How I Did It: Leslie Blodgett of Bare Escentuals|A cosmetics queen and her loyal fans
When Leslie Blodgett became CEO of Bare Escentuals in 1994 . . .
— the company was then a tiny maker of bath and body products — she saw a huge opportunity selling healthy mineral-based makeup. But she didn’t quite realize how many women she could reach until she made a pitch on late-night TV. The company’s rapid growth led to a 2006 IPO, followed by the sale of the company this year for $1.7 billion to Shiseido, the Japanese beauty giant. Today, Bare Escentuals, based in San Francisco, has 130 boutiques in the U.S. and one in the U.K., and employs 2,200.
I’ve been working since I was 10. My parents got divorced when I was 9, and my mother raised me, my brother, and my sister on a teacher’s salary. She was tough. I probably would have been very lazy if she weren’t always on my ass.
My first real job was at McDonald’s. There was a girl there who taught me how to apply double shades of eye shadow, which I still do today. I always loved makeup, even though my mother didn’t approve. She was into the women’s-lib movement. She never remarried, loved her independence, and always told me to have my own career. Whenever I went out with a guy, I’d always pay for myself. I didn’t want men to think that they had anything on me.
I spent my first two years at Oswego State partying. My mom read about a new program in cosmetics marketing at the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York City, but I needed experience to even apply. My first interview was at the Christian Dior counter at Gimbels, on 86th Street, but I wasn’t their type. Bloomingdale’s wouldn’t hire me, either, so I waited outside the buying-office door every day until they gave me a commission job selling hair sticks. I made 21 percent of all sales and ate a lot of popcorn and ramen noodles.
By then, I’d been accepted to FIT. I took on part-time jobs, including one at the Ultima II counter at Macy’s. That’s where I learned about makeup application — and that the makeup counter is a terrible place. The saleswomen were angry and mean. Then I met Keith. He was the first guy who insisted on paying for dinner. We got married very quickly. I think I was looking for a guy who could take care of me emotionally.
I got a job at Max Factor in product development and discovered I had a really good eye for color. I moved quickly from assistant to manager. The company was sold to Revlon, which was then bought by Procter & Gamble. I was surrounded by younger M.B.A.’s who were making more than me and had attitudes. I resented that. As a result, I didn’t hire M.B.A.’s for years — I wanted passionate people coming up through the industry. I’ve since learned that you need balance.
Keith worked in film production, and we agreed that whoever was making more money would keep working when we started a family. Our son, Trent, was 3 months old when I took a job with Neutrogena. Keith has been a stay-at-home dad ever since. He does everything around the house. I don’t even know how to turn on the dishwasher.
In 1994, John Hansen, part of an investor group that owned Bare Escentuals, called me. I’d never heard of the company, which made the first mineral-based makeup line and had six stores in Northern California. Back then, everyone used liquid foundation, which seeped into your pores and gave you zits. A powder foundation that was good for your skin made great sense, but the shades Bare Escentuals had created weren’t working. They were gross. I knew complexions and how to match skin tones — and I saw a huge opportunity. John hired me, and I became CEO within a few months.
I relaunched the line as bareMinerals, with six eye shadows, six blushes, five foundations, and brushes. There were seven of us in the office just winging it.
By the fourth quarter of 1996, I thought we weren’t going to make it. I spent many sleepless nights worrying. There was not much on TV at 2 a.m., so I found myself watching a smiling woman on QVC selling jewelry and thinking, I could do that. I bought a white suit and a $29 fake 5-carat diamond ring and decided to give it my best shot.
I went on air August 30, 1997 — the day Princess Diana died. I said things like, “Do you want to make your skin break out even more? Then don’t try my product. But if you’re interested in something pure that you can actually sleep in, then let’s talk.” That day, we sold $45,000 worth of product. My heart was pounding when I walked off the set. I started screaming, “You rock!” to the host, Lisa Robertson, who’s now my best friend.
Women liked the product but had questions. I went online daily to respond but couldn’t keep up. And then I noticed other women were answering for me. That inspired me to start hosting events at our boutiques. I invited people to come share ideas and tips. I started naming new products after loyal fans.
I was scheduled every six weeks on QVC but realized I needed more time to talk about the application process. Infomercials seemed a great way to do that. Suddenly, we had the ability to get our message out daily if we wanted to.
The infomercials were a success, but people couldn’t find the product. So I focused on distribution. Sephora was an especially hard sell. I sent a white limo to Sephora’s headquarters, which is right down the street, and brought the buyers to our boutique. It worked. A few years later, Nordstrom called.
Big bashes get a lot of notice. So we had a cruise for customers to the Bahamas and then one to Mexico. It was like a giant slumber party: We dressed up and danced and had fun. Then, I took a bus tour of our boutiques and we hosted events. I’d talk about our products as well as my thighs. And my Spanx.
In the mid-2000s, we started growing too fast and couldn’t keep up with demand, so there were a lot of lost sales. We hired Myles McCormick as our chief financial officer in 2004: He’s an M.B.A., and so I’ve learned to love M.B.A.’s. He’s now the CEO, and I’ve become executive chairman. Myles has always done the hard math and business analysis. I make decisions from the gut.
I’ve received thousands of letters. One woman wrote: “Dearest Leslie, I’ve always been overweight. I’ve never felt pretty. I lived without cosmetics for 15 years. In 2008, my younger sister convinced me to try bareMinerals. I did — and then I cried. Finally, at 49 years old, I was pretty.” She’s one of my angels now, part of my volunteer ambassador program. We send these women samples, and they talk about the product to friends, strangers, and colleagues.
Why am I here? Because women want to feel pretty. If I have a bad day, I read these letters before I go to sleep at night. They remind me of what we do. It’s powerful. I don’t want to be a business. I want to be a community.