Dan Brestle, who has shown a deft talent for building brands and mentoring talent over the last three decades, will retire June 30 from his post as vice chairman and president of the Estée Lauder Cos., North America.

This story first appeared in the March 13, 2009 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.

Proud of having worked in every one of the company’s divisions, Brestle, 63, has been a mainstay of management expertise since he joined Lauder in 1978, when the firm consisted of three brands generating $400 million in sales. It remains the world’s prestige powerhouse, consisting of 29 brands with sales in the last fiscal year of $7.9 billion.

Brestle will be missed, judging from the comments of his bosses. Leonard Lauder, chairman of the Estée Lauder Cos. Inc., describes him simply as “a great human being.” Asked what Brestle brought to the company, Lauder replied, “a combination of good common sense, experience; he listens easily and gives good advice.” Faced with a plethora of competing brands and stores, “he is able to navigate those brands and stores so smoothly you don’t really know it’s being done.”

His son, William Lauder, chief executive officer, sent a letter to employees, stating: “His ability to build and foster great teams is legendary — from the brands, to the field teams, to operations, to our retail partners. His remarkable vision and business acumen is what has made him one of the most revered mentors for many in our industry.”

During an interview, Lauder said that Brestle’s charismatic personality embodies “a certain humanity and engaging presence that makes a lot of people want to work with him and partner with him.” Lauder added that after retirement, Brestle will continue as chairman of the Personal Care Products Council as well as work in support of PCPC’s Look Good, Feel Better program.

Brestle has strong relationships with both marketing executives and retailers. Robert Mettler, the retired president of special products at Macy’s Inc. and former chairman and ceo of Macy’s West, praised Brestle as the “consummate professional.” Mettler attributed Brestle’s ability to have played so many roles within Lauder as simply being “the guy who understood every aspect of the retail and corporate sides of the business. I have enormous respect for him.”

Brestle’s versatility enabled him to lead brands like Prescriptives and Clinique Laboratories in their peak years, but also to mentor Lauder’s collection of indie brands and its fledgling BeautyBank division.

Brestle began his career in 1973 after leaving the Air Force and joining Johnson & Johnson, where he held a number of jobs, including running a Band-Aid plant. He began at Lauder with a distribution job in the Aramis division, then was instrumental in modernizing systems at the main Melville, N.Y., plant and running the Lauder fragrance operations. He switched out of operations in 1983 as regional marketing director for Aramis, and moved to Prescriptives the following year as vice president and national sales manager before stepping up to president.

During an interview Monday, Brestle said one of the aspects of his career that makes him most proud has been his ability to cross bureaucratic borders between job functions and brands. “You were, historically, segmented,” he said. “If you were in operations, you were an operations guy. If you worked for Clinique, you’re a Clinique person. It was easier for you to leave the company and come back versus going from Clinique to Lauder; people just got pigeonholed.”

Brestle led Clinique Laboratories as president from 1992 to 1998, establishing its number-one sales rank in 1996-97. He then was named president of the Estée Lauder flagship brand for the U.S. and Canada, which he had previously dislodged from the top spot by leading Clinique to number one.

During the interview, Brestle admitted that switching from Clinique to Lauder was “emotionally, the most difficult decision.” He noted, “from taking Clinique where I found it and moving it into the number-one line in North America, and then saying, ‘OK, go compete with yourself in Lauder’ — that was a very hard emotional transition for me.”

Not surprisingly, the most enjoyable moments came at Clinique, particularly with the watershed launches of Turnaround Cream and Happy fragrance.

“We just had the best team,” he said, asserting, “Clinique just skyrocketed and we just blew past Lancôme, blew past Lauder. That was probably the most satisfaction.”

The significance of the Turnaround Cream launch in September 1992 was that it marked the first time that Clinique introduced a product with national and co-op advertising coordinated with the on-counter product arrival. Previously, founder Carol Phillips had put the product on counter for three months before advertising.

Brestle recalls saying at the time, “We’re gonna make this a big deal.”

The Happy fragrance was a trickier proposition because of the brand’s squeaky clean, nonfragranced lab coat image.

“We sat in the conference room and said, ‘What emotion can Clinique sell in a fragrance?’ Can you imagine Obsession by Clinique? You’re in a white lab coat, what emotion can you sell?’

“[Creative director] Jim Nevins walked into my office and said ‘I need $10,000.’ I said, ‘Why?’ He said, ‘I know what the name of the fragrance is.’ I said, ‘Well what is it?’ He said, ‘If I tell you, you’re going to think it’s a Revlon fragrance and throw me out of here. I want to create the environment.’

“He created three vignettes, TV commercials with Jimmy Durante talking, ‘Make Somebody Happy,’ Judy Garland. You looked at it and said ‘That’s it.’ Clinique can sell happiness. Clinique finally found an emotion that worked as a fragrance that it could sell.”

Brestle was named group president from July 2001 to January 2005 with global responsibility for Aveda, Bobbi Brown, Bumble and bumble, Darphin, Jo Malone, and La Mer, while overseeing the development of BeautyBank. In January 2005, Brestle was named chief operating officer with responsibility for research and development plus the Estée Lauder, MAC Cosmetics, Prescriptives, Tom Ford and Sean John brands in addition to BeautyBank.

He was named to his present post in November 2007 with the recruitment of Fabrizio Freda as chief operating officer and president, signaling the beginning of a new era at Lauder.

Brestle reflected on the changes he has seen in the American retail landscape from 75 department stores chains in 1990 to nine that do over 90 percent of Lauder’s business today. Also, he’s seen the rise of big-box and freestanding specialty store competitors to the traditional department store. The result is that department store anchors have gone from selling 98 percent of cosmetics products in a mall to “roughly 70 percent.”

“There are alternatives now for a young generation who are not as comfortable with that department store environment as her mother was,” Brestle said. “It’s going to be a challenge to bring that customer back into the department store, it really is.

“I think they’re going to find their footing. I still believe that they needed to do what [Macy’s Inc. chairman, president and ceo] Terry [Lundgren] is doing and create a national presence. I’m still pro-department store…it is still is the most inexpensive way to create a brand anywhere in the world.”

Neither has he become jaded about the business. His advice to young people entering the industry is “enjoy what you’re doing. You’re selling lipsticks. It’s a tremendous commodity — if you want to call it a commodity — a great product to sell. And when you really look at what we do from the fragrance to the skin care to the color is make people feel better about themselves. It’s not brain surgery, it’s not drugs. It’s a tremendous, tremendous, fun business to be in.”