Most corporations large enough to be listed on the New York Stock Exchange think it is good business to give bonuses to their top salespeople. But $4.5 million? That astounding figure, 5 percent of gross sales, includes 76 diamond rings, 54 diamond bracelets, 20 all-expense-paid trips to Hawaii, 38 mink coats, 282 Buick Regal Landaus and 184 pink Cadillacs—not to mention a kiss on the cheek for every winner from the chairman of the board herself. It need hardly be said that there are few corporations like Mary Kay Cosmetics, and absolutely no other captains of industry like Mary Kay Ash, its 60ish founder.
From her $7 million headquarters in Dallas, Mary Kay rides maternalistic herd on a mostly female sales force of 61,000. Working exclusively at Tupper-ware-like home sales parties and follow-up appointments, they peddled $91.4 million in Mary Kay makeup and restorative skin creams last year. Mary Kay takes fierce pride in her products (calling most department store cosmetics “junk”) and offers only about 30 items (compared to 700 for Avon), so that each “consultant,” as the sellers are called, can stock the whole line. “A customer wants something now, not two weeks from now,” she insists. “By then she’s forgotten why she wanted it. The excitement is gone.”
For Mary Kay, excitement is all. She runs the firm like a soul-saving evangelist, pumping out her message that “women can do anything. My main job,” she adds, “is to help women realize how fantastic they are.” Her symbol is the bumblebee (top producers get diamond-studded bumblebee pins) because, Mary Kay explains, “aerodynamically it was long thought the bumblebee shouldn’t be able to fly because its wings are too small in relation to its body. But the bee doesn’t know that and goes right on flying. Women who don’t know they can fly come into our organization and, through praise and encouragement, are soon flying just like that bumblebee.” The rewards are sweet: Many saleswomen earn $20,000 to $40,000 a year, and a half dozen or so national sales directors pull down six figures.
Mary Kay’s morale boosters include birthday cards for every employee and a weekly fusillade of 2,000 hand-signed pep notes on her personal pink stationery, the firm’s identifying color. “We always sandwich a criticism between two compliments,” she says. “If a consultant falls on her face, we point out how gracefully she fell. Negatives are destructive. Positives pay off.”
Although Mary Kay pampers, she doesn’t coddle. Employees pay their own way to sales meetings because “I’ve seen what happens when the company sends people—they yawn their way through the session.” The benefits of hard work are always celebrated. “The only limit,” Mary Kay preaches, “is your energy.”
Her own seems unlimited. She grew up in Houston, caring for her invalid father while her mother managed a restaurant. When Mary Kay’s first marriage, to a musician, ended in divorce after World War II (“He spent what extra money he had on cigarettes”), she supported three children as a saleswoman for the Stanley Home Products Company. With an initial income of $11 a week, she became a fanatic bargain shopper and coupon clipper. “I still read the paper with scissors in hand,” she admits, “even though I say to myself, ‘Mary Kay, you can afford anything you want.’ ”
After quitting Stanley, she worked her way up to a $25,000-a-year job as national training director for World Gifts, a home accessories company. In 1963 Mary Kay retired—”the most miserable time of my life.” Unable to relax, she decided to commit all her knowledge of direct selling to paper. Four weeks of steady writing convinced her she had not just a book but the blueprint for her own fortune.
She quickly found an ideal product: a skin-care cream she had long been buying from a local beautician whose father, a tanner, had adapted the formula from salves he used to soften leather. “It smelled so bad I held my nose, and it was the consistency of axle grease,” Mary Kay recalls, “but everybody who used it looked so good I thought I’d try it.” She became a dedicated user and in 1963 bought the rights for the formula from the beautician. With $5,000 in savings, she launched Mary Kay Cosmetics.
A month before the company got under way, Mary Kay’s second husband died of a heart attack. “I came back from the funeral and didn’t know what to do,” she says. “But you know, when God closes a door, He always opens another.”
She threw herself into the business. By the end of the first year receipts totaled $200,000. Mary Kay Cosmetics has been growing steadily since. But in Baptist Mary Kay’s system of priorities (“God first, family second and business third”) the best thing that happened was a blind date with a giftware salesman named Mel Ash. They were married in 1966 and now share a circular house in north Dallas with a sunken marble bathtub in which visitors are encouraged to pose for good-luck pictures.
Mel, 75, keeps his finances separate from his wife’s and admits, “I’m not a rich man—but I can’t say I’m hungry.” Beloved by the staff (which routinely serenades him with We Love You, Conrad! from Bye Bye Birdie), Mel sends a gift to Mary Kay every Thursday in commemoration of their wedding. “Sometimes it’s hard on Mel being married to a woman who believes women are superior to men,” says his wife teasingly. “When God made man He was only practicing. He did better with us.”