Of "Sandwich Praise" and Pink Cadillacs

Mary Kay, a brand that’s known to women worldwide, has finally debuted in the Singapore market. We speak to the President of Mary Kay Asia Pacific about the organisation behind the skincare and cosmetics line.

By Cheryl Lim

These days, companies that promote servant leadership with a drive for watching people reach their fullest potential are scarce. However, at Mary Kay, this philosophy is pervasive throughout the ranks. Besides being one of the most successful direct selling organisations in the industry, Mary Kay is also known for its unique mission – to enrich the lives of women.

“Mary Kay is a company that sells a way of life, and that way of life is development of women, allowing them to believe in themselves, to be the best that they can be,” says Mr K K Chua, President of Mary Kay Asia Pacific. “It almost sounds too idealistic, but I can tell you that it works.”

In fact, the man himself was sceptical when he was headhunted for the position of President of Mary Kay China many years ago.

Worlds apart
“I was never a ‘cosmetic’ man,” says KK, who has lived and worked overseas in London, Beijing and Hong Kong for the past 24 years. “When you attend meetings amongst movie executives, you find that seven out of nine are smoking and chewing cigars. It’s a very male chauvinistic society. But the more I heard about Mary Kay, the more I read the book (by founder Mary Kay Ash), the more I realised that the values this company has is very much akin to what matters most.”

Ultimately, the Mary Kay culture won him over, with its emphasis on loving and praising people to success. Based in Hong Kong with his wife and three daughters, he has worked with Mary Kay for 14 years, and envisions that this job will see him through to retirement. Today, under KK’s leadership, Mary Kay has grown its Asia-Pacific market into a 330,000-strong sales force with more than US$400 million in profits.

Unparalleled vision
Established in 1963, Mary Kay was founded by Mary Kay Ash – a mother, entrepreneur, and motivator – who saw the need for an organisation that would enable women to succeed by their own terms.

After working 25 years in corporate America, Mary Kay Ash decided her retirement was due when she was passed over for a promotion in favour of a man whom she had trained. That same year, she started writing a book with the aim of assisting women in business, which soon evolved into a business plan for her ideal company. Armed with US$5,000 and the support of her then 20-year-old son Richard Rogers (now the Executive Chairman of Mary Kay Inc), Mary Kay Ash saw that vision come to fruition.

Dedicated to making life more beautiful for women, the company operates by the Golden Rule (“Do unto others as you would have them do unto you”), which birthed the notion of “sandwich praise” – an extraordinary practice that’s unique to Mary Kay.

“In society today, too many people address an issue instead of helping the one they’re addressing understand what the issue is,” KK enthuses. “We don’t praise them, we criticise them. What this does is it pulls you down to think negatively, to say, ‘I can’t do it.’”

Instead, when it comes to conveying criticism, Mary Kay’s philosophy is to use “sandwich praise”, where criticism is delivered between thick layers of encouragement so that the recipient leaves the session feeling empowered, not demoralised.

Mary Kay is, in fact, more than just skincare and cosmetics. “Mary Kay did not set up this company to sell cosmetics. Mary Kay set up this company to enrich the lives of women, to develop them. Are we a great cosmetic company? Of course. Our products are as competitive and savvy as others in the cosmetic world, otherwise it wouldn’t have survived forty-six years,” KK says. “But the purpose is something deeper, and that’s where the inner strength of the company lies, that’s what separates us from other direct selling companies.”

He cites the example of Gu Mei, a Chinese woman who had to singlehandedly raise her three-year-old daughter as a hairdresser’s assistant in 1995, only earning from tips meted by customers. After responding to an advertisement by Mary Kay, she was accepted and trained as part of the first batch of beauty consultants in China.

Today, Gu Mei is one of the national sales directors – the highest rank amongst the sales force – in China, while her daughter is an undergraduate at King’s College in London. “Who in the world would have thought that a hairdressing salon lady and single mother would be able to, fifteen years down the line, send her daughter to one of the best and most expensive universities in the world? That’s the kind of dream we’re talking about coming true!” he exclaims.

A sisterhood of entrepreneurs
Being a Mary Kay beauty consultant is, essentially, being the boss of a “mobile retail shop”. Unlike corporate staff which are salaried, beauty consultants earn based on what they sell, as well as commission from what their recruits sell.

“We are a selling proposition, we’re not a recruiting proposition,” says KK, addressing misconceptions that Mary Kay is simply another run-of-the-mill pyramid scheme. “The difference between a Ponzi and a genuine Mary Kay kind of operation is basically: Is there a product, is the product real, and is there a sell-through for the product into consumers’ hands? If the answers are ‘no’, that becomes a Ponzi. If your answers are ‘yes’, then it’s just another way of retailing.”

He adds, “We train every single beauty consultant on how to sell cosmetics, how to give skincare classes. Women love to get together to try new things. And in the process, if they buy from you, fantastic! If they don’t, that’s okay.”

For entrepreneurs to start their own business as Mary Kay beauty consultants, all it takes is buying a S$100 starter kit which contains products worth S$250, which beauty consultants can use for product demonstrations. “We make it affordable because we want you to be able to start your business with low cost, so that once you start taking in money, you’ll find that it’s very profitable,” KK shares.

Moreover, because the spirit of helping others unconditionally has permeated throughout the company, there is a strong sense of unity shared amongst Mary Kay staff and beauty consultants.

“My top saleslady in China is 37 years old and makes US$800,000 a year. But she doesn’t talk about the money. She always talks about what we must do to love others, to care for others, to train others. It becomes a sisterhood, whereby I help my sisters become successful. And in the process of helping my sisters become successful, I become successful,” he says.

Empowered in the workplace
At Mary Kay, it’s never about the money. Instead, the company emphasises the importance of “faith first, family second, and career third”.

“One of the sad things about the direct selling industry is you have a lot of people who want to go in for quick money. But Mary Kay never believes in quick money. Mary Kay always believes you’ve got to work hard,” KK states. “But if you work hard and are successful, then money comes automatically. Money is never the cause; money is always the result.”

However, achievements do not go unrecognised. The company rewards beauty consultants who have done well with a trophy on wheels – the Pink Cadillac. Although the car differs from country to country, its colour remains the same – Mary Kay’s signature pearly pink. “This has happened everywhere in the world, and it will happen in Singapore,” KK says. “In China, there are about five hundred pink cars on the road right now.”

Ultimately, whether you’re a corporate employee in the Mary Kay office or an independent beauty consultant, a career linked to the Mary Kay culture leaves you empowered to in turn empower others.

“If what you want to accomplish is in line with what the job can offer, than you become exponentially more powerful in your work. This is what happened to me in Mary Kay,” he concludes emphatically.

Visit www.marykay.com.sg for more information.

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