A MALER SHADE OF PINKTOM CUTLER IS A RISING STAR IN THE WOMAN-CENTRIC WORLD OF MARY KAY COSMETICS
Tom Cutler walks through the corporate training room preparing for his evening sales meeting, pausing for a moment to fiddle with the flowers on the front table. The 33-year-old businessman is most at home here, surrounded by a buzz of new clients and suited sales folks.
Cutler is no stranger to the sales business. He spent a decade in Silicon Valley, both running a software company and as a marketing vice president for another computer firm.
But now his interest is focused on a table of customers captivated by an array of new products. They are the bread and butter of the new career that allows him to do business from home. A lot of business. Cutler has amassed a client list of more than 500 customers. Each gets careful, full attention.
"To just see what happens when they go from before to after never ceases to amaze me," he adds with the passion of an artist discussing a great work. His Scottsdale apartment is a veritable shrine to salesmanship. The living-room walls are decorated with framed covers of the company's in-house magazine. His kitchen cabinets are full of the products he sells.
Sporting gold and diamond pins on his lapel, a blue silk scarf draped around the neck of his large frame, Cutler is nothing if not enthusiastic about what he does for a living, and the woman who changed his life. "Mary Kay came into my life at a time when I wanted to do something for other people. I am obsessed, and I love it."
Tom Cutler is, indeed, in the pink.
Literally driven by success, he recently became the first man in Arizona to win the coveted Mary Kay car by selling cosmetics.
"I'm having sooo much fun," Cutler says, laughing. Cutler is one of an emerging group of men, weary of corporate America, who have found happiness and prosperity in the formerly all-female pink society of Mary Kay Inc. Mary Kay men now number more than 2,000 nationwide, still a tiny minority of the company's 325,000-person sales force. But Cutler intends to continue breaking new ground all the way up the Mary Kay sales ladder. Three years ago, Mary Kay issued its first pink Cadillac--the company's top sales award--to a man in Chicago. Cutler, who won a Pontiac Grand Am for recruiting 12 new salespeople and leading a team that sold more than $4,000 of products for four consecutive months, plans to be the next.
He's quick to laugh and joke, the kind of jolly guy who gives the immediate impression that he's really having a ball with all of this. That he is the only man among women in red jackets (a sign of admittance to the first level of management) is just fine with Cutler. He's seriously committed to Mary Kay. Cutler expects to post $70,000 in sales this year. Pointing at the framed faces of pink-suited sales directors at Mary Kay's north Phoenix training center, he says his picture will be there soon.
And he says it with the determination of a Little League player preparing for the Big Game.
Visitors to the company's training center are greeted immediately by a large portrait of her majesty, the queen of cream, Mary Kay Ash. The octogenarian is, to say the least, well-preserved. Now chairman emeritus of the company she founded 31 years ago, Ash still keeps office hours four days a week.
Her son, Richard Rogers, is chairman of the board. But it is Ash who commands unyielding devotion from the masses of perfectly made faces. Her speeches leave the sales force misty-eyed. They quote her words like scripture. Every year, more than 30,000 disciples flock to the company's Dallas headquarters (home of the 3,000-square-foot Mary Kay museum) to convene with their leader. In times of illness, she has led them from her sickbed via closed-circuit television.
The Mary Kay "praise to success" method of motivating sales consultants with gifts and money originally was designed to give women a boost in business (Ash, once a saleswoman for Stanley Home Products, reportedly was passed over by her male colleagues). The same goes for her company creed--faith, family and career, in that order.
Most of the sales force is made up of independent consultants who operate their own businesses, and tailor their work schedules around raising a family or working another full-time job.
Got a conflict? No problem. Sales consultants can sell a booking to a colleague for a 15 percent commission. There are no territories and no quotas. Requirements for moving up the ladder are spelled out and non-negotiable: You sell this, you get that. Mary Kay consultants make 50 percent of whatever they sell, and 4 to 12 percent of whatever is sold by consultants they recruit. As consultants climb the ladder by bringing others into the fold, the percentage they earn from recruits increases. For varying amounts of sales and recruits, Mary Kayers earn cars, trips, jewelry and higher commissions.
But the pink brigade is quick to deny the firm is engaged in multilevel marketing, a form of pyramid scheme that occasionally attracts the attention of attorneys general. Mary Kay executives point out that commissions are paid directly by the company, not from someone else's cut of the profits.
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 rsums. "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.
And the products are no longer entirely packaged in trademark pink. Ash originally chose the color because, in 1963, pink looked nice in most bathrooms.
Learning the tricks of the trade, however, was a bit of a challenge for Cutler. His first victims were friends. "Those poor people," Cutler laughs. "My first facial took four hours and 15 minutes. I was so interested in all the different formulas, I thought they were supposed to try everything."
Needless to say, he got better and is now a whiz at raising or lowering cheekbones and balancing out lips. Besides, Cutler recites, "Mary Kay always says, 'As long as you don't let them leave with a mask on, you're doing okay.'"
Actually, consultants don't ever touch faces. Instead, they are sort of makeup foremen, directing the application.
"I certainly am not going to be in your bathroom in the morning, so you'd better learn how to do this," Cutler says. "And I don't wear eye shadow."
He does, however, plan to know his customers for the next 30 years. "A lot of women really trust my opinion about what looks good," Cutler says. "And I'm really honest with them."
Cutler personally has recruited six men as Mary Kay sales consultants. Among them are a lawyer, an accountant, an IRS auditor and a pharmacy technician; they sell Mary Kay part-time. "It's a fun, social thing," Cutler says about the facial and makeover parties that are the backbone of Mary Kay sales. "Sometimes it's, 'Oh, honey, take that lipstick off.' Or someone will put on a blush, and it's like, 'Whoa, too much,' and we'll all laugh."
Cutler's marketing background has helped in his new career. Consider a recent sale of $1,200 in Mary Kay gift baskets to a local accounting firm ("You just don't give liquor anymore"). He is, however, keenly aware that the hostesses who invite their friends over for a group facial party are stalwarts of the Mary Kay business. They are rewarded with free cosmetics.
Eight parties later, she got her stuff. By then, Cutler had made thousands.
On the flip side, Cutler faces a challenge his female counterparts need not worry about--the safety zone. Women aren't as willing to do personal business in his home--or theirs--as they might be if he were a woman. Cutler usually suggests that women bring a friend or two for comfort, which also means more customers. And there's no question that he's serious about this business. A dining table stands ready for four or six facials or makeovers. "My customers are so cute," he exclaims. "They'll call and say, 'Tom, Tom, I'm almost out of cream and cleanser. You've got to help me.' "I've got them all convinced that their face is going to fall off if they stop using the product." It seems to work. For whatever reason, they love him and they love Mary Kay. Cutler counts more than 300 regular customers, and another 200 occasional buyers.
Skin care aside, Mary Kay is really selling self-esteem in pink cases. The company revolves around the idea that if you look good, you feel good--stress is bad for the skin. And people spend a pretty penny making themselves feel good. "I'm committed to my happiness, which is more important than all the money in the world," Cutler says. "Women [customers] come in and it's like, 'My boss is a jerk, my kids are screaming, my life is miserable, make me beautiful now.'
"It's a fun thing. It makes people relax. It's chill-out time."
The atmosphere extends to Mary Kay meetings, where new recruits and veterans share testimonials and celebrations in proceedings that are a bit reminiscent of 12-step programs, or those recurring skits on Saturday Night Live called "Daily Affirmation."
It's the Mary Kay way. Or, as the sales force repeats in unison at the end of its sales meetings:
I'm at the right place, at the right time. I made the right decision. Money and blessings follow me wherever I go . . .
and I say YES to my success!
Get the ICYMI: Today's Top Stories Newsletter Our daily newsletter delivers quick clicks to keep you in the know
Catch up on the day's news and stay informed with our daily digest of the most popular news, music, food and arts stories in Phoenix, delivered to your inbox Monday through Friday.