Ageless illusion fades at last

PROFILE : Estee Lauder The queen of cosmetics withdrew to her palace as her company went public last week. But behind the glitz, writes David Usborne, all has not been glamorous
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The Independent Online
WHEN finally she ascends to the great beauty parlour in the sky, Estee Lauder might leave as her gravestone epitaph the first words of her entry in this year's Forbes Four Hundred list of the world's richest people. They read: "Mother, two sons. Cosmetics. NYC and the Hamptons. Estee: Ageless."

There is no telling whether the Forbes editors, doubtless frustrated by their failure to discover the accurate mileage on Ms Lauder, saw the joke. "Time is not on your side, but I am," she used to tell her public. It was upon the promise of agelessness, or at least the illusion of it, that she built the fortune that propelled her on to the list.

The unchallenged cosmetic queen of North America for the past three decades and former meteor of high society in Manhattan and Palm Beach, Estee Lauder is, in fact, an old lady now. Just how old is a subject that her company, according to a spokeswoman, "will never discuss". But it is widely held that she is at least 87. Last year she broke her hip and has not been seen in public for 18 months. It is no surprise that even she, famed for her energy, should now be retreating into the palace shadows.

Six months after hiring the British actress Elizabeth Hurley as the "face" of its brands worldwide, the Estee Lauder Company announced in September that it was to go public by listing $322m in shares, or 12 per cent of its common stock, on the New York stock market. Simultaneously, Leonard Lauder, Estee's eldest son, was elevated from president, the position he had had since 1982, to company chairman, taking his mother's place. She took the mainly honorary title of founding chairman.

The flotation, completed last week, was a success with the shares enthusiastically taken up. Valued at $3bn (pounds 1.92bn), the company rings up annual sales of $2.9bn. With an array of product lines that includes not just the Estee Lauder name itself but also Aramis, Clinique, Prescriptives, and Origins, the company takes an astonishing 39 cents for every dollar spent on cosmetics in department stores. Its powders, creams, gels and scents sell in more than 100 countries.

Spurring the sale are several not very glamorous factors. For one, it is being engineered to help minimise the estate tax that Leonard, 62, and his younger brother Ronald, 51, will be liable to pay when Estee does indeed pass away.

Then there is the question of the debts accumulated by mother and sons, but particularly by Ronald, whose penchant for high living is legendary. According to documents filed with the Securities and Exchange Commission in New York for the purpose of the listing, Ronald, with his taste for art and day-trips to Europe on Concorde, owes the company and its bankers, JP Morgan, $209m.

The public offering will mark the end of an era for a company that has stayed a family affair ever since its founding by Estee Lauder and her late husband, Joseph Lauder, in New York in 1946. Their first big seller was called "Youth Dew", a pungent draught that doubled as body scent and bath oil.

Born Josephine Esther Mentzer in Queens, New York, in 1908 - or thereabouts - Estee Lauder was the daughter of Hungarian-born immigrants. Her father, Abraham Rosenthal, was in turn the manager and proprietor of an agricultural suppliers, a cemetery, and a hardware shop. In the latter, a young Josephine started wrapping nails and hammers in gift paper before Christmas, a trick she was to employ in her later career.

Her mother, Rose, had a passion for beauty regimens, buying the latest creams and oils from the local pharmacy, and patronising spas. But it was Estee's uncle, John Schotz, who educated her in the science of cosmetics. He would cook up a variety of potions on the gas cooker in the kitchen. He concocted everything from face creams to toothache drops to make-up removers and peddled them around the neighbourhood. Estee allegedly took particular interest in a skin lotion. She gave it the none-too-pithy name, "Super-Rich All-Purpose Creme", and helped her uncle to package and promote it. But according to a 1985 unauthorised biography of Estee Lauder by Lee Israel - Estee Lauder: Beyond the Magic - Mr Schotz would later die penniless.

Ms Lauder's own career came with her union to Joseph Lauder, formerly Lauter, probably when she was only 19. The early years of the marriage were strained as Estee pursued her ambitions, and in 1939 they were divorced. The separation was short-lived, however. The Lauders were remarried in 1943 and Ronald was born the following year. Joseph agreed to abandon his own ventures and work as an equal partner with his wife.

For 15 years, the business remained small, with two modest factories in Manhattan and cramped executive offices. "We were a tiny company," Leonard Lauder recently reflected. "There was my mother, myself, Evelyn [Leonard's wife] and a receptionist-secretary. When people asked for the order department, Evelyn put them on hold, came back with a disguised voice and said: 'This is the order department'." Mr Lauder added: "Success perceived becomes simply success."

Very soon, there was to be nothing phoney about his parents' success. The genius of Estee and Joseph was to bypass the chemists' shops and to retail their products first throughbeauty salons and later department stores. Saks Fifth Avenue was their first big catch. Since then, department store sales have been the engine of the Estee Lauder business. The company also pioneered the "free gifts" gimmick, a strategy that was to be widely adopted and still endures.

That early growth of the Lauder empire has since been attributed to the grittiness of Estee herself. In London she badgered Harrods for two years before she was allowed to set up a stall in their perfume department. In Paris at the Galerie Lafayette, according to her autobiography published in 1985, she accidentally-on-purpose spilled a sample of one of her perfumes on the carpeting finally, to get managers to notice her product's scent.

Her steely side was also revealed in what she had to say in her autobiography- Estee, a Success Story - about her rivals. Helena Rubinstein was like a Russian tsarina, but the "skin on her neck was less than perfect". Elizabeth Arden was "not a nice woman, not a generous woman". Charles Revson of Revlon was revealed as "my arch and implacable enemy", while Sam Rubin of Faberge was dismissed as "patronising even for those pre-feminist days".

The death of Joseph in 1983 led to a messy fight with the federal tax authorities, who claimed that the company had undervalued his stock ownership at just $28m. Only last December, a New York judge found against the company, ruling that Joseph's holdings at the time of his death should have been valued at $50m. Roughly $15m in estate taxes is believed to be owed by the family to the Internal Revenue Service. Meanwhile, according to the SEC filing on the flotation, Leonard and Estee owe the company itself $10.4m and $28.6m respectively.

It is clear from the document that the bulk of the revenue from the offering will go not to the company but to the family members, who, by last year, were receiving annual payouts from the company of $84.6m. Most needful of the funds is Ronald, whose troubles have arisen not just from his expensive tastes and related generosity but also from ambitious investments, notably in a television enterprise in Eastern Europe.

How Estee herself views the sell-off and the reasons for it no one will say. Nowadays, she has little day-to-day involvement in the company and both her company stock and her property assets are in a trust managed by Leonard and Ronald.

Apparently, however, she is fully alert. "It's hard for her to have to sign cheques," Ira Wender, the family lawyer, told the Wall Street Journal this month, "but she still understands things. She's like most people her age - they have their good days and their bad days."