• U.S.

Beauty Queen: Estee Lauder

5 minute read
Grace Mirabella

Leonard Lauder, chief executive of the company his mother founded, says she always thought she “was growing a nice little business.” And that it is. A little business that controls 45% of the cosmetics market in U.S. department stores. A little business that sells in 118 countries and last year grew to be $3.6 billion big in sales. The Lauder family’s shares are worth more than $6 billion.

But early on, there wasn’t a burgeoning business, there weren’t houses in New York, Palm Beach, Fla., or the south of France. It is said that at one point there was one person to answer the telephones who changed her voice to become the shipping or billing department as needed.

You more or less know the Estee Lauder story because it’s a chapter from the book of American business folklore. In short, Josephine Esther Mentzer, daughter of immigrants, lived above her father’s hardware store in Corona, a section of Queens in New York City. She started her enterprise by selling skin creams concocted by her uncle, a chemist, in beauty shops, beach clubs and resorts.

No doubt the potions were good–Estee Lauder was a quality fanatic–but the saleslady was better. Much better. And she simply outworked everyone else in the cosmetics industry. She stalked the bosses of New York City department stores until she got some counter space at Saks Fifth Avenue in 1948. And once in that space, she utilized a personal selling approach that proved as potent as the promise of her skin regimens and perfumes.

“Ambition.” Ask Leonard for one defining word about his mother, and that’s his choice. Even after 40 years in business, Estee Lauder would attend every launch of a new cosmetics counter or shop, traveling to such places as Moscow and other East European cities. On Saturdays she might go to her grandson’s Origins store in Manhattan’s hip SoHo district and say, “Let me teach you how to sell.” Only declining health has halted those visits during the past few years.

Did Lauder ever stop selling in her prime? She would give her famous friends and acquaintances small samples of her products for their handbags; she wanted her brand in the hands of people who were known for having “the best.” Early in my career at Vogue she invited me to lunch. Before the meal was finished, she made sure to give me three chicken recipes to help me interest the man I hoped to marry. (And did.)

She personified the mantra of “think globally, act locally.” You can’t get any more local than Estee Lauder’s turning up at Saks on a Saturday, showing the sales staff how to give customers personal attention and a free gift. The latter promotion, by the way, proved to be a work of utter genius. Now an army of young women and men, exquisitely turned out and properly trained, do the same in every department store that’s worthy of the brands.

The global enterprise of the Estee Lauder Cos. is centered on the 40th floor of the General Motors Building in Manhattan. Here the realm of very Big Business meets the world of Estee Lauder–intensely refined, every woman’s dream office. It has been the office of a businesswoman and mother, where work and family mingled seamlessly for decades in a major corporation–the Holy Grail of many working women today (her grandchildren are in key positions). Carol Phillips, who founded the Clinique line for the company, describes Lauder’s management style as highly creative. She conducted business in subtly elegant comfort. “Her conference room was like a dining room, and everything was perfect. In the office were all the pleasant things that go with running a household.”

And what households. Estee Lauder loved to “entertain,” as giving large dinner parties was once called. She enjoyed “beautiful people”–celebrities, the rich and famous–and could invite them to dine with her at a table that could seat 30 without extensions. The food and the wines, lovely. She didn’t miss a thing. She learned as she grew up. She watched; she enjoyed her world.

A word that must be added to the definition of Lauder: focus. She kept her eye on the world around her and on all women wherever they might be. She “liked to think about beauty and was determined to give women the opportunity to feel beautiful,” says Leonard.

Beautiful didn’t necessarily mean fashionable. Having edited two leading women’s magazines over the past 25 years, I am hard pressed to think of a trend that Lauder started. The company never made any effort to be the makeup choice in the fashion shows. What you had with Estee Lauder was the quality of her view, of her demand for an ultrafeminine portrayal of the product. Every woman in every ad was the essence of femininity. Is that the kind of women we are talking about now? I’m not sure, but women know who Lauder is. Hers is a product with a focus–it’s not MTV.

You will recognize the brand names, and what they stand for, as you would a friend’s name: Estee Lauder, Prescriptives, Clinique, Origins and Aramis. The company has even bought hot new lines such as M.A.C., Bobbi Brown Essentials and Tommy Hilfiger fragrances. Lauder’s company may not be able to set trends, but it is never going to be left behind by them. The boss–and her son after her–would never allow it. Says the company’s vice chairman Jeanette Wagner: “No matter how she aged in years, she was still the youngest thinker in the room.”

Grace Mirabella, who was editor in chief of Vogue magazine for 17 years, is the founder of Mirabella magazine

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