Meet the Masters - Lillian Vernon
by Hallie Mummert
Not many people can say they got their start in business by investing a portion of their wedding money into a direct marketing venture.
That's exactly how Lillian Vernon, president of Lillian Vernon Inc., began her illustrious career in direct marketing. In 1951 she took $2,000, placed an ad in Seventeen magazine for personalized handbags and belts and "achieved success beyond my wildest dreams."
After parlaying her start-up capital into 6,450 orders that generated $32,000 in sales, Vernon was able to continue growing her business with more space ads and eventually black and white mini-catalogs "that cost a nickel to produce," featured 175 items and were mailed to 125,000 people who had responded to the ads. These precursors evolved into the popular Lillian Vernon catalog and a company that circulates 34 editions of nine catalog titles.
While Vernon launched her business with a dream in her heart, she credits some of her success to two mentors that helped her develop a head for business.
"My father, a successful businessman and entrepreneur in his own right," explains Vernon, "was one of my staunchest supporters. He perhaps gave me the best advice I could have gotten: 'persevere and never give up.'"
"My father's words helped me through some tenuous periods when I had to make some really tough decisions. By persevering, I was able to bounce back from mistakes and setbacks without getting derailed or discouraged, and learned from those mistakes."
This advice followed Vernon through the many different phases of building her catalog company. For example, she recalls fondly and vividly how thrilling it was to see the orders come in after placing that first ad. However, she also remembers overestimating that initial success.
"I would never again, in the history of my business, have a single ad bring in such a phenomenal response rate. But I didn't know that—I assumed if lightning struck once, why not twice? The result was a costly, yet important lesson. I spent a lot of my early profits with other ads in Harper's Bazaar and Vogue. I not only lost money, but learned the fundamental rule of merchandising—know your market. I was trying to sell a belt and handbag designed for teenagers, yet I was advertising in magazines with an entirely different readership. It was not a mistake I would repeat again.
"Thanks to my father, I never gave up and never will. I am proud that my 47-year success as a pioneer in our industry helped set many of the standards and practices followed today."
Ask any colleague: If you were lucky, there might have been a few paragraphs on direct marketing in your college textbook. As direct marketing wasn't even a term when Vernon got her start, she was fortunate to benefit from a wise professor at New York University who taught her the founding principles of running a business.
"Under Professor Cochrane's guidance, I learned the basics of clear-headed analysis and self-discipline, which have always proved to be valuable in developing my company," she recalls.
Because she has been given so many opportunities to succeed in her own right, Vernon shares a trait common amongst other entrepreneurs—that is, an overwhelming urge to give back and help others achieve their dreams.
"When I started my company, there were few role models for women in business. The few companies headed up by women were basically in female-oriented businesses—Elizabeth Arden, Estee Lauder and Helena Rubenstein made names for themselves in the cosmetic industry; Coco Chanel was a prominent fashion designer; and Miriam Haskell was a renowned jewelry designer.
"Today, high-profile role models abound, among them Martha Stewart, Oprah Winfrey and Warnaco Chief Executive Linda Wachner. I hope my success in the once male-dominated mail order industry has served as an inspiration to many women executives. I pride myself in hiring many people in our company who I helped "mentor" up the Lillian Vernon corporate ladder.
"For example, our vice president of product development, Lina LoRusso, started out as a telephone representative in our call center more than 15 years ago. Lina is just one of the many Lillian Vernon success stories—promising young people who came to work here and showed the initiative, perseverance and interest to learn the business and grow as the company grew.
"I've attempted to instill confidence in themselves, their abilities and the belief that you can truly be whatever you want to be… you only have to want it badly enough to succeed."