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Mary Kay Ash
Photo: Graham Bezant/Toronto Star via Getty Images

Mary Kay Ash

Biography
(1918–2001)
  • Publish date:
Entrepreneur Mary Kay, founder of Mary Kay Inc., built a profitable business from scratch that created new opportunities for women to achieve financial success.

Who Was Mary Kay Ash?

Mary Kay Ash started her own cosmetics company, Mary Kay Inc., in 1963, using incentive programs and other strategies to give her employees the chance to benefit from their achievements. Mary Kay's marketing skills and people savvy soon led her company to enormous success.

Early Life and Career

Business leader and entrepreneur Mary Kathlyn Wagner was born on May 12, 1918, in Hot Wells, Texas. Ash was a pioneer for women in business, building a substantial cosmetics empire. In 1939, Ash became as a salesperson for Stanley Home Products, hosting parties to encourage people to buy household items. She was so good at making the sale that she was hired away by another company, World Gifts, in 1952. Ash spent a little more than a decade at the company, but she quit in protest after watching yet another man that she had trained get promoted above her and earn a much higher salary than hers.

Entrepreneurial Venture

After her bad experiences in the traditional workplace, Ash set out to create her own business at the age of 45. She started with an initial investment of $5,000 in 1963. She purchased the formulas for skin lotions from the family of a tanner who created the products while he worked on hides. With her son, Richard Rogers, she opened a small store in Dallas and had nine salespeople working for her. Today there are more than 1.6 million salespeople working for Mary Kay Inc. around the world.

The company turned a profit in its first year and sold close to $1 million in products by the end of its second year driven by Ash's business acumen and philosophy. The basic premise was much like the products she sold earlier in her career. Her cosmetics were sold through at-home parties and other events. But Ash strove to make her business different by employing incentive programs and not having sales territories for her representatives. She believed in the golden rule "treat others as you want to be treated," and operated by the motto: God first, family second and career third.

Ash wanted everyone in the organization to have the opportunity to benefit from their successes. Sales representatives — Ash called them consultants — bought the products from May Kay at wholesale prices and then sold them at retail price to their customers. They could also earn commissions from new consultants that they had recruited.

Commercial Success

All of her marketing skills and people savvy helped make Mary Kay Cosmetics a very lucrative business. The company went public in 1968, but it was bought back by Ash and her family in 1985 when the stock price took a hit. The business itself remained successful and now annual sales exceed $2.2 billion, according to the company's website.

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At the heart of this profitable organization was Ash's enthusiastic personality. She was known for her love of the color pink and it could be found everywhere, from the product packaging to the Cadillacs she gave away to top-earning consultants each year. She seemed to sincerely value her consultants, and once said "People are a company's greatest asset."

Her approach to business attracted a lot of interest. She was admired for her strategies and the results they achieved. She wrote several books about her experiences, including Mary Kay: The Success Story of America's Most Dynamic Businesswoman (1981), Mary Kay on People Management (1984) and Mary Kay: You Can Have It All (1995).

Later Years and Death

While she stepped down from her position as CEO of the company in 1987, Ash remained an active part of the business. She established the Mary Kay Charitable Foundation in 1996. The foundation supports cancer research and efforts to end domestic violence. In 2000, she was named the most outstanding woman in business in the 20th century by Lifetime Television.

The cosmetics mogul died on November 22, 2001, in Dallas, Texas. By this time, the company she created had become a worldwide enterprise with representatives in more than 30 markets. She will be best remembered for building a profitable business from scratch that created new opportunities for women to achieve financial success.

Personal Life

Married three times, Ash had three children — Richard, Ben and Marylyn — by her first husband, J. Ben Rogers. The two divorced after Rogers returned from serving in World War II. Her second marriage to a chemist was brief; he died of a heart attack in 1963, just one month after the two had gotten married. She married her third husband, Mel Ash, in 1966, and the couple stayed together until Mel's death in 1980.

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