by Bartee Haile
Starting with her life savings of five thousand dollars, her grown son and nine employees called “consultants,” Mary Kay Ash opened her first cosmetics store in Dallas on Sep. 13, 1963.
Don’t bother looking for the birthplace of the famous cosmetics queen on any map or even in the Texas Almanac. The small community of Hot Wells disappeared decades ago but not before leaving behind a heck of a story.
While drilling for oil in northwest Harris County in 1904, wildcatters lost their bit down the deep hole. They never found the expensive cutting tool but did discover the artesian well that kept the Houston Hot Well Sanitarium open for half a century.
It was in the town that sprang up around this “hot springs” resort that Mary Kathlyn Wagner was born in 1918. Her childhood was challenging, to say the least. With her mother waiting tables 14 hours a day to support the family, the young girl had to clean, cook and care for her sickly father, who had tuberculosis.
Mary Kay did all that and went to school like any other youngster her age. Whenever it got to be too much, she turned to her mother for advice. “You can do it, Mary Kay,” she would say, encouraging words that her daughter would always live by.
Mary Kay graduated from a Houston high school in 1934, a month after her sixteenth birthday. She scraped together enough cash to attend a few classes at the University of Houston before dropping out the next year to get married.
Mary Kay was barely out of her teens and the mother of three, when her husband joined the army. One day she found her calling quite by accident, when a door-to-door salesman made her a tempting offer. If she could sell ten sets of encyclopedias, he would give her a set for free.
The company’s top producers were expected to sell ten sets in three months. May Kay accomplished that feat in a day and a half! Working part-time while her kids were in school, she sold $25,000 worth of encyclopedias in just six months.
The circumstances under which the first of Mary Kay’s three marriages ended are murky at best. Several versions suggest both parties agreed to the parting, but one has her husband running off with another woman upon his return to civilian life in the late 1930’s.
The single mother stuck with door-to-door sales but switched from encyclopedias to housewares and cleaning supplies with Stanley Home Products. However, in spite of her remarkable record, she was denied the recognition, raises and promotions that were rightfully hers all because of her gender.
The term “glass ceiling” had yet to be invented, but Mary Kay bumped her head on it again and again at Stanley and later at World Gift, where she moved in 1952. Fed up with the repeat offense of men she had trained being promoted over her at double the salary, she called it quits in 1962 and retired at the early age of 44 to write a survival manual for other women based upon her experiences.
One memorable morning she sat down at her kitchen table to make two lists on a yellow legal pad. The first were the good things she had seen in the business world, and the second were everything that, to put it charitably, could be improved.
Looking over the lists, it suddenly dawned on Mary Kay that she had created a feasible plan for a “dream company” staffed mainly by working women with families. “Why am I theorizing about a ‘dream company'” she asked herself. “Why don’t I just start one?”
Besides a plan, Mary Kay needed a product. She found that in the skin softener she had been buying for years from the daughter of a hide tanner. Turning the tanner’s secret formula into a line of skin-care products, she rented a small store-front in Dallas and opened her doors in September 1963.
Rather than resort to the high-pressure tactics so common with direct-sales of that day, Mary Kay and her “consultants” let their products sell themselves. The result was sales of $34,000 in a mere three and a half months and $200,000 that initial year. By the end of the second year, sales had soared to $800,000 with an army of 3,000 consultants.
A big believer in the power of incentives, May Kay rewarded her outstanding consultants with diamond bee pins, lavish vacations and ultimately the pink Cadillacs that were an eye-catching sight on Dallas freeways.
After Mary Kay took the company public in 1968, she grew increasingly disenchanted with having to answer to the shareholders. Their insistence that she cease her “silly and frivolous” practice of giving away pink luxury cars proved to be the last straw and led to Mary Kay buying back her company in 1985.
Prior to her passing on Thanksgiving Day 2001, the most successful businesswoman of the post-WWII generation found time to write three best-sellers. Her autobiography sold more than a million copies and Mary Kay On People Management became required reading in the Harvard Business School.