel like I have an anchor, that no matter, what I trust in the Lord and right now is a good time to feel like you have an anchor, because nothing else is making much sense,” she says.

Another shared passion of the Duffey’s is their love of horses. Until recently, Duffey says they were a “stable family.” They owned two horses and Duffey and her daughters would spend much of their free time riding, and caring, for them.

“That’s just heaven to me. The smell of a horse, the smell of a stable, mucking out stalls. Nothing makes me happier than going in, mucking out a stall, throwing down hay and giving my horse a bath,” Duffey says. “I am a little lost right now. So, I spend a lot of time with the dogs and I spend a lot of time gardening.”

With both of her daughters grown and moving on to their adult lives, owning the horses seemed unfair, as everyone had less, and less, time to share with them.

While she misses that life, she says her garden is her sanctuary. Her beautifully landscaped back yard is all done by hand and done by herself.

“I like heat and I have to be outside … So, I get up and I’ll rip stuff out. I do everything. I don’t hire for anything. I lay mulch,” she says. “I love doing it. I feed my birds. I go out and I watch my Cardinals. Dig in the dirt. Get back to nature. I love it.”

Another of Duffey’s passions is mentoring, both to young professionals and among her peers.

She has been a member of the CEO Council of Tampa Bay for 12 years.

“It’s such a unique group,” Duffey says. “Everybody in the Council embraces one’s level of commitment. I have developed such trusted friendships there, particularly with the women.”

She, in turn, is intentional about mentoring the next generation of professionals.

Dermazone, for example, has an internship program that has a sharp focus on confidence boosting.

“I’m not sure we train, and talk, enough about that one simple word, confidence,” Duffey says. “One has to be able to find as much comfort in the discomfort, if that makes sense. And that comes with finding, and growing, one’s confidence … failure builds the confidence.”

And that’s not the only way Duffey has realized her purpose.

There are moments, probably in everyone’s business experience, where you realize you’re changing lives, but Duffey’s story is uniquely moving.

During an event she was attending for work, she heard valuable feedback from women in attendance about some of her products.

“There was a woman giving a testimony about how our products had saved her daughter, in terms of emotional wellbeing, because she had suffered from acne for so long,” Duffey recalls. “The mother was crying and sharing with me how her daughter would never leave the house and didn’t want to go to school. Someone had given her this product and, it changed her skin, it changed her life.” Thanks to using a product Duffey had helped  bring to market, the young lady was now blooming. She had friends, she was dating and going to dances.

“I just realized skincare, in some respects, may seem a bit trivial to people. But when you can go out in the community and people tell you how you change someone’s life, that’s meaningful.” 

PHILANTHROPY

Duffey has supported Compassion International, a child sponsorship and Christian humanitarian aid organization, headquartered in Colorado Springs, for 25 years.

Corporately, Duffey says she has a different approach than a lot of companies.

“Most companies will align themselves with one or two nonprofits. And we don’t do that. I think it’s because I have such a hard time saying no,” Duffey says. Instead, the company is all about random acts of kindness.

“For many years, I’ve donated to Operation Care Package. We’ve donated pallets of product to Iraq and Afghanistan. Supporting our freedom fighters, and our military, is hugely important to me,” she says.

Photos by Michael McCoy

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