Thia Breen, group president of North America at Estée Lauder Companies Inc., has spent roughly 40 years molding sales teams and building brands, and now she has decided to retire.
“It’s time,” said Breen, 66. “It’s been a great ride. But you know, there’s time to sort of start thinking about the next chapter.”
Breen will be succeeded by Chris Good, president, U.K. and Ireland. He, in turn, will be succeeded by Philippe Warnery, currently general manager of the Canadian affiliate.
Lauder said all these changes will take effect July 1.
A native of Minnesota, Breen began her career in the training squad of Dayton-Hudson department store before joining Lauder in 1977 as a Clinique account executive. Over the years she gained a reputation for no-nonsense fearlessness and a knack for building high-performance teams.
Asked what made her proud, Breen said: “The number of people that I have grown with and that have grown with me and have gotten promoted under me. It’s hard for me to have a meeting anywhere at any time in any city in any room that people haven’t worked with me, that I haven’t been their boss or something like that.”
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As for who mentored her, Breen came up with a single name: Jack Wiswall — a Lauder stalwart in the early days until he crossed the street to L’Oréal USA, finally retiring in 2006 as president of the Designer Fragrance Division.
“Jack Wiswall made me the first female national sales manager [for Aramis] in the company,” Breen recalled. “It had always been thought — according to him now — that it needed to be a man, somebody in a tuxedo 20 nights a year for all the black ties in New York. He did make me [that], so that was a break.
“There are still certain things that I think back and I think, ‘Is this the way that Jack would have done it?’”
Wiswall was apparently right. According to Lauder, Breen was a driving force behind the development of signature brands: Aramis, Origins, Clinique and Estée Lauder. In addition to breaking the glass ceiling at Aramis, Breen also was the first national sales manager of Origins.
“She helped me put Origins on the map and make it the success it was in the department store and in the retail store arena,” said William P. Lauder, executive chairman of Estée Lauder Cos. Inc.
“Thia Breen is one of the most remarkable executives that Estée Lauder has ever had and one of the most remarkable in the cosmetics industry,” declared Leonard A. Lauder, chairman emeritus of the company. “She has done everything.
“The company would not be in the strong position that it is in China if it had not been for Thia. She initiated and managed the re-creation of our Canadian affiliate to make it the second-largest Estée Lauder affiliate in the world.”
Fabrizio Freda, Lauder’s president and chief executive officer, agreed. “She’s an amazing leader of our organization. She has been the symbol of the idea of retail relationships in this country and of the leadership; she created a new vision, like establishing our Canada affiliate, and also she has really worked successfully across different kinds of jobs in the company. [Thia is] one of the few people who led a region and a brand — the Estée Lauder brand and the U.S. region. She has cut across different activities successfully in the company.”
He then struck a more personal note. “Thia is really instrumental in making me understand the U.S. market when I came in . Thia has been really my right arm in understanding the U.S. market and the retail environment in the U.S.”
Breen worked on Origins in the early Nineties, then moved back to Clinique, as senior vice president and national sales manager, then finally rose to senior vice president, general manager, Clinique North America.
“She helped bring Clinique to the prominence it has now, the No. 1 brand in North America in prestige beauty,” William Lauder recalled. In describing Breen’s strengths, he continued, “Thia has been disciplined. She has a certain level of confidence in her experiences and in what she knows — and humility also, which makes her really good and really effective at what she does.”
While at Clinique, Breen decided she wanted to try retailing, recalling memories of life in her parents’ drugstore in Benson, Minn., where she worked as the Bonne Bell buyer, when she was in eighth grade.
In 2003, she was hired by Terry Lundgren, who was running the Federated Merchandising Group, shortly before he took the helm at parent Federated Department Stores as ceo. Her title was senior vice president of cosmetics and fragrances.
“What she brought was a complete understanding from the vendor perspective of the beauty business and, of course, she had her incredible energy, spirit and management skills to go along with that experience,” said Lundgren, who is now Macy’s executive chairman. “It really was fantastic for us. Back in 2003, we still had seven buying offices. She had the skill set, the knowledge base and she knew how to deal with all of these different buying offices. She was incredibly helpful to bringing it all together for us. A big impact.”
From her point of view, Breen said, “I loved seeing all the brands in the industry and all the leaders in the industry. What I realized at that point is that you know there’s great brands and leaders within Lauder that it is really such a great industry— no matter what sort of brand I went and saw and no matter who would try to sell at Macy’s.”
But as 2005 arrived, she was lured back to the Lauder brand by John Demsey, who was returning to the division. First, Breen worked as its president of the Americas, then global president, where she helped accelerate the brands’ business growth in Asia, according to the company. In 2009, she was named president of North America for all of corporate Lauder, the first person to hold that position.
Breen was elevated to her current post as group president in 2012.
Outside of Lauder, Breen assumed the chair of the Personal Care Products Council in 2015, and she will continue her final year through February 2018.
In addition to helping to ignite the Chinese business and reorganizing Canada into affiliate status, Breen is credited with many structural innovations and management breakthroughs. In one, she built upon Lauder’s traditional department store base by spearheading the cultivation of new high-growth retail channels — what Lauder calls “specialty multi” (chains like Sephora and Ulta Beauty) and freestanding stores in North America.
“Thia is a true visionary leader, who has been a tremendous partner to Ulta Beauty,” said Mary Dillon, ceo of Ulta Beauty. “Thia has been instrumental in helping us navigate and partner with new brands within their portfolio. I have a sincere admiration for Thia. Her presence will be sorely missed.”
Missed, perhaps, but Lauder seems ready to amp up the exposure for the two young stars who are following in her footsteps.
As Breen’s successor as president of North America, Good has already built a record in the U.K. and Ireland, Lauder’s second-largest market. He also has leadership experience in Asia and elsewhere in Europe. According to the company, Good pioneered the evolution of Lauder’s traditional retail outlook into the new world of higher growth of freestanding stores and the omni realm of e- and m-commerce.
“Chris is an extraordinary leader, with strong expert abilities to drive significant results by fueling new avenues of growth in established markets,” said Freda. “He knows how to innovate and develop win-win plans with our retail partners. A strategist, an inspiring leader for people and a very pleasant person to work with — the ideal new leader for our home market.”
Similarly, Warnery — who will succeed Good in the U.K. and Ireland — has been busy as general manager of Canada. According the company, he shaped a growth strategy that left Canada with a reputation as a top market for prestige beauty. Furthermore, the company said, “Canada’s online business is flourishing as a leader in mobile innovation and hyper-targeted influencer strategies.”
Breen chimed in with her 100 percent Norwegian sense of certainty: “Philippe has done just a fantastic job.”