Mary Kay Ash (May 12, 1918 - November 22, 2001) was an American businesswoman, entrepreneur, and founder of Mary Kay Cosmetics, Inc. Having encountered discrimination in her career on account of being a woman, on her retirement she established her "dream company." She designed it to provide opportunities for women not only to be successful in a business career, but to become successful and confident as individuals, feeling good about themselves, while at the same time supporting their families.
Her credo of "God first, family second, career third" was based on her strong Christian faith as well as her commitment to supporting her family. While Ash was Christian, her company is non-sectarian, encouraging all those involved to live according to their own chosen spirituality. Criticized by some, for example for the ostentatious "rewards" given to successful sales directors including the famous pink Cadillac, Ash's legacy remains a success story in achieving her goal of allowing women to become successful in all aspects of life without sacrificing any of their essentially feminine qualities.
Mary Kay Ash was born Mary Kathlyn Wagner on May 12, 1918, in Hot Wells, Harris County, Texas. Her parents were Edward Alexander and Lula Vember Hastings Wagner (Leavitt 1985).
Her father suffered from tuberculosis and was an invalid, so her mother worked to support the family. Mary Kay became responsible from the age of seven to take care of household responsibilities such as cooking dinner. She would telephone her mother at work and ask for directions on how to cook various dishes for her father. She also went shopping alone. Her mother encouraged her in these responsibilities, telling her, "You can do it," words that stayed with her all her life (Ash 1981).
Mary Kay attended Reagan High School in Houston, graduating in 1934 (Houston Independent School District 2008). She married and had three children, but when her husband returned from serving in World War II he asked for a divorce. To support herself and her children she went to work for Stanley Home Products, a direct sales firm out of Houston (Leavitt 1985). In 1952, she left Stanley and was hired as the national training director for the Dallas firm World Gift Co. (Leavitt 1985). Frustrated, however, at being passed over for a promotion in favor of a man that she had trained, she retired in 1963, intending to write a book to assist women in business.
This book turned into a business plan for her "dream company." She had remarried, and with the support of her husband who handled all the administrative details, her plan became reality. However, tragedy struck when, one month before the scheduled opening, her husband suffered a fatal heart attack. Instead of giving up, she went forward with the support of her children. Her younger son, Richard Rogers, left his job and took over the administrative responsibilities and in September 1963, Mary Kay Cosmetics began. Eight months later her older son, Ben, moved his family to join the expanding business. Later, her daughter Marylyn joined to become the first Mary Kay director in Houston (Ash 1981).
Her last husband was Mel Ash. They were happily married until his death from lung cancer on July 7, 1980. Ash served as Mary Kay Cosmetics' chairman until 1987, when she was named Chairman Emeritus. She remained active in the company until suffering a stroke in 1996. Her son Richard was named CEO of Mary Kay Inc. in 2001.
Ash had a strong Christian faith and this served her throughout her life. Remarking on the success of her company, Mary Kay Cosmetics, she remarked:
I don't think God wanted a world in which a woman would have to work fourteen hours a day to support her family, as my mother had done. I believe He used this company as a vehicle to give women a chance. And I feel very humble and fortunate to have had a part in showing other women the way (Ash 1981).
Mary Kay Ash authored three books, all of which became best-sellers. Her autobiography, Mary Kay (1981), has sold more than a million copies and appears in several languages; a new edition was issued in 1994 under the title Miracles Happen and an epilogue was added to the 2003 version issued after her death. Her business philosophy, Mary Kay on People Management (1984) has been included in business courses at Harvard Business School. Mary Kay Ash's third book, You Can Have It All, was launched in August 1995 and achieved "best-seller" status within days of its introduction.
Ash refused to tell her age, carefully avoiding dates of personal events in her autobiography. She explained "I never tell my age. Why should I? I believe that a woman who will tell her age will tell anything" (Ash 1981).
Mary Kay Ash died on November 22, 2001. She is interred in the Sparkman-Hillcrest Memorial Park Cemetery in Dallas, Texas.
When she retired from her job, Ash decided to write down all her experiences in business that were unique to a woman. Filled with memories of opportunities denied her simply because of her gender she hoped to clear herself of bitterness by her writing. The effort turned into a business plan for her ideal company, a "dream company" in which relationships were based upon the Golden Rule and women could pursue unlimited opportunities (Ash 1981).
Soon she realized that instead of theorizing about such a company, and wishing she could work for one, she could start it herself. In September 1963, Ash and her son, Richard Rogers, began Mary Kay Cosmetics with a $5,000 investment. The company originally operated from a storefront in Dallas, but grew rapidly, particularly after Ash was interviewed for CBS's 60 Minutes in 1979 (Leavitt 1985).
In 1968, the company went public, being traded on the over the counter market. By 1976, it was large enough to be traded on the New York Stock Exchange. In 1985, however, Ash decided that it would better serve the interests of the company and its customers to get out of the stock market, and it was returned to a private family corporation through buying back the public shares. As her son Richard explained:
Mary Kay's dream is too important. After all, no other entity in the world would understand that Mother's dream ministers to the welfare of humankind (Ash 2003).
Ash was widely respected, if not always understood, for her unconventional approach to business. She considered the Golden Rule the founding principle of Mary Kay Cosmetics, and the company's marketing plan was designed to allow women to advance by helping others to succeed. Known as the "Go-Give Spirit," this is a spirit of sharing and caring for the other person and is the first and most important of the three ideas that are the philosophical foundation for the company (Ash 2003).
An example of the Golden Rule in action in the Mary Kay company is is the "adoptee" program, whereby sales directors "adopt" those new salespeople recruited by other Mary Kay directors. There are no territories in the Mary Kay company. Thus, one Mary Kay sales director may be visiting a friend in Pittsburgh and recruit a new person there. On returning home, say to Chicago, they continue to receive commission on all sales made by their new recruit, but it is the Pittsburgh sales director who educates them, invites them to local meetings, and works with them to nurture their success. The Pittsburgh director receives no financial reward for this, but the program works because they know that if they recruit someone in another region they will be taken care of by that local sales director (Ash 2008).
Ash's slogan "God first, family second, career third" is the second cornerstone of the philosophy. This expresses Ash's insistence that women keep their lives in balance and maintain these priorities as they strive for success. It reflects her strong Christian faith and her belief that God was using her and working with her in this company. She valued family highly, noting that in another company a man who took time off work to be with his wife as she gave birth to their child could be fired for forgetting to call his work to explain his absence. In her company, however, such an employee would be highly valued for keeping their priorities clear:
As I've said, when you put God first, family second, and our career third, everything seems to work. Out of that order, nothing much seems to work (Ash 2003).
The third cornerstone is the belief "in the beautiful potential inside each and every human being" (Ash 2003). Ash wanted people, especially women, to feel good about themselves so that they could achieve their potential. She advocated "praising people to success" believing that everyone can be successful and do great things:
Every one of us is important and necessary to God's plan. If someone else will just believe in you—you will be able to do great things. I know this because someone once believed in me (Ash 1981).
She also believed that women would work hardest for recognition, competing against themselves not against each other—regarding that as destructive competition. Thus, she designed rewards that are not limited to a single "winner" or first, second, and third places, but to everyone who achieves a specified goal. "Everyone can be a winner" (Ash 1981). These rewards are not just pretty symbols of success, but have value as well: Automobiles, jewelry, diamonds, vacations, and so on. For several years, fur coats were offered as rewards; this ended in 1996.
The most famous reward is the "Career Car"—notably the pink Cadillac. Ash purchased the first car in 1968. It was repainted on site, by the dealership owner, to match her Mountain Laurel Blush (Clanton 2006). It was such a good rolling advertisement that she decided to reward her top five producers by providing them with a pink Cadillac paid for by the company.
Since 1980, the shade used by the Mary Kay fleet has been exclusive to Mary Kay. The exact shade of pink has changed over the years. For example, in 1998, the color was changed to "pearlized pink." Regular customers cannot buy a Cadillac in the Mary Kay pink color from General Motors (GM), nor will a GM dealer repaint one in that color. GM has estimated that it has built over 100,000 pink Cadillacs for Mary Kay (Clanton 2006).
The original nine skin care products were based upon a recipe from a tanner. He found his hands to be soft and smooth, and attributing this to the tanning solutions he used, he started applying modified solutions to his face. His daughter noticed her father's skin was much smoother and clearer than his age would indicate. She further modified his solutions and developed a line of skin care products. Ash met this woman and began using her products, finding them to be very effective. In 1963, she bought the formulas from the tanner's heirs. She realized that using these special products together "with the right packaging, an innovative marketing concept, and a lot of hard work" would make her dream company a reality (Ash 1981).
These products were not just convenient for women to sell by direct selling in their homes, they also fit with Ash's philosophy that people need to feel good about themselves in order to achieve their potential. As a woman, she knew that women feel better when they look better, and men appreciate good looking women. Skincare and makeup are a simple way to help a woman look her best.
Today, the range of products has expanded such that in the United States, for example, roughly 200 products are available. The original skincare line has been expanded and modified, and a selection of makeup items added.
Mary Kay salespeople are known as "Independent beauty consultants"—they are not employees of the Mary Kay Inc., but independent contractors. Thus, unlike employees, they use their own resources, and work on their own time, as much or as little as they choose.
There are two ways to earn money in Mary Kay as an independent beauty consultant:
Mary Kay products are sold exclusively by direct selling—"the direct personal presentation, demonstration, and sale of products and services to consumers, usually in their homes or at their jobs" (Belch and Belch 2006). Customers may also purchase products online through the internet. However these are also direct sales that go through an independent consultant in the same way as sales made by contacting customers in person.
"Recruiting commission earnings" are the commission and bonuses that are earned based on the wholesale purchases of salespeople one has recruited. These commissions and bonuses are paid directly by the Mary Kay company and thus do not affect the income of recruited salespeople.
A number of criticisms have been leveled at the company by current and former Mary Kay consultants. One of the criticisms concerns pressure on consultants to purchase more inventory than they can expect to sell at the MSRP within a reasonable period of time.
In particular, the Mary Kay company has been accused of operating as a "product-based pyramid scheme," relying on constant recruitment of new sellers who purchase inventory so those who recruited them can earn commissions:
There's another way to earn income from Mary Kay: By recruiting new consultants. Recruiters earn a percentage of each inventory purchase made by the consultants they have recruited. And when recruits start assembling teams of their own, the first recruiter makes a commission on the inventories purchased by the recruits' recruits, and so on (Todorova 2005).
According to the Federal Trade Commission, a pyramid scheme is a multi-level marketing (MLM) plan in which the main way of earning money is by recruiting new distributors of a product. In the extreme, no product is involved, which results in a non-sustainable business model involving the exchange of money primarily for enrolling other people into the scheme, without any product or service being delivered. Pyramid schemes are illegal in several countries, including the United States (Valentine 1998).
Mary Kay certainly incorporates an MLM incentive in its commission structure, but MLMs per se are not illegal. Those who have studied MLM businesses, such as Robert Fitzpatrick, author of False Profits (1997), explain that the difference between a legal, legitimate MLM company and an illegal pyramid scheme is in how the salespeople make their money—by selling the product to end customers or by bringing in fresh recruits (Fitzpatrick and Reynolds 1997). However, Fitzpatrick admitted that he did not have a clear answer with regard to Mary Kay: "What we find is that elements of Mary Kay are operating like a pyramid scheme and elements are operating like a direct sales company, a legitimate business" (Todorova 2005).
Mary Kay Ash's legacy is passed on by her sales force, grandchildren, in particular Ryan Rogers and Karen Rogers, as well as her many National Sales Directors worldwide. At the time of Ash's death, Mary Kay Inc. had over 800,000 representatives in 37 countries, with total annual sales over $2 billion at retail. As of 2008, Mary Kay Inc. has more than 1.7 million consultants worldwide and excess in wholesales of 2.2 billion.
Ash never pressured others to adopt her deeply held Christian beliefs, but they guided her life and work and she always gave credit to God for her success. She was recognized for her Christian testimony through awards, appearances, and publications (Ash 2003). She was featured on Robert Schuller's Hour of Power program and made several appearances on the 700 Club with Pat Robertson. She was included in 100 Christian Women Who Changed the 20th Century (Hosier 2000).
A long-time fundraiser for charities, Ash founded the Mary Kay Ash Charitable Foundation to raise money to combat domestic violence and cancers affecting women. In May 2006, The Foundation awarded 13 cancer research grants of $100,000 each to esteemed doctors and medical scientists in the United States. In October 2006, the Foundation awarded $20,000 grants to 150 women’s shelters across the United States for a total of $3 million.
Both during her life and posthumously, Ash received numerous honors from business groups, including the Horatio Alger Award. Ash was inducted into the Junior Achievement U.S. Business Hall of Fame in 1996. Her true achievement though, attested by women worldwide, was not just personal success as a leading female entrepreneur. Rather, her life and her legacy have provided, and continue to provide, opportunities for women all over the world to succeed in their lives, achieving personal happiness, supporting their families, and contributing to society as a whole. Ash lived a full and fruitful life, always giving to others:
To me, life is no brief candle. It's a splendid torch that I want to burn brightly before I pass it on to future generations (Ash 2003).
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