By  on December 10, 2010

NEW YORK — “If you can’t see the future, you can’t get there. It’s as simple as that.”

So said industry titan Leonard Lauder, accepting the inaugural WWD Beauty Biz Visionary Award at the eighth annual awards breakfast held Thursday at The Four Seasons here.

“I’ve always had a vision,” said Lauder, accepting the award to one of three standing ovations. “I simply wanted to be the best company in the world.

“A football player sees the ball going through the goalpost and starts to move his foot. He makes tiny adjustments, because he is picturing the ball going through the post,” he continued. “When you think about it, [as a young man] I saw myself in this moment, with this great company and these great colleagues at some point in the future — which is now.”

Lauder was joined at the breakfast by top industry executives, including William Lauder, executive chairman of the Estée Lauder Cos. Inc.; Fabrizio Freda, chief executive officer of the Estée Lauder Cos.; Terry Lundgren, chairman, ceo and president of Macy’s Inc.; Frederic Roze, ceo of L’Oréal U.S.; Bernd Beetz, ceo of Coty Inc.; Pamela Baxter, president and ceo of LVMH Perfumes & Cosmetics North America, and Alan Ennis, president and ceo of Revlon.

But it was Lauder who was the main draw. The beauty legend regaled the audience with anecdotes from his youth. “My dad used to take me to the Tip Toe Inn on West 86th Street every Sunday while my mother had her hair done,” he mused. “I would always order the most expensive things on the menu. ‘You eat like a buyer,’ my father told me.”

Surveying the room, Lauder noted how much had changed since the early days of his family’s company. “I remember my father went to lunch every Saturday at the Oak Bar in the Plaza, with all of his competitors,” Lauder remembered. “Today, that might be considered collusion, but when I started, [the industry] was like a cosmetics village.”

His goal when he was younger was to make Estée Lauder the leader of the U.S. cosmetics industry — a vision some scoffed at. “I remember telling one buyer in Miami that we were going to be number one,” Lauder said. “At the time, Revlon was number one, Elizabeth Arden was number two, Helena Rubinstein was number three and Charles of the Ritz was number four. And we were way down there,” he said, pointing to the floor. “‘You? Number one? You’ll never be number one,’ the buyer told me.”

Today, his company’s flagship brands, Estée Lauder and Clinique, vie for the top positions in the prestige market.

Noting that his mother, Estée Lauder, was “creative and highly ambitious and really set the standard,” he revealed that she taught him to always buy candy and chocolates for the saleswomen at the makeup counter and fragrance bar. “Can you imagine getting a number-one fragrance today with a box of chocolates?” he said to appreciative laughter. “Things don’t work that way anymore.”

Referring to the wave of department store consolidation that has fundamentally altered the business landscape, Lauder said that when he started in the business the company had 280 major accounts in the U.S. “and now we have eight or nine.”

When he can’t sleep, Lauder counts former stores instead of counting sheep. “I start in Portland, Maine, go down through Boston and usually don’t get past Providence, Rhode Island. If I get to San Diego, I know I’m in trouble,” he said.

Time and again, he returned to the importance of vision and foresight in building a company. Remarking that he used to belong to the Young Presidents’ Organization, or the YPO. (“I could now join the OPO,” he noted.) He remembered a speech given there by Viktor Frankl, the noted Austrian psychiatrist who was a Holocaust survivor. Said Lauder, in illustrating the importance of having foresight, “He told us that he survived because he could always envision the day when he would be standing in a room telling us what really happened there.”

Acknowledging the competitors in the room, Lauder said, “You make us all better.” But it was to those from the Estée Lauder Cos. Inc., that he delivered his most heartfelt remarks. “In order to have the greatest company in the world, I needed the greatest people in the world,” he said. “The wealth of a company is its people. Without good people, you can’t build anything.”

Lauder’s passion for the business was plain to see.

“People said I was crazy, but my wife Evelyn and I used to take our vacations to go to stores. We even went to Los Angeles in August,” he said. “I loved it. To me, I loved the people I worked with. To this day, they are my best friends.”

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