In Episode 43 of Earned, Conor sits down with industry legend Janet Gurwitch—founder and former CEO of Laura Mercier Cosmetics, and operating partner at Advent International. Janet has a proven track record of elevating brands into runaway success stories: currently, Janet serves on the board of directors for Olaplex, Drybar, and the Houston Astros, and has previously lent her expertise to Tatcha, First Aid Beauty, Dollar Shave Club, and Urban Decay.
We start the episode by discussing Advent’s acquisition of Laura Mercier (along with BareMinerals and Buxom), as Janet shares the unique experience of reacquiring her own brand. We then take a step back to explore Janet’s extensive career in retail, learning how she worked her way up to Executive Vice President of Neiman Marcus, as well as how the then-unprecedented success of indie beauty brand Bobbi Brown inspired her to create Laura Mercier Cosmetics. Next, Janet reveals the qualities she looks for when investing in a brand, and the approach she takes when serving on a brand’s board of directors. We then unpack the factors that contributed to Olaplex’s success, and learn how Janet got involved with the Houston Astros. To close the show, Janet gives advice to aspiring entrepreneurs.
The following interview has been lightly edited for concision.
“It’s a dream”: Janet Gurwitch on Reacquiring Laura Mercier
Conor Begley: Let's talk about reacquiring your own brand. Was that a bit of a surreal experience: to have this brand that you spent so much time taking from zero to a hundred million dollars in sales, and I think it's changed hands a couple times, and now you're bringing it back into the fold? What has that experience been like? And where do you see opportunities for that brand?
Janet Gurwitch: It's a dream. I would've never thought that a brand that I built from my head and sold in its thirteenth year—and I actually sold it to Amway, who then sold it to Shiseido. But I’ve watched it all along. And for any entrepreneur, it is a challenge to watch someone else own your brand. So it never entered my mind that it would be available. Shiseido decided to sell three brands—BareMinerals, Laura Mercier and Buxom—and I think when they called me and told me that I couldn't believe it. But it happened, it all worked out. It's a complicated deal, a carve out. I've never done a carve out. Totally different experience, but I'm beyond excited.
Conor Begley: What's the idea behind purchasing these brands? Is this meant to be the start of a platform? Is this really just about owning these three brands and helping them to grow? And why do you think you guys are positioned to help them be successful?
Janet Gurwitch: Well, I'm very impressed with how Advent was thinking of this, and that is we hired Pascal Houdayer, who will be the CEO of these three brands. So these three brands will now be their own company, and he'll have a very strong team of a CMO, CFO, et cetera. Right now our goal is just to get them all to a great place. They're brands with terrific history and authentic stories, and we want to make sure that's showing. In the case of Laura Mercier, we're staying totally true to the history of the brand and what it was built on, which is top quality product. That's been our number one thing. If you need to go out tonight, we have the right products to help you, and the right training. So those are the key things. We will be true to the brand, and I'm very excited about it.
We think these brands have so much potential. We just have to go in and look at each one in detail and see, what is it? Is it product? Is it social? What do we need to do to elevate it, to hopefully double their businesses?
“Have confidence in what you know and what you think”: Janet Gurwitch’s Advice to Aspiring Entrepreneurs
Conor Begley: I think that one of your unique perspectives is that you rose up in retail during a time when there weren’t a lot of women in leadership. I think you said you were one of two executive leaders who were women on Foley's team. You've also spent a lot of time mentoring entrepreneurs who are women, right? Whether it was launching Laura Mercier, or Vicky Tsai at Tatcha, Lilli Gordon at First Aid Beauty, or Wende Zomnir at Urban Decay. What advice would you give to another woman who aspires to achieve what you achieved, or what Vicki or the others have achieved, as she embarks on her career?
Janet Gurwitch: You know, Conor, I really would give the same advice to a man or a woman. Excel in your job. If you're in a corporate structure, as I was in the first 18 years of my career, I had to stand out. I had to have the numbers. If I was a buyer, my department had to have the numbers. If I was divisional, my division had to have the numbers. Set your goals high, but have a substantive business plan.
Years ago, I didn't get promoted at Foley's when they told me I had the best numbers that year, and I went into the boss and I said, “I can't believe I didn't get this job." And he said, “I've never met you. I met the one that got the job. You are so politically naive.” I thought, they’ll just see my numbers, but there's a little bit more to it than that if you're in the corporate structure. But I always tried to excel. I tried to always know what my competition was doing. I tried to be the very best. And I would say that to a man or a woman.
But it's interesting: when Sheryl Sandberg's book Lean In came out, I read it and I was thinking, I leaned in. But then I thought of times at Foley's—[where I was the] only woman on the board of merchants at that time—when I maybe didn't lean in. And then in private equity, everyone that I've been working with went to Harvard and graduated at the top of the class, and I think you have to think, “I'm here because I bring a certain expertise,” and I really say to women, “lean in.” Have confidence in what you know and what you think, because really that's what a board is. Everyone should bring what they're thinking, and that's why diverse boards are so important. But I would just say to a man or a woman, excel as best as you can, because that's how you win.
You can watch the entire interview here, or listen to the full episode on Spotify, Apple Podcasts, or Google Podcasts. To catch up on our other 42 episodes, featuring leaders from brands like Milk Makeup, Gymshark, Gucci, and Summer Fridays, visit our Earned Podcast page.