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Great Entrepreneurs Build Strong International Brand Names – Their Successors Often Lose Focus And Greatly Damage These Franchises

by: Geoff Ficke 

If you are of a certain age you will vividly remember the following names: Helena Rubenstein, Faberge, Germain Monteil, Trigere, Revlon, Elizabeth Arden, Max Factor, Schwinn, W. T. Grant, Montgomery Ward and Chuck Taylor. Each name represented a hugely successful consumer product brand.

Each of these brands was grown from the entrepreneurial seed of a visionary. Unfortunately, each was subsequently abused, in several cases terminally, by non-visionary corporate bean counters.

A classic example is Revlon. Revlon is instructional because it remains in the news, mostly for being a tortured shell of it’s former glorious self. Founded by Charles Revson in the 1930’s, Revlon was the largest cosmetic company in the world until the 1980’s. Ultima, Norell, Charlie, Bill Blass and Eterna 27 were subsidiary divisions under the Revlon corporate umbrella. The finest department and specialty stores in the world fought to carry these upscale, elegant products. Revlon was widely respected as the arbiter of taste for fashion conscious women. Fire and Ice, Lips and Tips and That Man are only a few examples of product marketing campaigns that were ubiquitous in consumer culture of the time.

Charles Revson was one of the most famous businessmen of his time. Books were written about his life, business strategy and the legendary brutal bullying of his management personnel. He paid his people exceedingly well and expected total commitment to his company. The drive to stay ahead of the competition by constant innovation and creativity was all consuming for Mr. Revson. Nothing was allowed to impede his constant pursuit of staying number one. His famous department store mantra, “success requires space, location and demonstration” is a given followed by successful merchants to this day. He once was asked how he could justify charging $5 for a $.40 cent lipstick? His famous retort: “I don’t sell lipstick, I sell hope” is an accurate reflection of an entrepreneur who knew his customer and how to please them.

As Mr. Revson aged, he could see the need to address his succession as crucial to his legacy and Revlon’s future. After conducting a famous, thoroughly documented executive search, he hired Michel Bergerac from IBM. Mr. Bergerac was a brilliant executive. He inherited a billion-dollar business with worldwide operations. Revlon dominated the male and female fragrance, color cosmetic and skin care markets.

Sadly, the business culture of the 1980’s and 1990’s did not value creativity and innovation as much as asset deployment. Mr. Bergerac was excellent at deployment of assets. For a number of years Revlon held on as king of the category. However, the inevitable slowly began to happen. Product launches began to stall. The Company began to follow competitor’s successes with me-too look-alike products. Lancome, L’Oreal and Estee Lauder, under the lead of entrepreneurial owners, became industry innovators and assumed leadership in the space historically dominated by Revlon.

It has been 20 years since Revlon left the department store business. Mr. Bergerac was awarded a lucrative “golden parachute” when financier Ronald Pearlman took control of Revlon in a hostile corporate takeover. Under Mr. Pearlman’s ownership Revlon has been a continual money loser. Product innovation is non-existent. Revlon’s products are sold in drug chains and mass merchandisers and are regularly promoted with off price coupons. Charles Revson would be livid. But he would not be alone as a founding entrepreneur, nurturer of a great brand and yet, unfortunately, a life’s work diminished or extinguished by successors lacking the innovative gene.

Great entrepreneurs like W. T. Grant, Montgomery Ward and Pauline Trigere are rare. The ability to create, innovate, manage and grow a business is rarely found in a single package. Calvin Klein is a creative entrepreneurial genius in the fashion world. His partner, Barry Schwartz is the unseen business/management half of the Klein success. They compliment and balance each other. Whether their successors can continue to provide clothing designs that the consumer will desire is an open question.

It was easier for Germain Monteil to build her skin care line from scratch than it was for The Squibb Drug Company, after purchasing this growing brand, to maintain it. Germain Monteil products are no longer sold. There are far too many such examples.

In my work with entrepreneurs I am constantly confronted with examples of ambition not paralleling reality. As Clint Eastwood famously quipped in a Dirty Harry movie, “a man has to know his limitations”. It is a rare person that has the range of abilities to both launch and successfully build a product. Limits of ability or experience, however, do not close the door to potential success. The right partner, team or alliance can spell the difference between success and failure. Charles Revson was the whole package. His successors have proven themselves to be not of his caliber.

I love to discuss specific opportunities with prospective entrepreneurs. Please call me at any time to review your dreams. Geoff Ficke 859-567-1609.

About the Author

Geoff Ficke has been a serial entrepreneur for almost 50 years. As a small boy, earning his spending money doing odd jobs in the neighborhood, he learned the value of selling himself, offering service and value for money.

After putting himself through the University of Kentucky (B.A. Broadcast Journalism, 1969) and serving in the United States Marine Corp, Mr. Ficke commenced a career in the cosmetic industry. After rising to National Sales Manager for Vidal Sassoon Hair Care at age 28, he then launched a number of ventures, including Rubigo Cosmetics, Parfums Pierre Wulff Paris, Le Bain Couture and Fashion Fragrance.

Geoff Ficke and his consulting firm, Duquesa Marketing, Inc. (www.duquesamarketing.com) has assisted businesses large and small, domestic and international, entrepreneurs, inventors and students in new product development, capital formation, licensing, marketing, sales and business plans and successful implementation of his customized strategies. He is a Senior Fellow at the Page Center for Entrepreneurial Studies, Business School, Miami University, Oxford, Ohio.

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