How Mary Kay’s founder went from single mom to billion dollar beauty queen

It started long before I was big enough to see over a steering wheel.

“Mary Kay is your name? The neighbors teased me. “It must be your pink Cadillac parked out front!”

“Yeah!” I will answer. “I’m Mary Kay, like cosmetics!” ”

By the time I entered kindergarten, burgeoning skincare company Mary Kay Inc. had made the pink Cadillac their calling card. “Trophies on Wheels,” as founder Mary Kay Ash called them, have been awarded annually to the company’s top sellers – and very few sellers – since 1969.

The cars came in the same pale pink as the packaging for Mary Kay’s cleansers and creams, a shade chosen to make her products stand out in American bathrooms.

“In the early 1960s, when Mary Kay founded the company, everyone’s bathroom was white,” author Jennifer Bickel Cook told The Post. “She wanted to have nice pots that would go well with white.

“If the women left the jars on their counters, they would always be reminded to use their Mary Kay. ”

In “Pass It On” (Brown Books), released Tuesday, Cook – a 45-year-old employee who established the Mary Kay Museum in 1993 – gives a loving account of the life and work of her former boss.

Author Jennifer Bickel Cook (right, pictured with Mary Kay) was a 45-year-old employee who established the Mary Kay Museum in 1993. In her new book, “Pass It On,” she fondly recounts the life of her former boss and work.
Courtesy of Jennifer Cook

“She was tiny, about 5 feet tall,” Cook recalls. “And you wouldn’t believe how charismatic a little great-grandmother like Mary Kay could be. She would have women in tears, just with her aura.

Two decades after Ash’s death in 2001, Mary Kay Inc. is still one of the largest multilevel marketing companies in the world, with annual revenues of $ 3.5 billion. More than three million “beauty consultants” in 36 countries organize sales sessions – billed as “skin care courses” – at customers’ homes, promoting a wide range of cosmetic products. Years after Ash perfected the party selling model – and his technique is still embraced by brands like Pampered Chef and LuLaRoe.

But what sets Mary Kay Inc. apart is Ash’s indomitable and fiery spirit – and her religious values ​​which, Cook said, remain at the heart of the business.

“She believed in putting God first, family second, and career third, and she taught us to do the same,” Cook said.

There were no Cadillacs, pink or otherwise, in Ash’s difficult childhood. Born Mary Kathlyn Wagner in 1918 in tiny Hot Wells, Texas, the future makeup mogul spent her formative years looking after her disabled father while her mother worked long hours as a restaurant manager.

Mary Kay staff members enjoy a poolside party at the founder's home in the 1980s.
Mary Kay staff members enjoy a poolside party at the founder’s home in the 1980s. “Women love fellowship,” says author Cook.

When Ash’s first husband left her and their three children in the early 1940s, she turned to door-to-door, peddling books, gift items and products. cleaning to a captive audience of housewives. She quickly discovered a knack for the home sales strategies that companies like Tupperware launched shortly after World War II.

At 45, frustrated after too many of her male interns were promoted above her, Ash started her own business. His nine saleswomen were operating in a small Dallas storefront in 1963, where his rose-wrapped potions were an instant hit. Within five years, the sales force had grown to 3,000 and Ash was looking to grow his brand.

“In 1968, when the time came for her to buy a new car, Mary Kay brought the company’s lip and eye palette to a Cadillac dealership,” Cook said. It asked for a paint job to match the compact’s signature pink case.

“The dealer told him, ‘This is crazy,’” Cook said. “He said, ‘You’ll be coming back here in two weeks to ask me to repaint the car.’ ”

But Ash insisted – “and when she brought that pink Cadillac back to the office, everyone went wild,” Cook said with a laugh.

Millions of
Millions of “beauty consultants” in dozens of countries sell Mary Kay cosmetics directly to customers, a model that has become increasingly popular.

“It’s become a sensation here in Dallas. When she came to a red light, everyone just waved her through.

The following year, Ash rented pink Cadillacs to the company’s five top sales managers – rolling billboards that promoted Mary Kay Inc. everywhere they went.

As his saleswomen vied for the coveted cars, Ash kept expanding the program. In 1973, 52 of the pink vehicles crisscrossed American roads.

By this time, Cadillacs were sharing the freeways with a fleet of 18 petal pink wheels that carried Mary Kay products from distribution centers in California, Georgia, Illinois, Texas and New Jersey.

“We were all so proud of those pink trucks,” Cook recalls. “And of course back then truck drivers were being mercilessly teased for driving pink trucks in a time when it really wasn’t macho.

“But they loved their jobs and they loved Mary Kay,” she said – and the real Mary Kay would often drop by distribution centers chatting with her employees.

Mary Kay travels with her sales managers in Rome.
Mary Kay travels with her sales managers in Rome.
Courtesy of Arlène Lenarz

On one such visit, the founder unexpectedly announced a new uniform for drivers: pale pink jumpsuits with the Mary Kay logo sewn to the back.

The news sparked an uproar, according to Jim Underwood’s book “More Than a Pink Cadillac”.

“We’re going to make fun of every truck stop from here to Los Angeles!” the men protested.

At that, Ash burst out laughing.

“She just wanted to see the reaction,” Cook said. “She liked to joke with the drivers, knowing the teases they were getting.”

At first, Ash often greeted his sales managers at his Dallas lakefront home, opening every room of the house to them. In 1969, as a group of new hires admired the cast marble tub that adorned the founder’s bathroom, two of the women jumped in for an impromptu photoshoot.

Their mischief started a business tradition that continues to this day.

New Sales Managers Get "baptized" in the pink tub of the Mary Kay Museum.
New sales managers are “baptized” in the pink tub of the Mary Kay Museum.
Barry mccoy

“It’s so much fun for them,” Cook laughed. “Somehow it’s become a legend among sales managers that if you don’t step into the tub, you won’t succeed.”

Eventually, the company bought a pink heart-shaped bathtub specifically for the sales manager’s photoshoots.

“Every time they train the new directors in Dallas, they take the tub out and put it in the museum,” Cook said. “And a staff member is always there to take their picture.

“Such traditions are important – they make connections,” she said. “Companies that have no traditions are really failing.

In the 1980s, Mary Kay Inc. began to expand internationally, starting with Argentina and the Dominican Republic. Ash’s Spanish teacher Gladys Reyes helped launch Mary Kay Cosmeticos de Mexico in 1986.

“Mary Kay’s philosophies are perfect for the Latin woman,” Reyes tells Cook in the book. “Family and faith are so important to them. ”

Mary Kay had a dedicated street name in her honor.
Mary Kay had a dedicated street name in her honor.
Barry mccoy

Values ​​that appealed to tradition-conscious American women in the 1960s and 1970s are now attracting Muslims from Malaysia and Catholics from the Philippines to sell Mary Kay products in their countries.

“In a more traditional society, it’s a way to be able to keep that role of wife, mother and spiritual leader of the house, but also to have a fulfilling career,” said Cook.

Meanwhile, as the Iron Curtain collapsed in the late 1980s, Mary Kay Inc. helped women in Poland, Ukraine, Kazakhstan and Russia take their first steps towards economic independence. .

“First we get freedom, then we get Mary Kay! A saleswoman from the former East Germany shouted when Ash visited shortly after the fall of the Berlin Wall.

“Oh, she loved it,” Cook said. “As she understood, these women valued the opportunity for financial freedom, to start a business – something they had never had before.”

Back in the States, Ash spared no expense to build a chic pink mansion in Dallas’ tony neighborhood of Old Preston Hollow. The 12,000-square-foot classically-styled stack included six bedrooms, eight bathrooms, grand staircases, a library, three living rooms – one with a 40-foot ceiling – and a courtyard pool surrounded by Corinthian columns and false Greek statues.

Ash filled the house with coral rugs, salmon-colored silk floor-to-ceiling curtains, fuchsia furniture, and a master bathroom topped with a rose quartz toilet and pink marble tub.

But the construction was rushed and the work was of poor quality. When Ash welcomed the company’s top sellers to his new home in 1986, a sudden rainstorm revealed that the builder had never sealed the windows.

Pass It On is released on Tuesday.
Pass It On is released on Tuesday.

“Water ran through the ceiling of the upstairs library,” Cook writes, “and Mary Kay and her staff ran with towels and pots to try and stop the damage. A few hours later, a section of drywall collapsed completely.

In 1990, Ash decamped to his old home with the photo-op tub, living there until his death in 2001.

The pink truck fleet was disbanded in 2003, and the pink mansion – which has gone moldy for years as absent owners struggled to sell it – was razed in 2017.

But Mary Kay Inc. is still thriving.

“One of his goals was that when he passed away, the business would continue,” Cook said. “She knew that so many companies are founded on founders, and once the founder passes away, the company dissolves.

“But I think women love sorority, and it really is sorority,” she said. “They go out with other women, they organize their meetings and they develop a bond that is still there.”

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