February 9, 2007

Mary Kay

And the woman behind the brand is...
Mary Kay Ash

Mary Kay Ash was a victim of the worst kind of sexism. She would take men out in the field, train them expertly, and return to the office to find her trainees become her supervisors - at twice the salary. "They have families to support," she was told. But she had a family to support too.

Mary Kay Wagner had married fresh out of a Texas high school when she was 18. Ben Rogers was the "Elvis Presley of Houston" she liked to say. He played guitar and sang for the Hawaiian Strummers. They were married for eight years with three kids when Ben was drafted into the army in World War II. He never came home.

Mary Kay had been alone before. Back in the early 1920s when she was seven her father came down with tuberculosis and could no longer work. Her mother put in long hours in a cafe and instilled self-reliance in little Mary Kay who took care of her father and the family home. Now she filed for divorce and got a job as a part-time secretary.

To get more income she joined Stanley Home Products giving house party demonstrations. She enjoyed the work and talking to the people but nobody seemed to be buying much. What was she doing wrong?

She borrowed $12 for round trip train fare and three days in a hotel for the company's annual sales convention in Dallas. She saw the "Queen of Sales" crowned and accept a lovely alligator bag as a reward. Mary Kay was hooked. She would be "Queen of Sales" next year, she promised herself. And she was. But her gift was an underwater flashlight. She vowed that if she were ever in the same position she would give away prizes that truly motivated. She left Stanley in 1953 for a better job at World Gift Company.

Mary Kay rose rapidly through the company to become national training director. She developed business in 43 states for the Dallas-based firm but chafed at her treatment in the male-dominated company. Still, she was making $25,000 a year, a good living even if it should have been better.

In 1963 an efficiency expert warned World Gift that Mary Kay's power in the hierarchy was too great. This was too much. Rather than accept a re-assignment she retired. Remarried by this time she went home to become a housewife and write a book on selling for women. As she listed her ideas she decided to start her own selling business.

Her product came from a home demonstration for Stanley ten years earlier. She had noticed that all the women at this party had flawless skin. It turned out one of the ladies was a cosmetologist who made skin creams from material similar to that used to tan hides. Mary Kay became a regular customer and when the cosmetologist died in 1961 she bought the formula from her heirs, not as an investment but to assure herself a continued supply of the face cream.

She took $5000 of her own money and made plans to open a small boutique. But just before the opening her husband died of a heart attack. Aside from her personal grief Mary Kay also was left without a business partner. She persuaded her 20-year old son Richard to take a 50% pay cut from selling insurance and manage her business while Mary Kay trained the sales force. Mary Kay Cosmetics formed on September 13, 1963.

She took the home party technique from Stanley and called them "beauty shows." She called her sales people "consultants" and paid the highest commission in the direct sales field - 50%. Most importantly she concentrated her line in skin care products where her major competitor Avon would be weakest.

Mary Kay innovated the concept of no fixed territories; if a woman's husband was transferred she could sell wherever she went. This fostered not competition as would be expected but a co-operative attitude among the consultants. The real competition was for Mary Kay bonuses.

Her revival-meeting-style annual convention in Dallas became legendary. Over four days of product introduction, training and most importantly, recognition, Mary Kay could give away scores of coats, trips, jewelry and, of course, trademark pink Cadillacs. "Women need praise," she said, "and so I praise them. If I criticize I sandwich it between layers of praise."

Her sales force is among the most motivated anywhere although the average consultant makes only about $2000 a year in their part-time work. The company motto remains: "God first, family second, career third."

Mary Kay Ash borrowed ideas from other direct selling companies before her. Her true legacy was in creating a successful company for women, by women.

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