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WWD Beauty Inc Awards: Revlon’s Debra Perelman Wins Newsmaker of the Year

The first female ceo in Revlon’s history, Debra Perelman is making bold moves to restore the iconic beauty business to its leadership role in the industry.

Not every newly minted chief executive officer has the guts to launch a prestige makeup line called Flesh as one of her first big initiatives, but Revlon head Debra Perelman didn’t think twice.

“We’re at a period of time in the industry when we have to take risks,” she said. “We are constantly trying to push the boundaries of how our brands resonate with the consumer, how we’re communicating and how we can engage her in new ways.”

Such risk-taking is typical of Perelman, who—despite having one of the most recognizable surnames in beauty—has largely stayed out of the spotlight. Until now.

In May, Perelman was named ceo of Revlon Inc., the first female leader in the company’s history and currently the only female ceo of a top 20 beauty manufacturer.

Perelman, whose father, financier Ronald Perelman, is chairman of the board of Revlon and chairman and ceo of its parent company, MacAndrews & Forbes, started her career in Revlon’s finance department in 1996. She has methodically moved up the ranks at both companies, holding a variety of roles, most behind the scenes, before being named chief operating officer of Revlon in January and then to the top spot five months later.

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Since then, Perelman has wasted no time in immediately making her mark. Whether driving a complete digital overhaul at Revlon or green-lighting the launch of an edgy new prestige color brand, she’s intent on effecting change at the company, which has seen a steady churn of leadership at the top and has struggled to maintain relevance with consumers. “To win today, you have to have an obsession with the consumer,” Perelman said. “We need to be thinking about her every day, all the time, when we’re thinking about products, creative, communicating, executing.”

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Such clarity of vision is typical of Perelman, say those who know her well. “It is hard to get people who are baked into an industry to understand how the status quo will change, but Debbie has always been the one beating the drum and telling everyone what’s coming down the pipe,” said Ceci Kurzman, founder and president of Nexus Management Group who also serves on the board of Revlon. “She’s a powerful leader with a growth mind-set and it demonstrates a real shift. She came of age in the digital era and understands how the modern beauty consumer has evolved, yet has grown up with Revlon in her DNA and has infinite respect for the heritage of the brand.”

Perelman is the first to admit that Revlon had fallen behind, and is intent on winning by enacting a meaningful cultural transformation. “We all know the pace of the industry and how fast it’s been moving, and we were not keeping pace,” she said. “It’s obviously a challenge for the organization to define what pace we should be working at, but it’s also a tremendous opportunity in terms of opening new doors, both from an employee talent point of view and that of communicating with the consumer.”

Take the aforementioned Flesh. Developed by Revlon’s chief creative officer and former Allure editor in chief Linda Wells, the line is the first to be incubated in-house and launched exclusively with Ulta Beauty. The brand features a very on-trend 40-shade foundation lineup, as well as more suggestive items such as Fleshpot Eye and Cheek Gloss.

Another win was Revlon x Refinery 29, a collaboration with the Millennial-minded content and commerce site that launched exclusively online. While never intended to be a sales powerhouse, Perelman lauds the project for demonstrating Revlon’s currency with younger customers, a transformation that has also been effected at Almay. “Almay has always been focused on the concept of makeup that loves your skin—now we’re just playing more in the trend area,” Perelman said. “We’re looking to service the core consumer and bring in the older Millennials, and from my standpoint, it’s been successful. It shows that Almay can play in color and trend, not just the traditional eye and face categories, and that the consumer feels it is resonating.”

Analysts so far laud Perelman’s double-headed approach, of both incubating and updating. “We’re in a post-Fenty world now, where talking about inclusivity is a commitment—it’s not just acceptable, it’s desired,” said Jefferies analyst Stephanie Wissink. “Revlon has [also] recognized their core brands in the domestic market are struggling in an intensely competitive environment, so [by] coming to market with something fresh, new and designed for today’s market instead of reverse-engineering an existing brand, they are inserting themselves into the conversation in a novel and innovative way.”

Revlon’s digital upgrade under Perelman is also notable. The company had tapped SapientRazorfish to help identify what internal capabilities needed to be beefed up with regard to digital, social and data analytics, and Perelman and team are now in the process of executing. “We’re looking at how do we build search, build on and refine our abilities on social across all brands, refine our voice by brand and train employees on the benefits and skill sets that are necessary to leverage social and digital,” she said. As part of the digital transformation, Perelman created an in-house digital creative agency called Red House. “That’s a big part of it—to have more creative control, but also to be able to react quicker with what we’re putting out there by brand and gain efficiency with regards to the teams.”

More recently, the ceo gained the approval of Wall Street when she announced a 2018 optimization program during the company’s third-quarter earnings call in November, which is designed to save Revlon between $125 million and $150 million a year by the end of 2019. Although there was a slight sales dip for the period, exacerbated by ongoing inventory issues at a plant in Oxford, N.C., Revlon’s shares surged 31 percent to $28.61 after the news.

Perelman has her eye on more fundamental changes, though. When asked to describe her leadership style, she immediately praises the largely female all-star team of talent she’s compiled at Revlon, noting collaboration is a key component of her style. “Ideas should be heard, the debate should be had and decisions should be made,” she said. “It’s about driving accountability and decision-making within the organization and empowering everyone to do that. It’s sounds simple, but it’s quite complex and necessary for the success of the business.”

Decision-making also represents a core tenant passed down to Perelman from her father. “Very early on, he taught me, ‘Always make the decision because if you don’t, someone else is going to do it for you,’” she said. “I use that as a filter a lot, and not only in business. I think it motivated him, and it motivates me, too.”