It takes two: Meet the top dogs in the world of Avon

The couple that sells together, stays together – they also amass Jags in the driveway and foreign holidays in the sun. Perhaps startlingly, all this success has been achieved through the sale of humble lipsticks and shower gels. Rosie Millard meets the top dogs in the world of Avon.

It really is the stuff of dreams. Champagne-fuelled holidays in the sun, treasure hunts, free cars with personalised name plates. Later this month, at a glitzy event at the Metropole Hotel in Birmingham, 20 people will be blessed with the above, or a variation of it. For they have been deemed the most lefficient sales people in the UK this year for Avon, the door-to-door cosmetics giant.

In the era of online shopping, some might be surprised to learn that the company that made 'Ding Dong' into a catchphrase is still around; furthermore, that it is the world's largest direct-selling company, with sales of more than $11bn (£7bn). The famous 'Avon Ladies' who stood on your doorstep holding out nail varnish have been replaced by multi-level marketing, namely a complex, tiered army, with a battalion of employees fanning out across the world, people who do time at the front doors but who also get others beneath them to do the same, who similarly hire people beneath them. The sellers get 25 per cent commission, the person who hired them 10-12 per cent, the next one up 4-5 per cent, and the one above that 2 per cent.

Avon reps defend themselves against claims that this is simply a pyramid scheme by pointing out that the 'top' person is themselves a seller too, with another 'tree' of sales people above them. Everyone has to flog £220-worth of Avon stuff per campaign. There is a new campaign every three weeks. It's a whirl of introductions, commissions, teams and campaigns, with Avon at the centre, and the supposedly never-sated desire for a new shade of lipstick as the generating pulse behind it.

Avon suggests that becoming an independent sales leader is the perfect employment weapon with which to combat the recession, with a low start-up cost, no special training, no commuting, utter flexibility and clear incentives for anyone willing to devote Stakhanovite zeal to the cause. It has certainly worked for Nadine and Wayne Rowlands, who are anxiously awaiting the Birmingham do, known as Live Your Dream, to see if they have won a free holiday to Rome (highly likely) and a free car (probable). They already have the Jag outside their house in a Manchester suburb, with its numberplate AV04REP. Previous triumphs have resulted in free holidays to Prague, Majorca, Monte Carlo, Berlin and Malta.

Nadine and Wayne's sales power is considerably more than the sum of their own not inconsiderable efforts, thanks to a huge team of advanced sales leaders, sales leaders and reps, to bring in the Avon bacon. Last year, they made around £110,000, a sum which has put them on a wholly different financial planet to the hard-scrabble world in which they were living seven years ago.

"We were skint," says Nadine, 43, petite and pretty, a woman who credits her unwrinkled face to Avon skin care. The fact that she no longer has to panic about finding the rent each month probably helps, too. "I was a legal secretary, earning about £18,000 a year."

Before they discovered Avon direct marketing, she and Wayne, 53, a former engineer, could not be faulted in their efforts to bring in more money. It's just that whatever they did, didn't pay. They had designed greetings cards, and sold them in a local market. That didn't work. Then they sold a diet formula on the phone. This was a disaster. If you wanted to flog it, you had to buy the stuff first. Then you had to buy 'leads', namely phone numbers of people who had expressed vague interest, somewhere in the past, in dieting.

If it sounds a bit Glengarry Glen Ross, the David Mamet tragedy wherein hapless agents buy 'leads' in order to flog property, you would be right. This not only feels like a play, it was a play. You had to tempt the 'leads' into buying the weight-loss products over the phone by means of reading out a specially devised script. For Nadine, the pressure was intense, because she had already bought £3,000-worth, which was drilling a hole of desperation through her kitchen table.

"I used to come off the phone crying," says Nadine. "Because I couldn't sellf it. They were just too expensive. You'd explain what the product was, and go through the script. But when it got to the moment when you had to say how much it was… you had to promote the £90 programme over the £78 programme, of course… I just couldn't sell them."

With mounting debts of around £50,000, Nadine and Wayne tried harder: delivering 2,000 leaflets in the evenings after work; handing them out in Manchester city centre on Saturdays. Then, an old friend called. She was doing direct marketing for Avon. Wasn't that the same thing?

"No," says Nadine, "because it sells itself." You don't need 'leads' to find out who wants nail varnish, because everyone does. Plus, nail varnish costs around £4, compared to a £90 course of diet products. All you had to do was invest £15 in a bunch of aspirational, glossy brochures with gorgeous women like Milla Jovovich on the front, while flogging £2.25 skin cleansers inside.

So Nadine and Wayne, desperate, started dropping the brochures round to people's houses, and collecting them a week later. They began to widen their net, finding others to 'work' for them. Those people found other people. Nadine now has over 2,000 people working for her.

"We see the effect of direct marketing every time we get paid," comments Nadine, who admits she often dreams about Avon. "We see how much we have earnt, and how much everyone else in the team is doing. There are people on that list who might not even know we exist, and yet we are still getting paid on them."

The glossy brochures have changed Nadine and Wayne's life. They moved out of their rented flat and bought a house which is immaculate and studded with giant pieces of soft furnishing. After a while, both gave up the day job; which as Nadine sees it, was the main aim. And then they started winning prizes. Clearly signposted prizes, not baroque arrangements of bonds or share deals, are part of the Avon schtick. Cash for holidays, or a whole holiday itself.

"We never used to take holidays," says Nadine. Now she hardly has time to unpack the cocktail dresses before another free trip arrives, courtesy of their labours. It's not just the City which believes in incentives. Avon, founded 125 years ago, was doing it long before the infamous bonus was a glint in a hedgie's eye.

But given that there are thousands of Avon reps out there, what is Nadine and Wayne's winning formula? "Keep it simple," says Wayne, smiling genially, the light winking off his enormous watch (bought from an Avon brochure). "Have a good work ethic. Know in your mind what you want to achieve." You also have to be happy to buy quite a lot of Avon gear yourself. "Everyone takes showers, don't they?" muses Wayne. "And by the time your shower gel runs out, it's time for a new campaign." A willingness to dismiss gender-specific tasks helps, too. "Nadine, having been a secretary, is quick on the computer," says Wayne. "So she'll do the office work and I'll go and make the tea. We'll do whatever's necessary to make it work."

There are only three such couples in Britain. Wayne and Nadine in Manchester, Rebecca and Tony in Leicestershire, and then, leagues ahead in the No 1 and 2 spots, Debbie and Dave Carter in Sunderland. Debbie and Dave are the team to which every sales rep aspires. They are the Avon top dogs, making around half a million quid a year. Do Wayne and Nadine know them? Are you kidding? They all go off on the free holidays every year. "I was best man at their wedding," says Wayne, grinning at the sheer delight of it all.

I'm expecting to draw up at some giant pile on the North Sea, but when I arrive at Debbie and Dave's detached house in Sunderland, it's part of a modest housing estate. Debbie is 32, Dave's 43, and both were born and bred in the Wearside town. Like Nadine and Wayne's, their home is spotless, gleaming and in perfect order. Like Nadine and Wayne, moving into it was preceded by tough times and work in low-paid, low-skilled jobs. He was a caterer, she a printer. School had done little for them, but for all their lack of exams or tertiary education, they were ambitious, and minded to run their own business. "I had drive. I knew that if I didn't succeed, it wasn't going to be for lack of hard work," says Dave. "And I wanted to determine what I earnt through my own efforts. When I was in catering, I felt that if I didn't do anything about it, I was going to be in the same job for the next 20 years, earning a couple of hundred pounds a week." He shudders. "I didn't feel as if I was getting anywhere."

Putting paid to the stereotypical notion that it's only the anointed bunch in the Square Mile who have the confidence to aim high and put the hours in, Dave and Debbie started working at night, selling cleaning products for another direct-marketing firm, Kleeneze – but they found it wasn't much good for them. As Dave puts it, you're only going to need a can of oven cleaner once a year. So they started bunging in a few Avon brochures. After just six weeks, Dave and Debbie realised the benefits lipstick has over oven cleaner. "We threw everything out, and concentrated on Avon." Now their combined teams of nearly 10,000 people flog over £13m-worth of cosmetics, skin cream, jewellery and shower gel across the country every year. Which makes a lot of commission for Dave and Debbie; last year they earnt £410,000.

"It makes us want to do more," says Dave. What, sell more lipstick? Surely the market for this sort of thing has some form of saturation level. No, says Dave. Apparently one in three women across the country has access to an Avon catalogue; but two out of three would like to. So that's a lot of women left to woo. So although according to him, sales for make-up are down by 20 per cent this year, there are a lot of women who would buy Avon lipstick if only they knew it was there. This, presumably, is how the sales team is built.

Furthermore, galloping unemployment, particularly in the North, has made more and more people think they can make multi-level marketing work for them. The recession has made hustlers of us all. Both Debbie and Dave, and Wayne and Nadine have their own websites appealing for new reps to come forward and join their team.

"We visit million-pound houses in – say – Glasgow," Dave tells me. "And we think of the people in them; why would they ever want to do Avon? I used to think it was because they wanted to be team builders, but it's not. It's because they need the money." He leans forward. "It's not just on estates like these," he says, gesturing through the bay window to the quiet street outside "where most people around are out of work. These people, the people in the big million-pound houses, they are mortgaged up to the hilt. They are financed up to the hilt, with their big cars, and they need an income. People think it's only people on estates who want to join Avon, but it's not. Everyone wants to earn money. Everyone."

What is the future for the power couples and their glossy brochures? Somewhere, something switched the entrepreneurial button firmly on in the heads of Nadine and Wayne, and Dave and Debbie. It wasn't school, family or community; it certainly was not the result of being born into privilege. Dave is determined he and Debbie will never relinquish their positions as Avon's top seeds, and if things get tough, they will tough it out. "We will work hard. If you work hard, and don't cut corners, you can make a lot of money. People say they need the money, and want it, but they aren't prepared to put in the effort. Those are the people who fall by the wayside, and struggle."

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