Add best-selling author to the list of Leonard A. Lauder’s achievements.
Less than one week after publication, the executive’s memoir, “The Company I Keep: My Life in Beauty,” occupied the top spot in both the beauty and business management categories on Amazon.com.
One would expect nothing less from the first-time author, who built the company that bears his mother’s name into a billion-dollar global beauty empire. Now chairman emeritus of the Estée Lauder Cos. Inc., the 87-year-old is finally telling the story of how he did it in a book that is replete with inside stories and life lessons learned along the way.
Still, he is quick to brush off congratulations of the book’s early success.
“I didn’t do anything by myself — I did it always with people,” Lauder said during a phone interview on publication day. “My wife Judy says I need people to fuel my life, and it’s true. I do.”
That thought brings Lauder back to his time in the Navy. He enlisted in 1954, after graduating third in his class at the University of Pennsylvania, but being rejected from Harvard Business School following an admissions interview gone awry. It was in the Navy that Lauder learned about leadership, and also had an epiphany that helped shape his approach to running the family firm as it grew.
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“I remember laying on my bunk, the top one, and saying to myself, ‘The world is full of people who are smarter than you. You have to make it possible to learn from them and live with them and deal with them,’” he mused. “That was the beginning of my journey.”
From then on, Lauder said he made it a point to always hire people who were smarter than him and he credits his success in business to two key attributes: optimism and fearlessness. “I always felt that I could do anything. I remember all of these experiences along the way that I had — nothing discouraged me. Everything encouraged me,” he said. “Courage is one of the things we need to keep ourselves going. Never be afraid.”
One such moment that he writes about is the decision to launch the Clinique brand in 1968, The Estée Lauder brand was growing at 24 percent annually and some in the company — namely his mother — thought the focus should be on that brand. But Lauder had a different way of thinking. “When you’re doing well, you invite competition,” he said. “I decided, why wait to be competed with? Let’s compete with ourselves.
“From then on,” he said, “it was off to the races.”
Another key moment was the decision to launch the Lauder brand in the U.K. in 1960 with its most expensive product, Re-Nutriv — even though conventional wisdom dictated that British consumers were very parsimonious when it came to spending their hard-earned pence. “It was counterintuitive, but I decided to do it anyway,” Lauder said. “Your intuition is the most trustworthy thing you’ve got. Don’t talk yourself out of something.”
Today, the Estée Lauder Cos. is the number-one prestige beauty company in the U.K., with about 4,000 doors. In the early days, Lauder said he considered moving to London to help drive the development of the business in Europe, but in the end, he decided against it. “I was the ceo of the company and made all of the decisions,” he said. “I realized that if I moved to London, I would have to give others the authority to make those decisions, and if I wanted to come back two years later, I couldn’t take that away from them.
“So I said, keep going,” he continued. “Never change course unless you have to. Keep looking forward.”
Lauder writes about serendipitous moments, also, that led to big business wins. He often says, ‘if you can’t dream it, you can’t be it,’ and he means that literally. “Way back when, I had a dream — not a daydream, a real dream — that our competitor Charles of the Ritz had come out with a tinted lip gloss,” he recalled. “I said, ‘I wish we would have done that!’
“I woke up in the morning, and realized it was a dream,” he continued. “We launched it within weeks.”
As successful as he is, Lauder said he’s never really allowed himself to stop and have a ‘pinch me’ moment looking back at all he’s built. “Exciting moments? Yes. But pinch me? No,” he said. “When I first joined the company, I said I wanted to be the best company in the world — not the largest, but the best.
“As we accomplished that,” he continued. “I realized that if you have these ambitions, you never stop. I had a friend who was the attorney general of New York. He said, ‘The day you’re elected is the day you start running for reelection.’ That stuck with me. That’s how I felt when we achieved something — keep going, never stop.”
As he makes clear in the book, though, life wasn’t all work and no play. One of his favorite ways to relax is hiking, particularly in Aspen. More recently, Lauder, who recently had knee replacement surgery, has had to forgo arduous hikes — “If I have to cross a stream with a log, forget it” — but he still loves being immersed in nature. The North Woods in New York City’s Central Park is another favorite.
Because of the pandemic, Lauder has had to curtail his active social life and he said he’s most looking forward to seeing his friends again. “I need human contact,” he said. “We as human beings need socialization and people around us.”
Still, there has been a bright spot. “Pre-COVID-19, our life was very busy — dinners, benefits, parties. Now, we see one other couple for dinner, which has been fabulous,” he said. “Because you really talk to each other — it’s not five minutes with the person on the right, 10 with the left. You listen and you learn.”
Despite his storied life, there are people he’s not yet met whom he’d love to break bread with. Fellow self-made billionaire Warren Buffet is one. “He’s a star and he’s funny and his values match mine,” Lauder said.
Ever the optimist, Lauder does see opportunity for would-be entrepreneurs in times such as these. Asked what he hopes his readers take away from the book, he noted that his parents started the company during the Great Depression. “You can do it. Anyone can do it if they try,” Lauder said. “You have to think and have courage and go for it.”