By Matthew Hendley
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The company manufactures its own cosmetics and transports them in pink 18-wheelers to warehouses across the country.
During the past three decades, Mary Kay has built an empire on cream and cleanser with annual revenues totaling more than $600 million. It claims more than 60 national sales directors who have hit the million-dollar mark in career earnings.
Directors dress in Mary Kay suits, drive Mary Kay cars and, in many cases, turn part of their homes into Mary Kay studios.
For these sales dynamos, almost every conversation--be it with a close friend or complete stranger--becomes an opportunity to pitch Mary Kay products. Of course, the perfectly made-up saleswomen are walking billboards. Company dogma dictates that "if you go out of the house and wouldn't want to meet Mary Kay on the other side of the door, go back in and change." Ash makes no bones about telling spouses to be supportive or get out of the way. And in case there's some confusion about that, the company offers classes for husbands at its annual seminars. Selling Mary Kay is not just a job. It's a way of life.
"If you'd told me that with a master's degree and ten years in marketing, I'd be selling Mary Kay--no, I don't think so," Cutler laughs about the path his career has taken. "I certainly thought [Mary Kay] was a 'little old blond lady with pink jars.'"
It's not that he wasn't into skin care. A severe sunburn in adolescence left Cutler addicted to goop.
A secretary persuaded him to try Mary Kay's men's line. Then she brought a reluctant Cutler to a sales meeting.
"I expected huge earrings and big hair," Cutler says. "I walked into a room of culturally diverse, ethnically diverse, economically diverse, successful women.
"I thought they must be on drugs--they're all too happy."
He sold the line part-time for about a year. "I would dread going to work on Monday morning and look forward to going to my Mary Kay meeting Monday night," Cutler says. As downsizing and depression increased at the office, Mary Kay looked more and more inviting. In May 1993, Cutler moved to Phoenix and began a full-time career in cosmetics. Meeting the master at a convention, which he describes almost as though it were a religious experience, was the final turning point. "Seeing Mary Kay for the first time," he says, "I thought whatever challenges I faced to succeed in this could not be anywhere near what she faced to start this company. "She looked right at me and said, 'We've got more things coming for you [men],'" Cutler remembers. Accepting his new career required a leap of faith by friends and family. "My mother thinks if Mary Kay is a kook, she's a rich kook, and I'm happy, so it's okay," Cutler says with a laugh.
"My friends thought I was nuts," he says. "I told three friends, 'I think I've lost my mind, I'm doing Mary Kay. Will you come verify that this is, like, okay?'"
They're customers now. And Cutler is admittedly obsessed. But if you're going to be obsessed about something, he jokes, why not Mary Kay?
This business is not just housewives trying to make a few extra bucks, at least not anymore. Instead, Mary Kay seems to be reaping the rewards of a backlash against corporate America. The power of Mary Kay not only lured Cutler away from a six-figure job, it also has attracted computer analysts, paralegals, teachers and more than a few secretaries. "There's so much blatant sexism, racism and every other ism in corporate America," Cutler says. "[With Mary Kay] there's no age issue. There's no weight issue. There's no politics."
That had everything to do with Cutler's decision to leave. "As a supervisor, I was always interested in who was most qualified for the job," Cutler says. "But I was repeatedly being told to promote men and that men needed the raises more than women, because they had families to support."
Cutler says he could no longer be a party to what appeared to be a clear double standard. "Mary Kay is very democratic. It's not the corporate attitude of kill your competition, be suspicious, assume everyone has a knife in their hand waiting to stab you in the back," Cutler says. "If you can squeeze a tube and flip a page, you can sell Mary Kay."
Sales director Suzi Bryant left a career as a systems analyst for financial institutions in San Francisco, Atlanta and New York to sell Mary Kay. "I knew the guys I worked with were being paid one and a half times more than I was making," Bryant says. "I wanted to have my own business where I was in control. I came in totally for the money.
"I'm not a glamour person, and I didn't even like women that much. I didn't go to baby showers or bridal showers. I never bought Avon," Bryant says. She does 90 percent of her business from an office in her home, and takes weekends off. "I was tired of the stress. I was looking for fun," Bryant says. "I became a consultant before I ever used the product. I wanted to get it at wholesale." National sales director Carol Anton says that Mary Kay has seen a boom in sales consultants with college degrees and corporate r‚sum‚s. "In the '80s, women wanted to do it all, have it all and be it all, and now they've had it with the whole thing," Anton says. She's driven various pink Cadillacs for more than a decade, and doesn't care what people think about them. "Sometimes women crossing the street will snicker, and I'll roll down the window and say, 'Hey, I won it!' But I get honks and thumbs up from men in the financial district, because they know business, and they know what's going on," Anton says. She started selling Mary Kay 20 years ago, while trying to secure a teaching job. Since then, she's raised two children and made more than $1 million, one of the many success stories that Mary Kay's sales force eagerly points to, lest you think this is all punch and cookies and playing dress-up. Cutler stands out from his red-jacketed female counterparts at the weekly sales meeting, but only in appearance. He delivers testimonials to the wonders of Mary Kay with little encouragement and proudly joins a group of women at the front of the meeting to be recognized for top sales figures. Men are welcomed into the fold with the same kind of enthusiasm afforded to saleswomen. The men's rest rooms at conventions are still turned into women's to accommodate the crowd, but the prizes are becoming less gender-specific.