Sunday, 22 April 2012

A Tale of Beauty & A Pink Cadillac

Her golden rule was "God first, family second, career third".  Mary Kay Ash was a force but unlike most of the beauty queens that came before her, she didn't actually concoct potions on her stove top.  Her success was not in beauty innovations but rather in her innovative business skills.  Proving women belonged in the corporate world, she was the first to run a company with an all-female sales team complete with it's own fleet of pink Cadillacs.

Mary Kathlyn Wagner was born in 1918 in Hot Wells, Texas.  Married at 17 to Ben Rogers, they had three children when he went to war leaving her in need of part-time work.  She found her calling when a door-to-door encyclopedia saleswoman made Mary Kay a deal; if she could sell 10 sets she could have one free.  She sold an unprecedented 10 sets in under 2 days.

She dropped encyclopedias in favor of more useful wares with Stanley Home products, a direct sales company of household supplies.  Upon his return, her husband ran off with another woman forcing Mary Kay to work full-time to support her children.  Within 2 years she was their leading saleswoman and when a well-deserved promotion came up it was promptly given to man.  She left in 1952 for another direct sales company, the World Gift Co.  This time she was promoted to the board but despite expanding distribution throughout the USA she was admonished for "thinking like a woman" every time she made a suggestion.  Once again, she hit the proverbial glass ceiling when a man she had trained was promoted earning double  her salary.  Dismayed, in 1963 she retired from sales.

She intended to write a working guide for women but instead Mary Kay made two lists; one detailing what was wrong with existing company models and the other what she felt what would make the ideal company.  She wanted equality and promotion based on worth as well as easy to sell quality products that weren't chosen based on profit margins.  Her plan allowed working mothers to be self-employed while working flexible schedules; they would determine their own hours and earnings.
With $5000 in retirement savings and a new husband, George Arthur Hallenbeck, Mary Kay began her venture.  Now to find the easy to sell product because it actually worked.  Coincidentally, for the last 10 years she had been buying a moisturizer made by a local hide tanner.  She bought his recipe, had a manufacturer create skincare products based on it and rented a small store in Dallas.  Beauty products were a perfect venue - demand was high, they were seemingly recession-proof and daily use ensured future orders. 

Mary Kay trained friends as consultants while George set up the business details.  Sadly, he died just before the store opening and she was advised to drop everything.  Now in her 40s, she was considered "old" for a woman in her day but she forged ahead with her son, Richard Rogers.  Beauty by Mary Kay officially opened September 13, 1963.

Her consultants showed women through hands-on application how good the products were.  She knew if the women saw an immediate improvement they'd jump to buy.  Even today, most all marketed products are sold with bold claims and pressure tactics.  You had to buy it first to see if it delivered on it's promises.  Here you could sample without cost and enjoy a complimentary make-over in the comfort and privacy of your own home.  It was all geared to making someone feel special.  Mary Kay wisely advised, "Pretend that every single person you meet has a sign around his or her neck that says 'Make Me Feel Important.' Not only will you succeed in business, you will succeed in life."

The company earned $34,000 in it's first few months up to a whopping $800,000 in 1965.  Then she had 3,000 consultants - today there are 2 million worldwide.  The company went public in 1968 and the following year she created her famous rewards program.  Her top consultants were awarded diamonds, vacations or the iconic pink Cadillac, the color of her favorite blush.  Incidentally, today almost 10,000 women drive Mary Kay cars and as of 2008, the fleet is worth over $140 million and is the largest commercial fleet of GM passenger cars in the world.* 

She tirelessly gave motivational speeches and told her reps, "At Mary Kay you are in business for yourself, but not by yourself."  After she was interviewed for CBS's 60 Minutes in 1979, sales skyrocketed past $300 million in 1983.  Shareholders were happy with profits but not so giddy about "those frivolous pink cars."  To Mary Kay, the Cadillacs were symbolic and she wasn't going to stand for the echoes of "you think like a woman" so she bought back her company.  In 1993, it earned over $1 billion and the still privately held company earns more than twice that today.     

Mary Kay Ash died in 2001 and business aside, her greatest legacy is the Mary Kay Foundation whose mission statement reads, "Dedicated to ending women's cancers and domestic abuse".  Established in 1996, it has granted $25 million to date.  Amen to that! 
Of all of her motivational quotes, my favorite is, "God didn't have time to make a can have, or be, anything you want."  She believed every one of us matters.  She didn't take a scientific approach to beauty, only a new approach to selling beauty products.  Like Madam C.J. Walker, she empowered women and presented opportunities never before available to them.  Mary Kay Ash offered all that and the keys to a brand new pink Cadillac.

Mary Kay photos courtesy of

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