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American National Business Hall of Fame, ANBHF

Mary Kay Ash

Mary Kay Cosmetics
On September 13, 1963, 49-year-old Mary Kay Ash and her son, Richard,
started what was to become a large and successful cosmetics business named
Mary Kay Cosmetics. The company specialized in the manufacture and sale of
a specialized line of skin cream and related products. What made the company
somewhat unusual was the use of a direct sales force that numbered about
197,000 at the end of 1982. Most of these individuals were women working part-
time. All made their sales through demonstrations held in private homes.
Within the direct sales market segment, Mary Kay, the company, was widely
regarded as having the most product sales force. And Mary Kay, the woman,
was widely regarded as an outstanding example of entrepreneurship at its best.
This is that story.
Youth and First Marriage
Mary Kay Wagner was born in Hot Wells, Texas, 25 miles from Houston, in
1915. Her parents ran a hotel and restaurant, which drew customers from
Houston, 25 miles away. When she was seven her father became ill with
tuberculosis and had to enter a sanatorium. Her mother sold the hotel and
moved to Houston where she ran a small caf. Mary Kay did the housework
and cooking, developing confidence in her abilities to take care of herself and
Religion was an important part of the young girl's life. Later, as an adult, she
began tithing once her income reached eleven dollars a week. Her tithing and
attendance went to the Baptist Church. But she was truly ecumenical in her
love for others. Her three husbands were, respectively, Catholic, Protestant and
In school Mary Kay developed into a fierce competitor. She attributed that
trait to a friendly rivalry with a neighbor girl who, "Had everything I wanted
to have and did everything I wanted to do". So motivated, Mary Kay won a
junior high school typing contest and took second place in the state
extemporaneous speaking contest. She earned straight "A's" in high school.
After graduating from Houston's Reagan High School she wanted to enter Rice
Institute. But she had no money and was unable to get a scholarship.
Reluctantly, she gave up the idea of going to college.
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Instead, she married Ben Rogers, a guitarist whose radio program made him
something of a local celebrity. The marriage lasted eleven years and produced
three children. But Rogers was drafted during World War II and while away
on military duty asked for a divorce. Mary Kay later commented, "It was the
lowest point in my life. I felt like a complete failure as a woman".
Learning to Sell
Before the divorce Mary Kay had first taken a few premed courses at the
University of Houston and then obtained not one but two jobs. One was as a
secretary at the Tabernacle Baptist Church. That paid $125 a month.
The other job was selling for Stanley Home Products. That company marketed
by direct selling. Its representatives put on "home shows" at the residences of
selected customers. A number of ladies would be invited to each show where
salespersons like Mary Kay would demonstrate Stanley home products and try
to sell them on the spot. The salespersons were actually independent
contractors who bought the merchandise from Stanley and sold it at the home.
In Mary Kay's case the profit came slowly. After three weeks on the job her
"shows" were averaging $2.01 in net income, hardly enough to support her
family. Many persons in that situation would have quit and looked for other
work. But Mary Kay was convinced that money could be made selling Stanley
products. That led her to believe that her sales methods weren't right and she
dedicated herself to finding out what she was doing wrong.
In search of the answers she went to a regional sales convention in Dallas. She
asked many questions, made notes of ideas that sounded helpful and left the
convention a much wiser salesperson. A highlight of the convention was the
crowning of the "sales queen." That ceremony had a galvanizing effect on
Mary Kay. She set a goal to be the company's sales queen at the next
convention. She even got up the courage to approach the company president, F.
Stanley Beveridge, to tell him of her goal. As she later recalled that moment,
"He took my hand in both of his, looked me square in the eye and after a
moment said, 'Somehow I think you will.' Those five words changed my life." A
year later she was named the sales queen.
Having mastered the art of selling, Mary Kay next had to learn how to recruit
and manage other people. The direct selling business she was in was primarily
an occupation for part-time workers. A person wishing to make it a lucrative
full-time business had to recruit other salespersons. Stanley's policy was to pay
the person doing the recruiting a small percentage of the sales revenue of each
person who was recruited.
Mary Kay was a good communicator. Not only was she able to recruit other
women as independent contractors for Stanley Products, but she was also able
to teach them her secrets for successful selling. Eventually she had a group of
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150 women whom she had recruited and who were succeeding in the business.
Her income was supplemented by a small percentage of the sales of each of
those recruits.
At that point in her career Stanley insisted that she move to Dallas to develop
that territory. In addition, the company refused to let her continue to receive
"commissions" on the sales of the women she had recruited in the Houston
area. She made the move and successfully recruited a new group of women.
But she deeply resented not being allowed to share in the earnings of her
Houston recruits. Years later when she started her own company she
remembered that injustice and adopted a policy of letting her saleswomen keep
commissions without regard to geographical territories.
In 1953 May Kay left Stanley Products to embark on a business venture in St.
Louis. The venture aborted and she returned to Houston where she became a
salesperson for the World Gift Company. World Gift was another direct sales
organization and her past experience made it easy for her to boost her earnings
to $1000 a month by the end of the first year. Impressed by her performance,
World Gift eventually made her its national training director. Traveling three
weeks every month she developed 43 states for the company. She also
developed a strong power base among the field personnel.
Mary Kay's success was also her undoing at World Gift. In 1963, "an efficiency
expert told the company Mary Kay's power was too great and the pot began to
boil." The company offered her a change of assignment. It was, in effect, a
demotion. Mary Kay refused to accept it and resigned, waiting for the company
to reconsider. But World Gift had no intention of doing so.
After 25 years in direct sales Mary Kay found herself suddenly and
unexpectedly retired.
Founding A Business
Retirement was not healthy for Mary Kay. As she later explained:
The boredom of retirement caused a deepening sense of discontent. I had
achieved success, but I felt that my hard work and abilities had never been
justly rewarded. I knew that I had been denied opportunities to fulfill my
optimum potentials simply because I was a woman. These feelings were not
mere indulgences of self-pity, because I had personally known so many
other women who had suffered similar injustices."
She attempted to put herself in a positive frame of mind by, "making a list of
only those good things that had happened to me during the previous twenty-
five years." In the process of making that list her thinking once again turned
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Once the first list was made, Mary Kay realized that she might have the
beginnings of a book. But for such a book to be truly helpful to others, it would
also have to warn the reader of problems encountered in direct selling and
offer advice on how to solve them. And so a second list was developed.
As she reviewed the lists in the following weeks she began to develop a new
dream. In her words,
I had been introduced to the skin care products by a local cosmetologist
when I had called on her during my direct-selling days. Her father had been
a hide tanner who noticed that the skin of his hands was like that of a young
man. Realizing that the tanning solutions he worked with every day were
possibly responsible, he began to experiment and eventually developed a
modified version to use on his face. His daughter became a cosmetologist
and using his formulas, she developed creams and lotions for customers of
her small, home-operated beauty shop. In addition to myself, many of her
relatives and friends had been using these wonderful products for several
years, so when the cosmetologist died, I bought the original formulas from
her family. From my own use and the results I had personally received, I
knew that these skin-care products were tremendous, and with some
modifications and high-quality packaging I was sure they would be big
With the product identified and a marketing plan in place, Mary Kay and her
second husband prepared to go into business. Their life savings of $5,000 was
used to make arrangements for a small office with two desks and the
manufacture of an initial inventory of products. Ten saleswomen were
recruited as independent agents who would pay for their supplies in advance.
And Mary Kay gave the new recruits a thorough introduction to the techniques
of successful direct selling under the so-called "party plan."
A month before the company was to open for business, Mary Kay's husband
died of a heart attack. Realizing that the best way to overcome her grief was to
be busy, she went ahead with the scheduled opening. Her twenty-year-old son,
Richard, accepted a $250 a month job to run the financial and administrative
ends of the business and on September 13, 1963 (a Friday) Beauty by Mary Kay
began its first official day of business.
Nature of the New Company
1. Basic structure of the Sales Organization
Beauty by Mary Kay followed the basic party plan model. The company
manufactured proprietary products, which it then sold through a network of
saleswomen. They were, in fact, independent contractors. Mary Kay called
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them "Beauty Consultants". To become one, the woman had to sign an
agreement and pay for her initial product inventory called a "beauty
showcase." The new recruit would immediately be taught how to schedule and
conduct the sales session at parties to be held in private homes. Then it was up
to the consultant to book the parties or "skin care classes."
The beauty consultant's income was to come from two sources. One was the
sale of Mary Kay products to the consultant's customers. The consultant
bought the merchandise from the company at a fifty percent discount from
retail list price. The other source of income was the bonus paid for recruiting
new beauty consultants. In 1985 the bonus system paid a consultant 4 percent
of the GROSS product orders of recruits if one to four persons had been
recruited and 8 percent for 5 or more recruits.
A beauty consultant was expected to work part-time (leaving time for another
full-time job or taking care of the family). Consequently, a consultant's income
was expected to be low. In the period 1981-1983, for example, the average sales
per consultant was $1,705 with 50% going to the company.
For salespersons intent on making a larger income, Mary Kay created the
position of Sales Director. A person in this position remained an independent
consultant. But she was given the additional responsibility of organizing the
weekly sales meeting for the beauty consultants in her unit. In 1982, the 4,100
Sales Directors had an average annual income of just over $25,000.
2. Issue of Pyramiding
The structure of the sales organization at Mary Kay raises the question of
exploitation of the bottom level salesperson. Reporter Kim Wiley offers this
example of the company's response:
The firm is sensitive to the fact that this manner of operation may be
interpreted as pyramiding and it sends out full legal documents explaining
why it isn't. In a pyramid scheme, the recruiter gets a piece of each recruit's
commission (or forces the recruit to buy products from her at a marked-up
price), thus making it necessary for the recruit to bring in recruits of her
own just to stay afloat. In Mary Kay, everyone receives the same 50%
discount on the cost of cosmetics; the recruiting bonus does not come out of
the recruit's earnings, but is paid directly from the home office.
3. Unique Features
With the exception of the care taken to avoid pyramiding, the organization was
similar to most other direct selling organizations. But Mary Kay expected her
organization to outperform the others because of the structure and procedures,
which she had formulated.
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3.1 Structure
The structure was designed to help the independent contractor make the most
of the market opportunities. Key elements of the structure were:
(1) Limiting the product line so that the salesperson could be thoroughly
knowledgeable about each item and so that on-the-spot deliveries could
be made at the time of the sale.
(2) Putting the emphasis at the sales parties on teaching rather than
selling. Mary Kay believed that not only would the teaching make the
claims for the products more credible, but it would make the experience
more enjoyable for both customer and salesperson.
(3) Restricting the number of people at a party. Mary Kay had learned
through experience that women who actually participated in a
demonstration were more likely to buy. But since a beauty consultant
could not give personalized attention to more than six women at a given
party, that was the maximum number allowed.
(4) Insisting on delivery on the spot. By having the beauty consultant
deliver the orders at the time they were placed, the company took full
advantage of impulse buying. Furthermore, by having the beauty
consultant collect payment on the post, the hostess was relieved of the
burden of trying to later collect from the guests.
(5) Not allowing the beauty consultant to buy on credit. This policy
eliminated the cost of policing a credit system and protected the
consultant from getting herself too deeply in debt. Mary Kay felt that
other firms unnecessarily created bad feelings between the company
and sales force because of credit problems.
(6) Not limiting sales territories. Mary Kay believed that more beauty
consultants would be recruited if any consultant could recruit anywhere
in the country (or outside of it). As she explained the system in 1978,
"We have what we call the adoptive system. It works like this: say you
recruit a consultant while you're on vacation in Hawaii. You leave her
with a director of consultants in Hawaii who trains her. Meanwhile, you
draw a small percentage of your recruit's sales. But the company pays
that commission, not the recruit. The Hawaiian direct does not get any
percentage except to count on the recruit's sales as a part of her unit,
but the Hawaiian director will have a recruit somewhere else, under
some other director and it balances out. Most of our 900 directors have
adoptees. Now this system is almost unexplainable to men, I've found.
But it works. Everyone helps everyone else".
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(7) Offering superior compensation. "Gross profit margins for
salespeople were typically 35% to 40% when Mary Kay launched her
company. She set that level at 50% to help attract career-oriented
(8) Sweetening compensation with an array of performance bonuses.
Sustained high levels of performance were, of course, rewarded by
promotions to positions of sales director or national sales director. But
short run effort was further encouraged by a generous array of cash
bonuses and such in-kind awards as the use of a pink Cadillac for a
year. "In 1982, 358 sales directors earned between $30,000 and $50,000
in commissions and prizes (in addition to their regular sales income).
Another 166 earned between $50,000 and $100,000 and 45 earned more
than $100,000".
Those were the key elements of the structure within which the Mary Kay
Cosmetics sales force would operate for the next two decades.
3.2 Corporate Culture
Mary Kay was fully aware of the fact that structure or formulas work only if
they function in a manner that brings out the best in the people involved. And
so she sought to create a corporate culture, which encouraged people to make
that kind of effort. The culture contained a set of attitudes including:
(1) Pride in the organization
(2) A belief that one could not be satisfied with past accomplishments
but should seek to constantly improve
(3) A willingness to take risks
(4) A belief in the dignity of selling as a profession
(5) A view that work was the third most important element of a person's
life. God was first and family second.
(6) A belief that one could and should have fun at work
(7) A belief that the Golden Rule was a practical guide to conducting
one's business affairs.
The culture also contained a set of guidelines for anyone with a supervisory
function. Those guidelines summarized the way Mary Kay herself tried to deal
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with her employees. They included the following admonitions:
(1) Make each individual feel important
(2) Praise them frequently and in public
(3) Whenever necessary, criticize them but do so constructively and
sandwich the criticism between two layers of praise
(4) Be available to listen to them and hear what they are trying to say
(5) Make an effort to eliminate the factors that put stress on them
(6) Don't hide behind policy in dealing with their problems
(7) When developing a plan or project get the people who will
implement it involved in planning it so that it becomes their project.
Those were the principles learned by Mary Kay during her decades of
apprenticeship working for others. Her challenge was to make them a way of
life in her new company.
Two Decades of Rapid Growth
With her plan in place, Mary Kay lost no time in implementing it. Given her
decades of experience in recruiting and training direct sales forces for Stanley
and World Gift, she skipped the trial and error period which many new
business founders must endure.
In 1964, the company's first year of operation, sales totaled $198,514. The
number of consultants stood at 318 at the end of the year. That pace was rapid
enough to cause Mary Kay to think of ways of covering the nation. She
considered franchising, but decided against it because she thought women
would have to get a man to put up the capital and that would make the man the
boss. Instead she decided to offer stock to the public and use the proceeds to
fund a company-directed expansion. The offering was made in 1967.
For the next 14 years the company's sales grew at an average annual rate of
28%. There was a sharp slowdown beginning in 1975 and lasting through 1978.
But the company reacted by increasing compensation for consultants and
growth rates returned to a range of 29% to 82% for the next four years.
Growth required some capital investment. In 1969 the company built a 275,000
square feet manufacturing and packaging plant in Dallas. In the early 1970s
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four regional distribution centers were built. And in 1977 an eight story home
office building was opened in Dallas. By 1981 that facility would house 400 of
the company's 1,000 payroll employees.
From the beginning Mary Kay Cosmetics held an annual convention to
recognize the top performers in the company. By the end of the 1970s this had
become a stunning emotional event for the participants and a highly effective
public image builder for the company. Mary Kay once described this
motivational tool as follows:
Every August we have what we call Seminar. It's a grand party, three days
of spectacle - part beauty pageant and part Academy Awards night. It's the
climax to a whole year of Mary Kay enthusiasm.
But there's more than spectacle. There is a chance to share ideas and
techniques with people from all over the country. There are classes in
selling, goal-setting, leadership, charm and poise and even bookkeeping. We
also have a workshop for husbands on how to be a helpful Mary Kay spouse.
On Awards Night we get 8,000 people, all of whom come to Dallas at their
own expense. Thousands of prizes are awarded, ranging form the keys to a
(pink) Cadillac to diamond bumble bee pins (the company's symbolic way of
saying that the recipient did more than anyone thought she could). We
crown the queens of sales and recruitment and present them with prizes and
flowers and scepters, accompanied by standing ovations and musical
fanfares. And there are also inspirational speakers and top-notch
Seminar was the centerpiece of a well-orchestrated program of motivating the
sales force. As one observer put it, "Mary Kay Ash urges managers to 'praise
people to success' and she does not take the maxim lightly. Her consultants,
from the most lowly to the most exalted, receive tremendous recognition.
Monthly prizes are mailed to their homes. Each consultant gets a card on her
birthday. And top performers are listed in Mary Kay's monthly magazine,
aptly called Applause.
The company's expansion was directed by two persons. Mary Kay herself set
the direction, created the culture and served as a highly visible cheerleader.
Richard Rogers, her son, handled the management functions. From the
beginning Mary Kay needed her son to handle that aspect of the business
because all of her experience had been in selling. Rogers gradually built a
management team that by 1985 consisted of the following full-time executives
in addition to the chairman of the board (his mother) and president (himself):
1. Vice president of marketing
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2. Vice president of finance
3. Vice president, secretary and general counsel
4. Vice president for administration
5. Group vice president for manufacturing
6. Vice president for research and development
7. Vice president for quality assurance and engineering
8. Vice president for manufacturing operations
9. Treasurer
10. Director of personnel
11. Director of public relations
12. Director of public affairs
13. Director of product services
14. National director of distribution
15. Four directors of the regional distribution centers
By the mid-1980s the company was no longer a small entrepreneurial venture
but a mid-size corporation which depended for its success on a team of more
than a dozen professional executives.
Tough Times in the 1980s
The heady success of the 1970s was not to last. Changes in the American labor
force caused direct selling in general to run into difficulties and Mary Kay
Cosmetics experienced a decline in sales in both 1984 and 1985.
The basic problem was an increase in full-time job opportunities for women.
The number of beauty consultants working for Mary Kay fell from over
200,000 to 100,000 between 1983 and 1985. As a result, the company's sales fell
from $323 million to $260 million over the same period. The reason? The
cause? In the opinion of reporter Mei-Mei Chan, "(The industry) simply lost
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their vast pool of workers. By 1982 when inflation fell and the economy
improved those who had wanted 'pin money' during the lean times dropped
out. And job opportunities for women opened up dramatically in the late '70s
and '80s, prompting more and more women to snap up 9-to-5 positions instead
of part-time sales work. Not only weren't they available to sell the product, but
the USA's 53 million working women weren't home when firms like Avon, the
industry giant, called".
The company responded first by developing an improved compensation
package for the consultants. Then, as the founder and her son looked at the
costs involved, a decision was made to buy all of the outstanding stock and
make the firm a privately held corporation once again. In December 1985, the
two paid $315 million to buy the company back. And in 1986 the newly-created
Mary Kay Cosmetics saw sales rebound to $280 million.
One era ended and another began when Mary Kay Cosmetics experienced its
first sales decline in 1984. The old era was a case study in entrepreneurship.
The new will be a study in the efforts of an established corporation to retain its
excellence in a changed business environment. Mary Kay Ash created a
remarkable corporate culture in the old era. Her son, Richard, who helped her
create that culture faces the challenge of adapting it to the changed
There is no question that Mary Kay Cosmetics is a business success story - a
story of the creation of wealth through effective implementation of a sound
business plan. But it is also clear that the company's founder had an additional
goal in starting the business. As she put it:
You can do it! So often a woman comes to us who desperately needs to hear
that. Frequently she is a housewife who has been out of the job market for
many years, or who has never worked outside the home.
When I see a woman like this, I want to do for her what nobody did for me,
in the way of providing opportunities We make sure she learns the
necessary skills. We encourage her to improve her appearance so she looks
the part of a beauty consultant.
And when she does that, she begins to improve in other ways, too. Her
confidence builds. She becomes more efficient and begins to set goals. Very
often a Mary Kay career is a self-improvement and a way of life - not just a
way to earn money."
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*This article originally published in The Journal of Business Leadership
Volume 1, Number 1, Spring 1988.
*Copyright 1988. The American National Business Hall of Fame. All rights
reserved. No portion of ANBHF may be duplicated, redistributed or
manipulated without the expressed permission of the ANBHF.
1. Ash, Mary Kay. Mary Kay on People Management. N.Y.: Warner Books,
2. Chan, Mei-Mei. "Mary Kay Ash." USA Weekend, July 18-20, 1986.
3. "Flying High on an Idea." Nation's Business, August, 1971.
4. "Leaders in Sales and Sales Management." The Journal of Selling and Sales
Management. May, 1983 (Reprint).
5. "Mary Kay's Sweet Smell of Success." Reader's Digest. November, 1978.
6. Rosenfeld, Paul. "The Beautiful Make-Up of Mary Kay." Saturday Evening
Post. October, 1981 (Reprint).
7. Wiley, Kim Wright. "Cold Cream and Hard Cash." Savvy, June, 1985.
8. Value Line Investment Survey. N.Y.:Value Line Inc., May 20, 1983.
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