Cosmetic Executive Women kicked off its 2008 Series of speaker presentations Wednesday night at the Harmonie Club in Manhattan, an event that was highlighted by the personal insights of Thia Breen, president of Estée Lauder Worldwide, who shared her experiences of climbing the ranks to becoming one of the beauty industry’s top executives.

This story first appeared in the March 28, 2008 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.

Breen started working in retail in first grade, arranging penny candies at her parents’ drugstore in Minnesota. By fifth grade, she was promoted to her first beauty gig as a Bonnie Bell buyer.

But Breen said she felt that early on her career was poorly managed. One of her biggest disappointments was finding out that she was being let go at her first job as a ready-to-wear buyer at Dayton’s. However, getting laid off was one of the best things that could have happened to her since it brought Breen into the beauty business, a business she believed she was destined for.

“I remember them telling me that there was one opening in cosmetics and I thought to myself there would be these packs of women together who were all putting on makeup behind the counters together,” said Breen, who later became one of the first national sales managers at Dayton’s.

Breen, pointing to the Estée Lauder Cos. Inc.’s succession plan that calls for Fabrizio Freda to become chief executive officer within 24 months, said the firm is excited by the prospect. “He has a tremendous background coming from Procter & Gamble and a stint at Gucci, so he really has an understanding of the luxury market,” she said.

Breen, who oversees 135 global markets, added that a big focus for the company now is exploring new global opportunities in emerging markets for the company like Russia, China and India, and developing ones like Australia and France.

“We’re a domestic brand with tremendous market share and we’re moving to be more of a global brand,” said Breen. “Our home business is steeped in department and specialty store doors so we have to make a shift in terms of emerging and developing markets, since we have to be regionally relevant around the world. We’re trying to think more globally and this requires a whole different structure.”