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Calling on Avon.

Dave Mitchell jokes that when he joined Avon Products right out of high school, he thought the chairman of the board surely must look something like God. More than 36 years later, he's considerably less awe-struck by the title. . .mainly because it's been his since 1977.

Between the time he hired in as a $35-a-week mail-room clerk and today, as he oversees the company's $3-billion-a-year international sales, he's viewed Avon from the ground up. He's worked his way east, from the distribution branch in Pasadena to the home office atop a New York City skyscraper, and has served in a variety of assignments along the way. Over the years he's had to figure out exactly how many compacts can be filled by a 600-pound bag of powder; he's rung doorbells in Connecticut, New Jersey and on Long Island; he's sniffed, whiffed and passed judgment on dozens of new products; and he's indirectly supervised an enormous and energetic sales force of some 1.3 million--approximately 5,000 of whom are men.

At age 55, Mitchell staunchly defies corporate deification. Blond, trim and athletic, he conducts business in shirt sleeves and is on a first-name basis with everyone he meets--from the maintenance crew, to members of top management, to the delegations of Avon representatives who wanded the halls of the home office during holidays in New york City. As evidence of Mitchell's comfortable-as-an-old-shoe manner, one employee offers the tale of a garbled telephone call he once received from the kitchen of the company cafeteria.

"Where are you calling from, Dave?" asked the employee.

"The kitchen," the chairman of the board replied above the din of clanging pots and pans and the splash of running water.

"What are you doing there?"

"Eating lunch, of course."

If his management style is casual, Mitchell's business sense is impecable, and his decisions are well researched and dynamic. Under his direction Avon has diversified beyond its famous line of beauty products and into some lucrative, if surprising, areas. In 1979, the world-famous jeweler Tiffany and Company was added to the corporate fold, touching off jokes about diamond watches and platinum bracelets being offered door-to-door by bell-ringing saleswomen.

"When the acquisition took place, there was a lot of speculation in the press that Tiffany's image was going to disappear," admits Mitchell. "I remember that the news that night showed somebody selling a $50,000 diamond ring on a customer's doorstep. But actually, we're scrupulously working toward maintaining that very fine, separate Tiffany image. It's special; and there'll be no mixing or blending."

Avon's ability to keep its various businesses separate was proven a decade ago when Avon Fashions--the company's first diversification effort--was launched. Rather than using the established cadre of sales representatives to sell women's clothing door-to-door, a mail-order division was organized. The success has been phenominal. Last year, Avon Fashions distributed more than 62 million catalogs that offered high-quality, trendy women's apparel at reasonable prices. Customers responded with orders surpassing $125 million. So successful has the mail-order division been that a line of men's clothing has been introduced under the name of James River Traders. A children's line is now available, and Avon expects to launch at least one new direct-mail business annually in upcoming years.

"All this may sound ambitious," says Mitchell. "But it's not that difficult. We don't manufacture anything we sell in the fashion line. Suppliers come in, put on their shows and we select what we want to sell. We have a huge mailing list, a good order-processing center and the ability to create catalogs. That makes it fairly simple."

While clothing and fine jewelry represent new directions for Avon, the most radical departure from the traditional beauty-care products has come more recently--just two years ago--when Avon purchased Mallinckrodt, a St. Louis-based manufacturer of medical and diagnostic products. Mallinckrodt's price tag? More than $700 million.

"That acquisition was a big nut for us," recalls Mitchell. "There were some people on the board of directors who thought the price was too high. But back in 1970, we identified the healt-care field as where we wanted to be in the future. I think we'll be very successful in it."

From beauty care to health care, Avon, it seems, has come a long way in its nearly 100 years. . .a long way since its founder, an innovative traveling salesman named David McConnell, mixed his first batch of perfume in a pantry on Chambers Street in New York and sold it for half what the ingredients cost him.

Though separated by 98 years of Avon history, McConnell and David Mitchell share much more in common than just first names, identical initials and company affiliation. Chances are that McConnell, who died ten years before Mitchell joined the Avon mail-room staff in Pasadena, would have approved of the new directions his company has taken under Mitchell's leadership. Mitchell, on the other hand, says one of his primary goals upon retirement is to leave Avon teeming with the same kind of spirit instilled by founder McConnell five generation ago.

"It's a friendly spirit," explains Mitchell. "We have a group of people here who enjoy what they've doing and like one another. One of the things that pleases me most is when an employee, one who may not have been with the company very long, comes in and says, "I just want to tell you that this is really a nice place to work.' And it happens."

The Avon spirit, past and present, is one of entrepreneurship--the ability to recognize a good opportunity and the willingness to work hard and capitalize on it. McConnell did this back in 1886. He decided it made good business sense to manufacture a product consumers quickly use and replace. His preference for selling these wares through "canvassing agents" came from his own experience as a door-to-door book salesman. In his memoirs, written in 1903, he noted:

". . .it seemed to me. . .that the perfume business in its different branches afforded the very best possible opportunity to build up a permanent and well-established trade. Having once decided that the perfume business was the business, the question naturally presented itself, 'By what name are these perfumes to be known; by what name is this company to be called?'"

He decided on the California Perfume Co. (changed to Avon in 1939) in honor of a close business associate who had relocated to the West Coast. His introductory line of floral fragrances was quickly expanded to include almond balm, shampoo, tooth tablets and witch-hazel cream. Since much of his time was spent in the pantry experimenting with exotic-smelling concoctions, he left the distribution arm of the business to a rather stern-faced matron named Mrs. P.F.E. Albee of Winchester, New Hampshire. Mrs. Albee may have the distinction of being America's first Avon lady, but she didn't operate solo for long. She quickly organized and trained a sales force that swelled to 5,000 representatives within a dozen years.

"Contrast, if you please, the appearance of our office today with that when Mrs. Albee first started out with the California Perfume Company's goods," McConnell wrote to his sales representatives at the turn of the century. "Then I had one stenographer, and I myself filled the position of correspondent, cashier, bookkeeper, shipping clerk, office boy and manufacturing chemist. Today we have a weekly payroll of over 125 employees. . . . The growth of the California Perfume Company only emphasizes what energy and fair dealings with everyone can accomplish. We propose first to be fair with our customers--your customers--by giving them the very best goods that can be made for the money; we propose to be fair and just, even liberal, with you who form the bone and sinew of our business."

The company's work force and headquarters have changed considerably since McConnell's day. Total employment now tops 38,500, and the home office occupies 26 floors at "9 West," an ultramodern office building towering over Central Park South in New York City. However, the past is not forgotten; an open-door policy prevails. ("This is not an ivory tower," says Mitchell.) Objets d'art represent the more than 30 countries where Avon maintains facilities, and pictures of Mrs. Albee and her successors decorate the walls.

A further tribute to Avon's history is the company's archives, where the Avon product line is traced from the original Little Dot Perfume Set of 1886, to American Ideal perfume of 1907, to Jardin d'Amour of 1926, Topaz of 1935, Here's My Heart of 1946, To A Wild Rose of 1950, Charisma of 1968, Clint of 1976 and Louis Feraud's Fantasque of 1982. Although the company has been marked by growth and change, an important constant is the high regard shared by McConnell and Mitchell for the sales representatives in the field and for the sales technique they practice so well.

"It's clear to me that Avon's founders were, from the very beginning, completely committed to the concept of person-to-person selling," said Mitchell when he was inducted into the Direct Selling Association's Hall of Fame in Phoenix in 1982. "That, I believe, is the first and foremost reason for Avon's success. They began with unshakable faith--and continued with unswerving belief that the direct-selling distribution system is the best way to market our goods. They began not as merchants who waited for customers to appear. They began as 'go-getters'...believing in positive action rather than passive hopefulness. They said, 'Let's go for it'...rather than, 'Let's hope it happens.'"

Such an assertive philosophy suits Mitchell, a self-starter who joined Avon without benefit of a college diploma. He chose Avon over two other job offers not for the money--Avon offered the least, $140 a month--but because he liked the warmth of his interviewers and because his stepfather advised him that the cosmetics industry was slated for a boom. He never regretted the decision. Because he couldn't claim an impressive university sheepskin, he set about to catch up with promising employees who could. He enrolled in a management correspondence course, faithfully read through Business Week and Fortune and carefully observed his supervisors. He received on-the-job training as he moved from positions in production control, to manufacturing, to sales. Although he describes himself as shy, he proved to be an enthusiastic student and a super salesman.

"I probably wouldn't have been successful selling sheets of steel or automobles or anything else that requires a more pressured type of selling," he admits. "But the Avon system teaches a low-key, personal-involvement approach. Ours was never the foot-in-the-door kind of selling. The whole atmosphere through the sales organization is one of warmth and personal contact. So, I don't think my shyness was an inhibitor; it might even have been a help because people seemed to warm up to me since I wasn't pushing all the time."

Because of his own experience, Mitchell is committed to offering training to sales representatives ambitious enough to accept it. Incentive and education programs such as Opportunity Unlimited and Avon Career Training (ACT) are designed to motivate the sales force and make Avon representatives more knowledgeable.

"Encouraging individuals to grow makes our business grow," explains Jim Preston, president of the Avon Division (direct selling) of Avon Products. "Representatives need a tremendous amount of information, ideas and support to become as productive as possible."

This is especially true now, when the average Avon representative exudes business savvy and is committed to a long-term, successful company affiliation.

"We're finding more and more that we're shifting to the career-oriented representative...the woman who could work somewhere else but chooses Avon," says Mitchell. "I think 25 to 30 years from now you're going to see this company geared toward the career woman who starts her career as an Avon representative and moves up. That never used to be the case."

How far up the Avon ladder might a woman climb? To the top, according to Mitchell, who seems to relish the idea. He admits an attractive chief executive such as Mary Kay or Estee Lauder is a real asset in the cosmetics business and she would be most welcome at "9 West."

"In all honesty, yes, that would be a plus because most of the products we sell today are through women to women for women. I would think certainly a woman has to have a better feeling for and better judgment on that sort of thing than I have," he says. "While there really haven't been a lot of women who have emerged at the top of corporations, when it happens--and it will--Avon is the kind of company where you would expect to have a woman surface as chief executive officer."

In the meantime, Avon continues to promote women in a variety of other arenas. Company leaders are so appreciative of the loyalty exhibited by the Avon representatives and customers over the years that they seek out ways to say thank-you. As an advocate of physical fitness, Mitchell is the guiding force behind the Avon International Running Circuit, launched in 1978 and now encompassing dozens of races in 12 countries. Not only has the circuit been a showcase for the world's great female runners, but its enormous popularity helped persuade the International Olympic Committee to initiate a women's marathon, beginning with the 1984 Olympic Games in Los Angeles. Avon has also expanded opportunities for women in bowling, ice skating and, of course, through the renowned Avon Tennis Circuit.

Perhaps the company's single most generous gift on behalf of women has been its pledge of $500,000 to the Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center. The money is being used to support research into the causes of and treatment for cancers of the female reproductive organs. The grant was made possible through the Avon Foundation, founded in 1955 to support community, charitable and medical research and treatment facilities.

"I think all of us at Avon have this feeling that women built this company," says Mitchell. "So doing things for women has got to be right for us. We were thrilled to be able to make the grant to Sloan-Kettering because there was a very strong need. Of course, the problem isn't solved, and I guess if more money is needed, we'll give it to them."

Such a benevolent attitude is part of the "Avon spirit" fostered in the early days by McConnell and preserved today by Mitchell. It's an outlook he has every intention of leaving intact when he retires. For that reason, he plays an active role in recruiting and interviewing candidates for top management positions. He's particularly impressed by persons with a high level of company loyalty, an appreciation of the past, creative ideas for the future and a willingness to pitch in and see a project through to completion.

"Loyalty is instilled by example," he says. "I think the top of an organization sets the pace, and people tend to emulate their leadership. If you've got a man or a woman whose coattails are flying, people perceive him or her to be a mover. And that filters down and, before long, you have movers at every level of the ladder."

Mitchell, much like Avon founder David McConnell, is a mover. His pace is quick enough to lead the company into its second century at a winner's clip, but not so fast as to miss the faces along the way. He cites a favorite story of an elderly lady who retired as an Avon secretary several years ago, but who continues to put in a few hours a day at her desk out of habit and loyalty.

"I passed her on the street the other morning when I was walking to work," says Mitchell. "I didn't recognize her because it was bitter cold and she looked like a tiny mound of clothes--just scarves, coat, hat and boots. When I got around in front of her, sure enough, it was Virginia." He laughs and adds, "You know, there's a sort of mystique about a chief executive officer's job, but if you've got a little common sense and a lot of good employees like that, it's a piece of cake."

Of Mitchell's January 1, 1984, retirement Hicks B. Waldren, the new president, chief executive officer and board chairman, had this to say: "Dave Mitchell has made many fine contributions to the future of Avon. All of us at Avon look forward to his continuing support as a member of the board of directors and wish him the very best in his retirement."
COPYRIGHT 1984 Saturday Evening Post Society
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Copyright 1984 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Title Annotation:history & success
Author:Miller, Holly G.
Publication:Saturday Evening Post
Date:Jan 1, 1984
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