Sheryl Adkins-Green in Mary Kay’s Dallas offices.
Appeared In
Special Issue
Beauty Inc issue 12/09/2016

You could say Sheryl Adkins-Green was born for the beauty business. Her penchant for products dates back to childhood, when, as a young girl of seven or eight she mixed blue Easter egg dye with Noxzema to create what she laughingly now calls “the world’s first cream eyeshadow.” (Note to interested parties: Easter Egg dye is not easily removable from the skin.) Her route to Mary Kay, where she is chief marketing officer, wasn’t a straight rise through the industry’s ranks, though: After earning her MBA at Harvard, she climbed the corporate ladder at Kraft Foods, Citigroup and Cadbury-Schweppes, before joining Alberto Culver in 2004 as vice president and general manager. She joined Mary Kay in 2009 as vice president of global brand development and was named to her current position in 2011.

This story first appeared in the December 9, 2016 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.

An avid art collector as well as the mother of two sons, the Dallas-based Adkins-Green personifies the spirit of personal and professional accomplishment that forms the core of the message she has crafted for Mary Kay’s cadre of 3.5 million independent beauty consultants. It is clearly a theme that resonates. During her tenure, Mary Kay’s sales have soared. While 2015 revenues of $4 billion were flat due to negative currency impacts, the privately held company posted three years of double-digit increases prior and is in 35 markets worldwide, with 75 percent of its business abroad.

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Can you describe your vision for Mary Kay?

My vision is that every woman has a reason to say she loves the brand. I believe that’s achievable because we offer an amazing opportunity for women, we have irresistible products and because of the positive community impact we have around the world. With those three pillars, we believe every woman will have a reason to say she loves her Mary Kay and my role is to support each independent beauty consultant.

How has the company evolved since you joined?

One of the things that has been very significant is the growth outside of the U.S. Certainly the U.S. is very important, but we now count China as our largest market, as well as Brazil, Mexico and Russia. It has been very exciting to be part of that growth. We have had a presence in these markets for more than 20 years, but it is in the last 7 to 8 that we have seen the growth of our independent sales force and growth in consumers for our products.

As the company becomes more global how has your thinking evolved in terms of messaging and product development?

What is so exciting with Mary Kay is that the key messages and values that we were founded on are timeless principles. One is anchored in the golden rule and treating others as you want to be treated. Another, taken from a direct quote of Mary Kay Ash, is to treat everyone as if they have a sign on that says, ‘Make me feel important.’ As a brand, we celebrate each woman’s individual beauty. A third key value ties back to our mission of enriching women’s lives. Mary Kay Ash believed every woman wanted an opportunity to achieve her personal best, whether from a business or financial perspective, or relating to the time she spends with her family and community. Those messages resonate around the world.

One of the biggest changes has been the expansion of our product portfolio. Skin care has always been center stage—we are a top five brand globally. We have invested in research and development, and expanding our portfolio so we can address specific needs and preferences around the world. In color, it’s making sure we are on trend and have the shades women want. We have also expanded our fragrance offerings specifically for Latin America.

These key color and skin-care launches are driving sales.

These key color and skin-care launches are driving sales.  George Chinsee/WWD

What product trends do you see as key for the year ahead?

We are definitely seeing a trend towards more dramatic makeup—both women wearing more makeup and also bolder color combinations. In skin care, we are continuing to see that more women—younger women—are embracing antiaging. There was a time, about five or 10 years ago, where women didn’t really think about antiaging until they saw the first signs. We are seeing now that they want to be out in front of that and are willing to invest more in their skin care. It is not so much a new trend in the products themselves than in the demographic of women using those products.

At a time when so many heritage brands are struggling, what is Mary Kay doing to resonate with a new generation of shoppers?

As a brand that is more than 50 years young, it is important that we respect the tried-and-true, but at the same time leverage that for the new. One of the ways we think about that is our approach to digital. We still take some of the elements of word of mouth that worked so well in the [past], principals like positive encouragement, great leadership advice, things that have been inspiring to women, and we leverage them into new forms. It is about asking what has powered the brand over time and serving it up in new and relevant ways.

What has been most effective for you in doing so?

It has been evolutionary. You are judged by the company you keep and we have kept company with some great people. For example, in Russia, we are the exclusive beauty sponsor of Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week, in Asia we have a very successful initiative called the Dream Beautiful Contest, in the U.S., we sponsor Project Runway.  We are a little unique in that we don’t have a big name celebrity as a brand spokesperson; instead we are able to leverage fashion designers, top models and other pop culture icons and experts to partner with us and that has been great way to convey to consultants that we are relevant and respected as a global beauty brand.

Is it an advantage or disadvantage to be in Dallas?

Being in Dallas makes me and my team more intentional about making sure we are proactively reading trends and fully leveraging all of our resources because we are not in New York. It keeps us very open minded, because we know we have to put forth that little bit of extra effort versus someone who is sitting in the middle of Manhattan.

You’ve just launched the “I Can” ad campaign which stars beauty consultants. How did it come about?

About two years ago our independent beauty consultants embraced the hashtag, #MyMKlife, telling and sharing stories about their professional and personal achievements. We saw so much rich content and joy in what they were sharing. We recognized that no one can tell their story better than they can and it inspired us to create the campaign to celebrate them in their words.

We launched the campaign globally in September and I’ve traveled both to Asia and Europe recently and it is exciting to see how it has come to life. The campaign has triggered not only a dialog among the sales force, but other women have joined the conversation. Not that that is a new story—but for so long women have wondered can I have it all. It was always a bit elusive, and now they are seeing how many women do have it all in their own way. When we wanted to start the campaign it was to invite women to consider the Mary Kay opportunity. What has been exciting is it is supporting a bigger conversation around women and entrepreneurship.

How would you describe your leadership style and how has it evolved?

I describe it as situational. I have learned through a variety of corporate experiences that the most effective leadership style is tailored to the situation and team members in that moment.

What excites you most about your job?

The most exciting aspect is being in a position to help people discover and develop their talents, contributing to unleashing the fullest potential of people, whether those are members of my team or our independent sales force.

What draws you to beauty?

What I find exciting is the intersection between people’s hopes and dreams and how they want to express themselves. Outside of work I love the performing arts. I am fascinated with people, their motivations, how different ways of self-expression open up people to new possibilities. At Kraft and in the financial services sector, I always gravitated to opportunities to share and activate new initiatives to solve problems creatively, to tackle new challenges, to do things in new and different ways. That has always been what excites me and I certainly find the beauty industry a place where those things come to life everyday.

What are some key challenges now, business-wise?

As a global business, the world is changing very quickly. There are a growing number of complexities that need to be dealt with. In the case of Mary Kay, what is most challenging and exciting is the fact that this brand is alive and has millions of beauty consultants. It is not like my Fruity Pebbles [at Kraft Foods], where I had a box and I could do the graphics and it would sit on a shelf. The challenge of having to support human beings as your brand is they are always changing as the world is changing. Anticipating what they will want and how best to support them is a very dynamic process.