Pink Cadillacs And Lucky 13: How Mary Kay Ash Built A Billion-Dollar Business

When she lost out to men in the corporate world, the founder of Mary Kay left to build her own business, and empowered other women along the way.

By W.F. StrongJune 27, 2018 9:30 am| ,

We have had dozens of rags-to-riches stories in Texas. These Horatio Algers had hardscrabble beginnings but built fortunes worth hundreds of millions and even billions of dollars.

But unfortunately – at this point, anyway – most of them have been male. So the women who did it were all the more impressive because they had headwinds to fight that others didn’t. They had higher mountains to climb. Makes me think of Ann Richards’ famous line: “Ginger Rogers did everything Fred Astaire did. She just did it backwards and in high heels.”

Mary Kay Ash was one of those women.

Mary Kay already had a highly successful career with Stanley Home Products before beginning her empire, but that success was not recognized or rewarded. Twice, she was passed over for promotions in favor of men she had trained. Salt in the wound for sure. So she retired early, at 45, and went home to write an advice book for women in business on how to survive in a world of men. About halfway through that book she had a eureka moment. She realized that she had written a remarkable business plan. So with her husband and $5,000 in savings, she decided to launch Beauty by Mary Kay.

Sadly, just a month before the grand opening, her husband, George Hallenbeck, died. It was then that most all the men in her life – banker, minister, relatives – told her that she should forget about the business idea. Too risky. But she said no. She believed in her concept. It would work.

So on Friday the 13th – September 1963 – with the help of her son Richard, she opened Mary Kay Cosmetics in Dallas. From that day on, Mary Kay considered 13 her lucky number. Now that’s staring down superstition. The Mary Kay World Headquarters is 13 stories tall. It has 13 elevators and Mary Kay’s office is on the 13th floor, where it remains as she left it when she passed away in 2001.

Mary Kay built a company of, by, and for women. She wanted to create a business that would enrich women and help them achieve genuine success, to reap unlimited rewards, and to enjoy meaningful recognition for their excellence. Many women of her time, she said, “had not had any applause since they graduated from high school or college.” She would change that.

Meaningful recognition was not an “atta girl” on the last line of a corporate memo. She wanted women to feel the joy of being recognized and celebrated. She wanted them to have their own businesses, to be independent consultants. And when they were successful, they would be rewarded with loud ovations at corporate conventions, diamond-studded tennis bracelets, all expense paid trips to Paris where they’d stay at the Ritz and be chauffeured to the Louvre, and at home they would drive their own shiny pink Cadillacs.

And if they were in Germany, it would be a pink Mercedes. I made a pitch for Pink Pickup Trucks or Pink Suburbans for the Texas Consultants. They’re thinking about it, but I doubt seriously.

May Kay believed that the best way to empower women was to enrich them. But she wasn’t talking only about money; she meant emotionally and spiritually as well.

Anne Crews, who is a Mary Kay Vice President for public affairs and a board member of the Mary Kay Foundation, told me that when you would sit and talk with Mary Kay, you were the only person she saw. She looked you straight in the eye. It didn’t matter what was going on around her. She never talked to you from behind her desk, but would sit with you on her couch. She was warm and personable and genuine, seeing in you what you perhaps did not see in yourself. Her central belief was that there were unlimited opportunities to reach inward and achieve more.

That is why her corporate symbol was the bumblebee. “The bumblebee is aerodynamically incapable of flight,” she often observed, “but someone forgot to tell the the bumblebee.” This fit with her personal prime directive: “to help women see how great they really were.”

Mary Kay had perhaps an unusual mission statement, for a corporation. It was quite simply Matthew 7:12 – the Golden Rule: “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” She believed that if everyone followed that rule, from top to bottom, in and outside the company, success would certainly follow. She frequently told the Independent beauty consultants  to put that rule to work every day with their clients.

So what started small in Dallas, Texas, grew bigger than Dallas. Bigger than Texas. It grew all over the world to over 3 million independent beauty consultants in Russia, China, Norway, Peru – nearly 40 countries – doing over $3.5 billion dollars of business a year. What started small in Texas changed the world. That is why Mary Kay Ash was chosen by Baylor University as the Greatest Female Entrepreneur in U. S. History.

And her work for women has continued since her passing. She established the Mary Kay Foundation in 1996 to work on finding cures for cancers affecting women. The mission, says Anne Crews, has since expanded to prevent violence against women and children. Since 2000, the Mary Kay Foundation has made gifts of nearly $50 million to domestic violence shelters across America, including dozens in Texas.

Mary Kay said that she wanted to live her life so that in the end, people would say “she cared.” Given the phenomenal number of women whose lives she’s enriched, I don’t know how there would be any other conclusion.