By  on June 19, 2009

Leslie Blodgett knows how to win over a crowd.

In an era of gloomy, recession-talk panel discussions, the Bare Escentuals chief executive officer had an audience of beauty executives in stitches Wednesday evening during a Q&A hosted by Cosmetic Executive Women, led by WWD Beauty Biz editor Jenny Fine.

“I like having everyone around,” said Blodgett, referring to the influx of competing mineral makeup lines. Then came the zinger. “Just don’t get too close,” warned Blodgett. The unconventional ceo shuns the button-down, corporate approach of many of her peers, and speaks honestly — having long-ago checked her ego and pretense at the door. That approach has helped Blodgett court legions of loyal users and build Bare Escentuals into a $556 million business, up from about $4 million when she joined the company in 1994. Blodgett’s emotional ties to the business are difficult to mask — even in front of Wall Street.

“I don’t like earnings calls, because they scare me. I have to use language I don’t like to use. I want to tell [analysts] how I feel and they just want me to tell them where our inventory stands,” Blodgett quipped. “They want to see numbers on a paper.” But storytelling, she said, is what built the brand, and what she will continue to rely on to fortify growth, particularly as Bare Escentuals rolls out to international markets via Sephora doors and on QVC. Bare Escentuals also plans to open a stand-alone boutique in London this fall.

All kidding aside — at least for a moment — Blodgett acknowledged life as a public company has reinforced the need for disciplined growth.

Often asked what her next trick after mineral foundation will be, Blodgett said the company is working on creating new brands. “It won’t be just Bare Minerals anymore,” she declared. The beauty game-changing Blodgett built her business on QVC — when buying items hawked on the small screen was still considered taboo by many — and she is now increasingly enamored with another electronic medium: Facebook. She boasts 5,000 friends, the maximum allowed by the social networking site. “The Internet is no longer anonymous. I know their religion, what they ate for lunch, their boyfriend,” she said of her Facebook friends, laughing. But connecting with the consumer — whether online, on her bus tours or at the boutiques — is Blodgett’s mission. “This is not a marketing thing. It’s not a stunt. This is our life.” Case in point: Last month, Blodgett took out a $40,000 ad in the New York Times, which invited readers to meet her for coffee if they were in San Francisco. “I’m not kidding,” she wrote, and included her assistant’s phone number.

The ads return on investment? “I didn’t care if it worked. I believed in it,” said Blodgett, dismissively noting the ad did result in a sales lift. It also drew some 30,000 women to the company’s Web site.

The legacy she wants to leave is simple: “We’re here to make people happy. I want people who are happy to be ecstatic.”

Blodgett also wants the recession to just end already. “I’m shopping at Ross [Dress] for Less right now. It’s a terrible experience.” The audience roared.

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