Ash, Mary Kay

views updated May 18 2018

Mary Kay Ash

Born May 12, c. 1917
Hot Wells, Texas

Died November 22, 2001
Dallas, Texas


"I wanted to provide an open-ended opportunity to women, to help them achieve anything they were smart enough to do. I didn't think it was fair for women to earn less than a man doing the same work. And I was tired of people telling me that I thought like a woman."

Mary Kay Ash.

Mary Kay Ash created a business empire in the 1960s when many women were just beginning to seek possibilities beyond that of being a wife and mother. In 1963 Betty Friedan's groundbreaking book The Feminine Mystique was published announcing women's discontent with only being homemakers. That same year, Ash started her company. Her mission was to enrich women's lives. Ash never lived the life of a suburban homemaker, but instead she worked from a very young age. She was a hard worker and fiercely competitive. Throughout her career, Ash was disappointed that her male co-workers made more money than she did for the same work. She was also concerned that her gender kept her from advancing at some companies. Just months after retiring from her twenty-five-year sales career in 1963, Ash launched a company that offered unlimited job opportunities to women. Mary Kay Cosmetics addressed the concerns of women who wanted to work from home and outside it. The company offered women familiar with the workplace a chance to become as successful as they wanted to be. For wives and mothers, Mary Kay Cosmetics offered the chance to balance family duties with the satisfaction of earning money.

Hard work from a young age

It is certain that Mary Kay Wagner was born on May 12 to Edward Alexander and Lula Vember Wagner in Hot Wells, Texas. But as Mary Kay gained celebrity, she closely guarded the year of her birth. She followed the popular convention of the time that "a lady never reveals her age." Various sources speculate that her birth year was as early as 1916 or as late as 1918.

As a young girl, Ash worked hard. While her mother spent fourteen-hour days managing a restaurant, Ash, at age six, was left to go to school, clean the house, cook dinner, and tend to her sick father. Her dad had contracted tuberculosis and was an invalid. Ash's mother offered her daughter constant encouragement. Even though some days Ash's only contact with her mother was over the telephone, she hung on her mother's words. "You can do it!" her mother would say. Ash believed her and found she was right. "Her words became the theme of my childhood," Ash remembered in Female Firsts in Their Fields: Business and Industry. "They stayed with me all my life." Ash found her mother so inspiring that she made her mother's saying the motto of Mary Kay Cosmetics.

Ash excelled in school, earning straight A's and winning competitions in debate, public speaking, and typing. She graduated from high school one year early with hopes of becoming a doctor. However, her family could not afford the college tuition. Unable to further her studies, Ash married instead. With her first husband, J. Ben Rogers, she eventually had three children.

Not content to be a stay-at-home mom

As a young wife and mother, Ash was not content to stay at home. She began part-time work in sales, first selling books door-to-door in the late 1930s. In 1939 she became a sales representative for Stanley Home Products. The company was a direct sales business that offered brooms, toothbrushes, and assorted home products. Her choice was unusual at a time when American culture placed a great deal of value on the family. Many women stayed at home after marriage to support their husbands even before children were born. Ash's husband soon joined the military as the United States became involved in World War II (1939–45). When Rogers returned from war duty in 1943, the couple divorced. Ash was left to raise her three children alone at a time when divorce and single motherhood were quite rare.

Though Ash had enrolled in some classes at the University of Houston in 1942, she dropped out within a year to pursue selling full-time. To learn more about selling, Ash attended a Stanley Home Products sales convention. There she saw the top sales representative crowned "Queen of Sales" and awarded an alligator purse. Ash determined that she would win the following year's prize. She started writing weekly goals for herself in soap on her bathroom mirror and scheduling three or more home demonstrations each day. She was honored as Stanley Home Products' top salesperson the next year but was disappointed to find her prize was a fisherman's underwater flashlight. Nevertheless, Ash continued to sell well for Stanley Home Products and became a manager.

By 1952 Ash took a job with World Gift Company, a supplier of home decorations. She was soon promoted to manager of the company's Houston operations and then to national training director. Ash married her second husband in 1960, but she continued to work. Throughout her career, Ash disliked making less than her male co-workers and having her ideas dismissed because of her gender. By 1963 she had grown tired of the unjust practices based on gender. That year she was transferred to a less important position, and a man she had trained was promoted above her at twice her salary. Frustrated, she quit World Gift supposedly to retire.

Started her own company

To Ash, retirement did not mean rest and relaxation. With twenty-five years of sales and management experience, Ash decided to write a book to help women navigate the business world. As she outlined her book ideas, she realized that she had a plan for a different kind of business. A deeply religious person, Ash had based her "dream" company on the Golden Rule from Matthew 7:12 of the Bible: "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you." The more she wrote, the more she realized that she could actually start such a company. She just needed a product to sell, preferably something that could be used up and reordered.

Years earlier, when Ash worked with Stanley Home Products, Ash had met Ova Heath Spoonemore, the daughter of a leather tanner. Noticing that her father's hands were very smooth and soft, Spoonemore experimented with leather tanning solutions to concoct a facial cream. Impressed with the cream, Ash had used it herself for years and bought the recipe. The cream became the base of her new company. She invested her life savings of $5,000 in setting up a Dallas store-front and a small manufacturing plant.

One month before Ash was set to launch her new company called Beauty by Mary Kay, her husband died suddenly of a heart attack. Both her lawyer and her accountant advised her to cancel her business plans. She ignored them and turned to her twenty-year-old son Richard Rogers for help. The two opened Beauty by Mary Kay on September 13, 1963, with nine of Ash's friends employed as "beauty consultants."

Ash's plan outlined a truly new kind of company. It was not the first company to sell goods door-to-door. Indeed, Ash had spent much of her career selling products in people's homes. Nor was it the first beauty products company—Elizabeth Arden, Helena Rubenstein, and Madame C. J. Walker had preceded her with similar products. But it was the first to provide women with unlimited opportunity for advancement. Ash hired "beauty consultants," not salespeople, to offer "classes" in clients' homes. These classes would be held for small groups of five or six people. This was unlike the large home "parties" of twenty-five or more people at which Ash had sold Stanley Home products. Ash reasoned that women would feel more comfortable learning about skin care at home with a small, intimate group of friends. The goal for each consultant was to instruct clients on how to cleanse their skin properly and how to apply makeup in order to flatter their appearance. By the end of the first year, Beauty by Mary Kay reported $198,000 in wholesale revenue.

The nine beauty consultants' enthusiasm for the business persuaded others to join. All a person needed to become a beauty consultant was $100 for a refundable start-up kit and a drive to succeed. Beauty consultants were their own bosses, setting their own goals and hours. The next year company wholesale figures reached $800,000, the number of beauty consultants jumped to 3,000, and the company was renamed Mary Kay Cosmetics.

Cinderella gifts as incentives to succeed

Ash truly wanted her employees to succeed. Unlike other companies, Mary Kay Cosmetics did not establish sales territories. Most of the beauty consultants worked part-time, averaging about nine hours per week, so many beauty consultants could work in the same area. With no sales territories, Mary Kay's consultants could continue to sell their products even if they moved or traveled on vacations.

To motivate her sales force, Ash placed no limit on what they could earn. Consultants bought Mary Kay cosmetics at wholesale prices and set their own retail prices; some sold products at twice the wholesale rate. Ash felt strongly that her best salespeople should be publicly recognized. She rewarded consultants with extravagant conventions during which she awarded prizes that she called "Cinderella Gifts." Ash made sure that the prizes she gave were worth the effort, unlike the underwater flashlight Stanley Home Products offered her years earlier. Beauty consultants won fur coats, diamond jewelry, tropical vacations, and pink Cadillacs.

Over the years, the two most recognized prizes Mary Kay offered were bumblebee-shaped diamond brooches and pink Cadillacs. For Ash the bumblebee symbolized the ultimate in success. The bumblebee's "wings are too weak and its body too heavy for flight," she explained in her autobiography, Mary Kay. "Everything seems to tell the bumblebee, 'You'll never get off the ground.' But I like to think that maybe—just maybe—our Divine Creator whispered, 'You can do it!,' so it did!" To inspire employees, Ash promoted such positive thinking and provided personal encouragement to every employee, and to top performers she awarded bumblebee pins.

Ash's idea for distinctive pink Cadillacs came from an entirely different source. Driving her black car, Ash was often cut off in traffic. Frustrated one day, she drove into her Cadillac dealer and ordered a pink Cadillac. She wanted it the same light pink color as her company's pink lipsticks and eye shadows. When she drove the distinctively colored car, she did not get cut off in traffic anymore. Her sales staff asked how to get one. Ash decided to offer the cars as awards to top sellers. In 1969, the first "Mary Kay pink" Cadillacs were awarded at the company's annual convention.

Built an empire while embracing
her femininity

Mary Kay Cosmetics made Ash and many of her beauty consultants wealthy, powerful businesswomen by the time the feminist movement gained momentum in the mid-1960s. Ash shared the feminist view that men and women should be treated equally in the workplace. However, she disagreed with how the feminist movement was trying to gain such equality. "[W]hen I was starting the company, I didn't like the way the feminist movement was taking women—women cutting their hair short and wearing men's style clothing, trying to be men. I think that's nonsense. I think women should look feminine, and should try to look good," Ash noted in an interview quoted by American Enterprise. Ash devoted herself to building the confidence and business power of women while at the same time celebrating female beauty. Ash herself wore her dyed blonde hair styled to frame her face. She wore a variety of makeup products to highlight her facial features. She wore shapely business suits with large jeweled earrings and necklaces to work and long flowing gowns at gala events. At the Mary Kay annual conventions, beauty consultants wore different colored suits to indicate their status in the company. Pink suits, of course, were reserved for only the top sellers.

In 1966, Ash married her third husband, Melville Jerome Ash. She took her husband's surname but had already become known nationally as "Mary Kay." The success of Mary Kay Cosmetics continued. In 1968 the company became public, offering stock on the New York Stock Exchange. Stock prices soared 670 percent between the 1970s and 1980s, making Mary Kay the largest direct-sales cosmetics company in the United States. In 1979 the first Mary Kay beauty consultant exceeded $1 million in commissions. Interest in her company and unique management style grew after her autobiography,

Makeup and the Feminist Movement

Before the 1960s, fashion standards for women were quite different than for men. During World War II (1939–45), women struggled to maintain a feminine look with limited supplies. Rationing during the war limited the amount of fabric available to make dresses. Silk hose were scarce because the fabric was needed for parachutes. After the war, French designer Christian Dior introduced the New Look in 1947, which established a very feminine standard for beauty. Women gleefully squeezed their waists with corsets to give themselves an hourglass figure. The tiny corseted waists contrasted dramatically with the flowing skirts of the New Look. With their flowing skirts and tailored tops, women wore stiff hairstyles, heavy makeup, pantyhose, and high-heeled shoes. Mary Kay Ash embraced this feminine standard herself and delighted in the decorative aspects of such styles. She never considered putting on makeup, styling her hair, or walking in high heels as obstacles to being a powerful, confident woman. In fact, she delighted in all the decoration.

In the 1960s, the modern feminist movement organized to push for equal rights for women. As the movement gained momentum, women began to question contemporary standards of femininity. Some feminist activists argued that the feminine ideal of beauty set in the previous decade harmed women, keeping them from being treated as equals of men. They said that factors such as makeup, shaved legs, plucked eyebrows, coiffed hair, high-heels, and hosiery announced women's lesser position in society by making women objects of desire for men. These feminists shunned standard conventions of feminine beauty in favor of clean faces, shorter or looser hairstyles, and more masculine clothes, such as pants and simple shirts.

The opposing views about the "correct" look for women still continue. However, the debate opened the door for women to decide on a look that suited them. By the end of the 1960s, standards of female beauty had become very diverse and based on individual preference. It was as acceptable for women to wear heavy makeup, frilly clothes, and carefully styled hair, as it was for them to wear no makeup, jeans, and a T-shirt. In addition, fashion designers introduced unisex styles that could be worn by men or women, a trend that continued into the early 2000s.

published in 1981, and her second book, Mary Kay on People Management, published in 1984, became bestsellers.

As more and more job opportunities opened to women during the 1970s and 1980s, sales of Mary Kay leveled off. To refocus the company on growth, Ash and her family re-purchased the company for $450 million in 1985. The family succeeded in transforming the company into an international empire. Ash was succeeded by her son in 1987 but remained active in the company until her death on November 22, 2001. By 2003, Mary Kay Cosmetics had more than one million consultants selling more than two hundred different products in thirty countries around the world. The company had achieved wholesale figures of $1.8 billion. More than two hundred beauty consultants had surpassed $1 million in commissions. Ash told Sales and Marketing Management in 1994 that "the biggest legacy we are going to leave … is a whole community of children who believe that they can do anything in this world because they watched their mamas do it."

For More Information


Ash, Mary Kay. Mary Kay. New York: Harper and Row, 1981; revised, 1986.

Lutz, Norma Jean. Female Firsts in Their Fields: Business and Industry. Philadelphia, PA: Chelsea House, 1999.

Pile, Robert B. Women Business Leaders. Minneapolis, MN: Oliver Press, 1995.


Lopez, Kathryn Jean. "Strong Women Wear Lipstick." American Enterprise (January-February 2002): p. 10.

Sales and Marketing Management (November 1994): p. 41.

Web Sites

"Mary Kay Ash." Contemporary Authors Online: Biography Resource (accessed August 2004).

Mary Kay (accessed August 2004).

Ash, Mary Kay

views updated May 21 2018

Ash, Mary Kay

Mary Kay Cosmetics


With innovative sales techniques and programs aimed at boosting the self-esteem of her employees, Mary Kay Ash has built the largest direct-sales cosmetic empire in the United States. Mary Kay Cosmetics is a Fortune 500 company with more than $1.5 billion in retail sales annually.

Personal Life

Mary Kay Ash was born May 12, 1918, in Hot Wells, Texas. She was the youngest child of Edward Alexander and Lula Vember Wagner. As a child, Mary Kay was forced to be self-reliant. Her father was ill with tuberculosis, and her mother worked 14-hour days managing a restaurant. Ash did the housework, cooked meals, and cared for her father. She gives much of the credit for her later success to her mother, who constantly encouraged her.

Ash was an honor student with a keen competitive streak. One of her favorite hobbies was extemporaneous speaking, which she enjoyed doing competitively. She placed second in a statewide speech contest while still in junior high and was an honor member of her high school's debate team. She completed high school in just three years, but her family could not afford to send her to college. Instead, she married J. Ben Rogers when she was 17 years old, and they had three children. The marriage failed after her husband, who had been drafted by the military, returned from fighting in World War II and announced he wanted a divorce. At 27, Ash enrolled in undergraduate courses at the University of Houston, intending to become a doctor. The emotional turmoil surrounding her divorce, combined with her other duties of homemaking and child-care, prompted her to quit college and concentrate on a career in sales.

Ash remarried in 1960, but her second husband died suddenly of a heart attack three years later, just as she was preparing to launch her new business. Shortly afterward she met her third husband, Melville Jerome Ash, whom she married in 1966. Although Ash took this husband's surname, she was already widely known as Mary Kay by 1966. Ash has documented her experiences in two books: an autobiography entitled Mary Kay: The Success Story of America's Most Dynamic Business Woman and a leadership guide entitled Mary Kay on People Management.

Career Details

In 1939 Mary Kay began work as a salesperson for Stanley Home Products, which sold household products at "parties" hosted by a housewife and attended by women friends and neighbors. Her sales were remarkable, and in 1952 she was lured away to become national sales director for World Gifts, another direct sales company. In little more than a decade she extended World Gifts distribution into 43 states and earned a seat on the company's board of directors.

In 1963 Mary Kay sustained a devastating blow. After less than a year at work, a male assistant, whom she had trained in everything she knew about selling and training others, was promoted above her at twice her salary. In response to this incident, she quit. At the age of 48, a veteran of both direct sales and the corporate boardroom, Ash felt challenged to offer energetic women business opportunities they might not find elsewhere. She soon came up with a blueprint for a workable direct-sales company. What she needed was a product, something that could be used up and reordered again and again.

With her life savings of $5,000, Ash bought the recipes for special skin softening formulas from the daughter of an Arkansas hide tanner. She furnished a modest storefront in Dallas and set up a small manufacturing plant. Ash's first employees were her second husband, a chemist, and nine of her friends. Tragically, her husband died of a heart attack just a month before the business was to open, but she still launched Beauty by Mary Kay on September 13, 1963.

Through sheer hard work and enthusiasm, Ash, her son Richard Rogers, and their staff of consultants made $198,000 in wholesale revenue the first year. The following year the total reached $800,000. By then, Beauty by Mary Kay had been rechristened Mary Kay Cosmetics and had attracted a sales force of 3,000 women. Mary Kay Cosmetics offered its stock for sale to the public in 1968 and the company's greatest period of growth after its formative years came in the 1970s and early 1980s, when stock prices rose by an astonishing 670 percent. In 1981 sales reached $235 million, an increase of 41 percent over the previous year.

Sales dropped from $323 million to $249 million between 1983 and 1985. The stock bottomed out at nine dollars a share. In part, the crisis was a result of the improving economy. Women traditionally quit their jobs or found steadier employment rather than continuing to work in direct sales, according to Texas Monthly. The company's growth was stagnant.

"What few analysts or business reporters understood, however, was that Mary Kay Ash was prepared to give up her entire net worth to stay on top," wrote Skip Hollandsworth in Texas Monthly. "In a major $450 million leveraged buyout in 1985, Mary Kay and her family purchased all the company's publicly issued stock and took Mary Kay Cosmetics private. A new group of younger executives, brought in to handle the day-to-day operations, quickly updated the company's image. The rather bland line of cosmetics was revamped and pretty young models were pictured in the product catalogs. The executives also boosted the commissions paid out to consultants to persuade younger women to leave their high-rise offices and join Mary Kay."

Ash was succeeded by her son Richard in 1987, but remains active in the business. In 1995, a decade after the leveraged buy-out, Mary Kay was selling an estimated $866 million in products, at wholesale, to 20 million women annually. Over 6,500 of the 30,000-member sales force drive complimentary pink Cadillacs and other automobiles worth more than $90 million. The company also claims responsibility for creating more than 75 millionaires, calculated by the number of women who have earned more than a million dollars in commissions over the course of their careers. The Ash family's personal fortune, according to Texas Monthly, is estimated at more than $325 million. From its base in Dallas, Mary Kay Cosmetics has grown into an international empire, with consultants throughout Canada, Europe, and even the former Soviet Union.

Social and Economic Impact

The company's success rests nearly as much on Mary Kay's dynamic personality and personal sales ability as it does on the quality of the merchandise. From the outset, Ash's company was different. Her salespeople were called "consultants." They demonstrated products on clients at home "classes" aimed not only at selling cosmetics but also at fostering better self-images among women customers. Ash managed company affairs, particularly the important task of motivating and rewarding her consultants.

Perhaps the most outstanding characteristic of Mary Kay Cosmetics is the enthusiasm of its sales force. This infectious fervor for both product and company philosophy is largely the result of Ash's personal style. She showers top performers with lavish gifts and public praise. Every year the company awards trademark pink Cadillacs, diamond jewelry, and five-star vacations to deserving employees. The affection of her work force was once the subject of amusement in the business world, but now other companies study her program of self-esteem boosts and generous incentives.

Chronology: Mary Kay Ash

1915: Born.

1963: Launched Mary Kay Cosmetics in Dallas, Texas.

1964: Mary Kay Cosmetics earned $198,000.

1968: May Kay Cosmetics stock went public; sales top at $10 million.

1970: Opened first Mary Kay branch office.

1981: Wrote autobiography, Mary Kay: The Success Story of America's Most Dynamic Business Woman.

1983: Named one of America's 100 most important women by Ladies Home Journal.

1985: Leveraged buy-out returned company to private ownership by family.

1987: Succeeded by her son, Richard, as head of Mary Kay.

Ash has been credited with offering a business run by women to benefit women. Remembering the promotion she lost to a man 30 years earlier, Ash told Texas Monthly, "Those men didn't believe a woman had brain matter at all. I learned back then that as long as men didn't believe women could do anything, women were never going to have a chance." She continued, "I feel God has led me into this position, as someone to help women to know how great they really are."

Sources of Information

Contact at: Mary Kay Cosmetics
16251 Dallas Pkwy.
Dallas, TX 75247


Colwell, Shelley M. "Mary Kay at 30: Still in the Pink." Soap-Cosmetics-Chemical Specialties, September 1993.

Current Biography Yearbook. New York: H.W. Wilson Co., 1995.

Farnham, Alan. "Mary Kay's Lessons in Leadership." Fortune, 20 September 1993.

Fitzpatrick, Doreen D. "New American Heroes: Women Venture Forth Where Capital Fears to Go." Westchester County Business Journal, 23 May 1994.

Hollandsworth, Skip. "Hostile Makeover: In Dallas the Frenetically Fashionable Jinger Heath is Locked in a Beauty War with the Venerable Queen of Cosmetics, Mary Kay Ash." Texas Monthly, November 1995.

Layman, Richard, ed. American Decades: 1960-1969. Detroit: Gale Research, 1995.

Neely, Jamie Tobias. "In the Pink: Makeup Queen Mary Kay Remains Driven by Success." Spokesman-Review, 19 October 1995.

Newsmakers. Detroit: Gale Research, 1997.

Steffy, Loren. "No Powder-Puff Battle: Mary Kay Sues Two Rivals Over Names." Dallas Times Herald, 9 November 1990.

Terry, Dian. "Mary Kay Reports Record Sales for First Half of 25th Anniversary Year." Business Wire, 8 August 1988.

Who's Who in America. New Providence, NJ: Marquis Who's Who, 1996.

Who's Who of American Women. New Providence, NJ: Marquis Who's Who, 1996.

Ash, Mary Kay

views updated Jun 08 2018

ASH, Mary Kay

(b. 12 May 1918 in Hot Wells, Texas; d. 22 November 2001 in Dallas, Texas), founder and flamboyant business leader of Mary Kay Cosmetics, a company she built up from a Dallas storefront in 1963 with nine saleswomen "beauty consultants," to a direct-marketing Fortune 500 company with over 800,000 independent beauty consultants in thirty-seven countries.

Born Mary Kathlyn Wagner, Ash was the youngest of four children of Edward Alexander Wagner and Lula Vember Hastings, who operated a hotel in Hot Wells, a spa town twenty-five miles northwest of Houston. Two years after she was born, her father developed tuberculosis, and the family moved to Houston's disadvantaged Sixth Ward. Her mother had to support the family while Ash took care of her father, an experience she later credited with giving her self-assurance. Her mother kept encouraging her, saying, "You can do it!" Ash continued this theme in the famous motivational seminars she eventually held each year for her "troops," beginning with the first anniversary of the founding of Ash Cosmetics in 1963.

Although Ash had been an outstanding student, who in 1935 had graduated at the head of her class at Reagan High School in Houston and aspired to become a doctor, lack of family funds made college impossible. She married Ben Rogers, an aspiring musician and gas station attendant, right out of school in 1935. In 1936 at age seventeen, Ash gave birth to a daughter, and later had two sons.

Ash, who excelled at extemporaneous speaking in school, joined Stanley Home Products in direct sales in 1938 to earn enough money to move her family out of her mother's house. She tried college briefly in the early 1940s, but she soon recognized that medicine was not her calling. Ash's talents were in selling. When her husband came home in 1945 after serving three years in the U.S. Army during World War II, he asked for a divorce. Ash was left with three children to support, and she began working full-time for Stanley Home Products in direct sales.

Always very competitive, Ash won the title of Miss Dallas during her second year with the company. Her success at Stanley was renowned, but she left in 1953 when a man she had trained was promoted to a management position over her. Ash immediately joined World Gift Company, another direct-sales company. Again her enthusiasm and talent brought success. One year she was responsible for a 53 percent increase in sales at the company. Ash was made the national training director for World Gift Company in 1959, but she quit in 1963 when she found out the men she was training were earning twice her salary. Of her decision to quit, she said, "I couldn't believe God meant a woman's brain to bring fifty cents on the dollar."

After twenty-five years in direct sales, Ash briefly retired in 1963. Planning to write a book, she began compiling lists of what worked and what did not work in her experiences in direct sales. Soon she realized what she was actually doing was outlining a "dream company," one that would give women an "open-end opportunity." The 1960s may have been a period of social revolution in many senses, but real business opportunities were not generally available to women, especially to married women. Ash decided she would open a company based on "the golden rule and a philosophy of God first, family second, career third."

Ash now had a plan for a company; all she needed was a line of products to sell. She remembered a beauty cream she had received from a Texas hide tanner's daughter when hosting a sales party for Stanley Home Products. The cream was very good, but it had an unpleasant odor. In 1963 Ash bought the formula and had it reformulated to have a nice smell. She had it packaged in pink and gold, so the product would look attractive displayed in the all-white bathrooms so popular in 1963.

In July 1963 Ash married George Hallenbeck, who also had experience in direct sales, and he became her partner in planning the new company. Together they invested their entire assets of $5,000 and decided to open "Beauty by Mary Kay" in a storefront in Dallas, where Hallenbeck would handle the business end, and she would focus on products and sales.

On 13 August 1963, Hallenbeck died of a heart attack at the breakfast table while going over the final balance sheet for the opening of the new company. With everything she had invested in the plans, Ash opened her business on 13 September 1963 with the help of her youngest son, twenty-year-old Richard Rogers. They started with one shelf of pink-packaged cosmetics and a dynamic plan. Ash built her business from nothing to sales of $34,000 within months of opening the store.

Ash built her empire on her remarkable people skills and woman's intuition. She recruited women to join a sales force as independent consultants—not employees—who were trained by the company in dynamic sales techniques. She believed other women would be as motivated as she was when her mother told her, "You can do it!" She also believed in what she called "Cinderella gifts," rewards to recognize sales achievements. She held the first motivational convention on 13 September 1964, one year after starting the business.

In 1968 Ash ordered a pink Cadillac as her personal business car. It made such a sensation that she decided the use of a pink Cadillac should be the ultimate reward for her top beauty consultants. The first pink Cadillac was awarded in 1969. At the time of Ash's death there were about 1,600 pink Cadillacs on the road.

On 6 January 1966 Ash married Mel Ash. She established a charitable foundation that provides funding for cancer research, particularly breast cancer, and for the prevention of violence against women. Ash received many awards in recognition of her achievements and contributions, including one for "most outstanding woman in business in the twentieth century" from Lifetime Television in 1999. Ash died of natural causes.

Autobiographies of Ash include Mary Kay (1981) and Mary Kay You Can Have It All (1995). Additional information on Ash can be found in her file at the Barker Texas History Center, University of Texas at Austin (2001). Obituaries are in the New York Times and Dallas Morning News (both 23 Nov. 2001).

M. C. Nagel

Ash, Mary Kay

views updated May 14 2018

Mary Kay Ash

Born: c. 1916
Hot Wells, Texas
Died: November 22, 2001
Dallas, Texas

American businesswoman

Mary Kay Ash used her training in direct sales to create her own multimillion-dollar cosmetics firm and provide women with the opportunity for advancement.

Early years

Mary Kay Wagner Ash believed that "a lady never reveals her age," and therefore the exact year of her birth is unknown. It is estimated to be 1916. She was born to Edward and Lula Wagner in Hot Wells, Texas, the youngest of four children. Her mother, who had studied to be a nurse, worked long hours managing a restaurant. When Mary Kay was two or three, her father was ill with tuberculosis (an infection of the lungs). As a result, it was her responsibility to clean, cook, and care for her father while her mother was at work. She excelled in school, but her family could not afford to send her to college. She married at age seventeen and eventually had three children.

Working mother

During a time when few married women with families worked outside the home, Ash became an employee of Stanley Home Products in Houston, Texas. She conducted demonstration "parties" at which she sold company products, mostly to homemakers like herself. Energetic and a quick learner, Ash rose at Stanley to unit manager, a post she held from 1938 to 1952. She also spent a year studying at the University of Houston to follow her dream of becoming a doctor, but she gave it up and returned to sales work.

After Ash's marriage ended in 1952, she took a sales job at World Gift Company in Dallas, Texas. She began to develop her theory of marketing and sales, which included offering sales incentives (something that spurs someone to action) to the customer as well as the sales force. Ash was intelligent and hardworking, but, unlike men, women were given hardly any opportunities for advancement at the time. Tired of being passed over for promotions in favor of the men she had trained, she quit. She planned to write a book about her experiences in the work force.

Starts her own company

Instead, in 1963, Ash founded her own company (with an investment of five thousand dollars) to sell a skin cream to which she had purchased the manufacturing rights. She named her company "Beauty by Mary Kay." Ash was determined to offer career opportunities in her company to any woman who had the energy and creativity required to sell Mary Kay cosmetics. Before long she had a force of female sales representatives who were eager to prove themselves. Ash's second husband had died in 1963, a month before her company was established. Her oldest son helped guide her through the start-up phase of her company. Three years later she married Melville J. Ash, who worked in the wholesale gift business.

Believing it was important to reward hard workers, Ash gave away vacations, jewelry, and pink Cadillacs to her top performers. (By 1994 she had given away seven thousand cars valued at $100 million.) With goals such as these to shoot for, her salespeople made the company a huge success. Within two years sales neared $1 million. The company's growth continued, and new products were added. Every year since 1992 Mary Kay Cosmetics made Fortune magazine's list of five hundred largest companies. In addition the company was listed in a book entitled The 100 Best Companies to Work for in America. It now employs over 475 thousand people in over twenty-five countries.

Later years

Ash published her life story, Mary Kay, in 1981. It sold over a million copies, and she went on to write Mary Kay on People Management (1984) and Mary KayYou Can Have It All (1995). In 1987 Ash became chairman emeritus of her company (meaning that she would hold the title of chairman even in her retirement). She helped raise money for cancer research after her third husband died of the disease. In 1993 she was honored with the dedication of the Mary Kay Ash Center for Cancer Immunotherapy Research at St. Paul Medical Center in Dallas. In 1996 the Mary Kay Ash Charitable Foundation was started to research cancers that mainly affect women.

Mary Kay Ash's health declined after she suffered a stroke in 1996. She died at her Dallas home on November 22, 2001. She was a tough businessperson with a thorough knowledge of marketing and sales. Through her belief in women's abilities and her willingness to give them a chance, she made the dream of a successful career a reality for hundreds of thousands of women worldwide.

For More Information

Ash, Mary Kay. Mary Kay: You Can Have It All. Rocklin, CA: Prima, 1995.

Stefoff, Rebecca. Mary Kay Ash: Mary Kay, a Beautiful Business. Ada, OK: Garrett Educational Corp., 1992.

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