From A Kitchen In Corona, Estee Lauder Built An Empire

Estee Lauder’s mission was beauty, but her true love might have been sales.

When her uncle, a scientist, began concocting skin-care lotions on the kitchen stove of his Corona home in the 1920s, it signaled the beginning of what Lauder would transform into a $5-billion empire. An aggressive, relentless saleswoman, she began selling the creams at beauty parlors in Corona.

Inheriting her uncle’s skills, Lauder soon began making her own creams and lotions, initially starting with four products. She went into business with her husband, Joseph Lauter—he would later change his name—and in 1946, the two founded Estee Lauder, the corporation.

Lauder died of cardiopulmonary arrest on Saturday at her home on the Upper East Side. She was 97.

Born at her parents’ home in Corona in 1908 (her family actually thinks she was born in 1906), Josephine Esther Mentzer was the daughter of Hungarian immigrants. She attended Newtown High School and, according to reports, began creating beauty products and selling them before she graduated.

Not content with only selling her products to women at the beauty salons of Corona, Lauder would also hawk her items to women walking along the street in Manhattan. In 1948, she got a small order from Saks Fifth Avenue, which sold out in two days. The store gave her a counter for her products.

By this time, she and her husband began concocting their creams and bottling them out of a vacant restaurant on the Upper East Side. The couple used the gas burners to create the lotions, and would sterilize their stylish jars in boiling water.

As the business began to take off, Lauder became even more hands-on in selling her products. This meant traveling across the country to sell her stock at different department stores.

Even after Estee Lauder products had become established and sold regularly at department stores like Saks, Neiman-Marcus, Bloomingdales and Marshall Fields, the company’s namesake continued to show her propensity for selling. As beauty industry legend has it, Lauder would often get behind department store counters to sell the products herself.

But far from being just a salesperson, Lauder took great pride in her products. She was quoted in the New York Times as having once said, “I love my product. I love to touch the creams, smell them, look at them, carry them with me. A person has to love their harvest if she’s to expect others to love it.”

Lauder’s passion was being recognized as news of her death spread last weekend.

“My mother was passionate about three things: her family, the wonderful company she founded and her mission of bringing beauty into the lives of women everywhere,” said her son, Leonard Lauder, chairman of The Estee Lauder Companies Inc.

The company became a household name when it began marketing its fragrance, Youth Dew, in 1953. “The lingering scent of a beautiful woman as she passes by is one of those memories that unnacountably live forever,” Lauder once said.

The Estee Lauder Companies’ brands are now sold in over 14,000 stores in over 130 countries and territories around the world. It markets more than 70 fragrances today.

The company has licensing agreements with other major corporations, including Clinique, Origins, Tommy Hilfiger, M•A•C, Aveda and Donna Karan. The company’s fiscal 2003 sales were $5.12 billion and Estee Lauder’s own personal worth was estimated to be more than $233 million by the late 1980s.

In 1998, Time Magazine recognized Lauder as one of the most important people of the 20th Century. She received Cosmetic Executive Women’s Lifetime Achievement award in 1989, and was given the inaugural Living Legend award by the American Society of Perfumers in 1994.

Lauder had been serving as the founding chairman of her company until her death on Saturday. She had been active at the corporation since she retired in 1994.

“My mother was not only a rare businesswoman, but also an extraordinary wife, mother and grandmother,” said her son, Ronald Lauder, chairman of Clinique Laboratories. “She brought joy, unique vision and determination to all things. Her spirit lives on in all of us.”

In a statement released by The Estee Lauder Companies, its founder was recognized as the “personification of the American Dream.” The company recalled how she used to remind her employees at sales meetings of the dedication it took for her to achieve her level of success.

“I didn’t get there by wishing for it or hoping for it, but by working for it,” she would say.

Besides her two sons, Lauder is also survived by her daughters-in-law, Evelyn and Jo Carole Lauder, four grandchildren and six great grandchildren. Her husband died in 1982.

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