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During an interview with WWD in June 1995, Leonard A. Lauder got up and reached into his ofﬁce closet to ﬁnd two musty old loan certiﬁcates from 1960, totaling $25,000. That paltry sum was needed to sustain his family’s ﬂedgling cosmetics company and bankroll Estée Lauder International, allowing it to expand overseas into Canada. Lauder, who was then 27 and running the ﬂedgling ﬁrm’s daily operations as executive vice president, argued with his mother Estée and father Joseph, who had founded the company in 1946, that there was a major opportunity beyond the U.S. borders. “They refused to sign the note because they said, ‘We don’t borrow money.’ So I had to sign it,” Lauder recalled then with a smile. “But they gave me their savings bank books as collateral.”
That tiny company grew into the global leader of the prestige market that now does business in more than 150 countries and territories, with 62 percent of the company’s $7.8 billion business done overseas.
Through his various incarnations as president, chief executive ofﬁcer, chairman and now chairman emeritus—or as he put it during a recent one-hour interview, chief teaching ofﬁcer—Lauder not only was among the ﬁrst to grasp the power of globalization, but he built his mother’s idea of a company into a behemoth with an unquenchable desire to set an industry gold standard. He was in the forefront of those deﬁning and establishing the doctrine of the modern global prestige beauty business, particularly in department and specialty stores—innovative new products, a purity of distribution strategy, an unshakable grasp of the consumer and aggressive in-store promotion with gift-with-purchase giveaways and holiday blockbusters.
While those beliefs may be criticized by some today as old religion at a time when competing fragrance companies talk of triple-tier distribution and celebrities hawk their products on TV, Lauder’s tenacity of vision and surety of spirit has been called Zen-like over the decades by friends and foes alike, and his passion still fuels the vitality of the business.
Through his long career, the 77-year-old Lauder has been as highly respected for his prized mentoring skills as for his global marketing insights. He has shaped the development of at least a generation of industry executives. Now, as he settles into the role of elder statesman, Lauder is teaching brand-equity classes inside the company as part of his enduring legacy.