By  on April 8, 2005

NEW YORK — As the host of last Friday’s CEW Beauty Awards, Mario Cantone brazenly bellowed, Avon is no longer a woman donned in a pink pillbox hat at the front door saying, “Avon calling.” Now she’s running a multibillion-dollar company high atop the Trump Tower on Fifth Avenue (at least that’s the watered-down, PG version of the comedian’s quote).

Author Laura Klepacki details Avon’s rise into the world’s largest direct-selling powerhouse — some five million representatives strong — in her book, “Avon: Building the World’s Premier Company for Women.” Klepacki, a former beauty editor for WWD, acknowledged that, while she had long reported on Avon, she was not familiar with the company’s 119-year history. As she since discovered and penned in her book, the company was started in 1886 by a door-to-door bookseller named David Hall McConnell, who doled out free perfume samples to encourage housewives to buy his books.

McConnell traded books for the faster-moving category of perfume (mixed up by a chemist friend), laying the founding business principles for a company that today invents an astonishing 1,000 new beauty products every year. The company markets these items in 26 brochures each year (for a point of reference, Mary Kay prints a total of four).

The road for Avon, as Klepacki points out, wasn’t always smooth. In the Seventies, women began entering the workforce in droves, leaving unanswered doorbells in their wake. The societal shift led management to question the Avon model and adopt an aggressive acquisition strategy. The company began buying up other businesses — including Tiffany Co. — and then quickly selling them when diversification didn’t pay off. A decade later, Avon had succeeded in shifting the focus back to making women beautiful. Avon named Andrea Jung as its first female chief executive officer in 1999, and since then, the company’s sales have soared 45 percent and the stock has more than doubled, notes Klepacki. The author, who divulged Avon was the first lipstick she ever tried as a girl, interviewed Avon reps across the globe, who use business-school concepts to run their home-based operations. She noted that these independent businesswomen have built a viable beauty company with an internal culture of dreams and goals. Klepacki paints Avon as a company that will adapt as times change, but is steadfastly focused on improving women’s lives.

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