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Estée Lauder at 75: Leonard A. Lauder: A Visionary Reflects

"From Day One, we were all a team and one extended family. I never look at the people who work for me as employees."

Leonard A. Lauder, the patriarch of the Lauder family whose vision propelled the company from a single brand into the most dominant player in prestige beauty, could be excused for taking a step back from the business. But the octogenarian shows no signs of slowing down, remaining as in touch, engaged and passionate about beauty as ever, despite being grounded by the pandemic. As the company celebrates its 75 anniversary, we asked Lauder to reflect on the legacy he’s built and the impact he’s had on so many.

One of your most famous sayings is if you can’t see the future you can’t get there. How did your vision of the company evolve from the early days?

Leonard A. Lauder: When I first joined Estée Lauder in 1958, I had the same idea then that I have now. I wanted to be multibranded and multinational. My example of multibranded was General Motors. They had a brand for every price and lifestyle. At the time, the cosmetics industry was totally different. Revlon was Revlon, Helena Rubinstein was Helena Rubinstein and Elizabeth Arden was Elizabeth Arden. I wanted to turn the model upside down and have a multibranded company. Believe it or not — it still is my vision. Yes, COVID-19 has changed lots of things, but the view of tomorrow still stays with me.

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How do you keep your finger on the pulse of tomorrow?

LAL: Anyone who says they can have their finger on the pulse of tomorrow for life is wrong. The challenge is to keep up every day. You have to read and you have to travel. You have to see what is going on in the word. I always had the skill of seeing smaller things. You have to keep up to date, and know what to see and not to see. You have to pick up little ideas out of nowhere.

So you had the vision from the beginning — but did you ever have doubt?

LAL: I never had doubts. I was always prudent and cautious. That I was. But I never had doubts about what I had to do. I was never afraid to take a chance. I am not afraid of losing money, but what I am afraid of is doing the wrong thing. There is a very old definition of the difference between a manager and a leader. A manager does things right. A leader does the right thing. The question I would ask myself is am I doing the right thing? I never wanted to be embarrassed by doing the wrong thing for which I should have known better.

How did you deal with setbacks?

LAL: Setbacks are a way of life. If you don’t have any setbacks, you haven’t learned or experienced anything. I consider setbacks a learning process along the way. I give a course called Brand Equity and have a morning session called Leonard Lauder’s chamber of horrors. They are mistakes I made — you can learn more from mistakes than successes.

Leonard A. Lauder
The executive in a 1982 portrait.

What’s the best way to point out when someone else is making a mistake?

LAL: When I’ve tried to talk to someone who makes a mistake, often they’ll say, ‘let me make my own mistakes,’ and they are not wrong about that. On the other hand, I use mistakes as a teaching moment. I sometimes open my mouth and it falls on empty ears, but I say it anyway. I don’t want to take someone’s sense of self assurance and respect away from them. It has to be conveyed very thoughtfully and done very carefully. Often I’ll approach it by saying, ‘ I made this mistake several years ago, boy was I embarrassed by it.’ It is basically the same mistake they made, but I don’t say it was you. We learn from our mistakes and, today many people are so risk adverse that they sometimes miss the opportunity of learning from themselves.

That’s life.

What’s the gutsiest thing you’ve done?

LAL: Two things. One — getting married to Evelyn Hausner. I thought I would live a single life, but oh my God, I had to marry her! Don’t get me wrong — I had to marry her because I loved her so much. We were in Palm Beach when I proposed to her and we took the train back to New York. Evelyn asked me quite innocently — do we have any money?  The answer was — no. I wasn’t lying, because I had no money. But growing up without money and making it and sharing it with other people is probably the greatest thing that ever happened to me. When you start off poor and make money — boy, are you a lucky guy.

Marrying my wife Judy was not a leap of faith. When I asked her to marry me, she didn’t really know whether I was serious or not. About a month before, my picture had been in the N.Y. Post, calling me the bachelor of the year. She thought I was a player. I am the most un-player of all the players of the world. My wife Judy has been one of the greatest things that happened to me in my life and then some.

Clearly so much has changed in the last 75 years — but what has stayed the same? What are the threads that have run throughout that have enabled the company to thrive for seven decades and counting?

LAL: First, our love and respect for the people who work with us. From Day One, we were all a team and one extended family. I never look at the people who work with us as employees. I look at them as members of my extended family. That remains the same.

Number two — quality counts. Never forget quality. Don’t try to chisel, don’t try to do it on the cheap. If you can’t do a great product, don’t do it. if you launch a product and think maybe you shouldn’t have done it — pull it off the market. You can spend your lifetime building your reputation and you can lose your reputation in 10 minutes. Your products have to be right on, all the time. If you have the eye of the owner, you have to make sure the products are right all of the time. There is no room for mistakes. You can make a mistake while you are learning to dance — which I always do — but you can’t make a mistake when making a product for people to use. Not allowed.

In my brand equity sessions, I give out a Lucite plaque that I want everyone to keep on their desk. It says on it “Good Enough,” and there is a slash through it. You have to be the best — not good enough. Good enough doesn’t work for me.

Leonard A. Lauder Clinique
Leonard A. Lauder with Clinique beauty advisers during a store visit.

Did you ever have a desire to try a business other than beauty?

LAL: When I was in the Navy, I fantasized for about 15 minutes about staying in. I loved serving my nation, but I knew that my creativity would run into trouble because everything was done by the book. I couldn’t wait to get into the business. From Day One, I was happy.

Last year, you published your book which has become a top seller. What books have most influenced you?

LAL: I read a lot — if I rattled off all of my favorites, we would be here from now till tomorrow. But one that stands out is [“In All His Glory”], a biography of Bill Paley, the founder of CBS. He was a brilliant man, an extremely creative guy. After he died, CBS was bought by someone else and this book ends with the following sentence — “and then CBS became just another company with dirty carpets.” That phrase really struck home — because when you create a company that is unique and powerful and so unusual and so quality-driven, you cannot imagine it falling down into the pits. Bill Paley was someone who created a great company and when he passed away, so did his company and that is sad to me.

As you reflect on 75 years and all you have accomplished — what do you think your biggest impact on the industry has been?

LAL: People say — modesty unbecomes me. There is one thing I want to say I’m proud of — I truly believe I created the modern beauty industry. That is hard for me to say, but when I joined Estée Lauder, Elizabeth Arden was Arden, Helena Rubinstein was Rubinstein, Revlon was Revlon. Everyone was a single brand operating in a single way. I bought a portfolio of companies, each one of which has started a different aspect of the cosmetics industry. I believe that all of the acquisitions you see today and the indies that want to be acquired stem from our first acquisition of MAC — that one acquisition changed our company and indeed changed the beauty industry.