as Revson had done with nail enamel. Change its image and
double its price. However, this proved difficult. It was hard to sell a sexy, romantic,
glamorous shoe polish.
Lady Color was introduced in the hope that women would paint their shoes to match their
attire. Instant Patent Leather and an application that made leather look like alligator
skin were also introduced. But none of these products revolutionized the instep.
Estimates of Revlon's lack of success with Esquire vary, but it was enough that Revson
decided eventually to get rid of the business. As he told Forbes in May 1969,
several months after disposing of it and a couple of other acquisitions: "We've had
it . . . We're not running a hospital [for ailing businesses] here." He had
bought Knomark for $6 million-plus, and hoped his financial people could recoup the
investment. To do so, they prevailed on him to pick up yet another product -- Ty-D-Bol --
to make a more attractive package. Needless to say, it pained Charles to spend a million
dollars to enter the toilet cleanser business, but he went along. The package went for $12
million in cash -- much more than he had expected.
Bill Mandel says there was no reason to get rid of Esquire. "It could have been
built," he says. He assesses Charles's motivation as "trying to screw" his
then president "and make him look dumb."
Looking not at all dumb, but perhaps relieved to be out of Revlon, that former
president says Revson wanted to ditch Esquire because he had failed to turn it into a
class operation. Shoe polish was still under the bathroom sink where it had always been.
"Charles was never confused by dollar profits," this man explains,
"although he was certainly aware of them. You may have heard him say that one of the
greatest mistakes of his life was The $64,000 Question, because it directed his
business away from where he wanted it to be -- away from Bonwits and into Walgreens. He
would rather have been the most important supplier to Saks than to Safeway. You are
dealing with the basic ego and philosophy of the man: he would rather have owned Pavillon,
and served fifty customers a night, than McDonald's, serving millions."
It may have been more trouble than it was worth, but Esquire was by no means a
disaster. Evan-Picone, a sportswear manufacturer, was. Acquired in 1962 for $12 million as
it rode the crest of popularity for its women's slacks, it was sold back to one of the
original partners (Picone) for $1 million four years later. The $11 million difference,
plus operating losses along the way, retarded Revlon's growth. Women who felt they
"had" to have the latest Revlon lipstick did not feel the same about
Evan-Picone's fashions. Even Revson, had he devoted his full attention to this business,
might not have been able to make every season click. He foresaw the sportswear boom, but
was wrong to think he could capitalize on it with Evan-Picone. "This will be my first
failure," he said when he agreed to take his losses and get out.
Then there was an importer of silk dresses, a plastic molder, a large investment in
Schick shavers, an artificial flower importer -- and others, most of which proved that
businessmen should stick to the businesses they know best.
It has been said of William Paley's disastrous acquisitions at CBS that broadcasting is
such a lucrative business his mistakes were smothered in profits. Much the same was true
of Revson's acquisitions and the cosmetics industry. It is the seller, not the buyer, who
generally holds most of the cards in this game. He knows exactly what he's selling and is
not likely to undervalue it. Revson paid very full prices for his acquisitions. He was not
bargain hunting; he wanted businesses that returned at least 16 percent pretax profit on
each dollar of sales -- businesses with margins like his own. Financial pros look at
return on investment, not sales, but Charles was a merchant by instinct and a
financial man only by the accident of his success.
Where he did shine was in his determination to buy U.S. Vitamin and Pharmaceuticals
Corporation, in 1966. Attracted by the profit margins and by his own hypochondria, he had
long been after a drug company. He had found the industry closed to him, however, not
least because of his religion. U.S. Vitamin was one of the few Jewish drug companies
around -- and even at that he had to pay $67 million for a lackluster company with a mere
$20 million in sales. But pay it he did, and in nine years U.S.V. grew nearly tenfold.
The big break came in 1971, when Ciba-Geigy, the multi-billion-dollar Swiss
pharmaceutical combine, was being forced by antitrust regulators to dispose of a grab bag
of products. U.S.V., by contrast, had most of its chips riding on a single oral
antidiabetic drug, DBI. Although DBI was doing very well, there was always the fear that
it could be made obsolete, or that it could prove to have harmful side effects. U.S.V. hit
on the idea of trading DBI for the Ciba-Geigy products. A startling idea at first
-- it meant disposing of the major portion of U.S.V.'s business -- but a good one whose
advantages Charles quickly grasped.
Just as negotiations were being concluded, a comprehensive study was published that
cast doubt on the life-lengthening properties of DBI. It suggested that DBI might actually
have life-shortening effects, instead. Suddenly the deal was almost dead. At the very
least, Ciba wanted a lot more cash along with DBI than had been originally proposed.
Charles was reached in London and asked if he wouldn't lend his weight to concluding
the negotiations. So he and Lyn, a product manager assigned to carry Lyn's jewels,
Revlon's general counsel, and a team of U.S.V. executives all hot-footed it to Basel,
Charles was enormously impressed by the Ciba operation. A thousand marketing people!
Scientists all over the place! It made his pride and joy in the Bronx look awfully modest.
As the Revlon/U.S.V. forces were huddling on the way into the negotiations, he told them:
"This is a fucking white shoe operation." Pardon? "A fucking white shoe
operation," he repeated, as though that would make his meaning clear, "so I
don't want any swearing or shouting in there. I don't want these guys to think we're a
bunch of bums." He assigned the head of U.S.V. to be the group spokesman and asked
how much the deal was worth. "Well, we've gone up to ten million dollars so
far," came the reply; "I think we could go to twenty million, but I wouldn't go
any higher than that." "Okay," Charles said, "let's go."
In the conference room a team of Giba professionals proceeded to assault the blackboard
with numbers, relative values, best- and worst-case growth projections, probabilities,
present values, cash flows . . . they're drawing analogies with Brazilian growth rates . .
. From their point of view, a couple hours of analysis is not unreasonable when millions
of dollars are up for grabs.
Charles, on the other hand, is sinking deeper and deeper into his chair. He is not used
to sitting silently while someone else lectures. His hemorrhoids are bothering him. There
is a draft in the room. Lyn is back at the hotel. Basel is not the kind of city you want
to stay in, if you are a jet-setter, any longer than you have to. Finally, he can restrain
himself no longer. He flings his arms out, Christ-like, and says -- "Fuck! How much
do you guys want for this fucking deal?"
The Ciba spokesman, startled, fumbled about for a few moments and said, "Twenty
"Done," says Revson, who gets up, shakes hands, and walks out.
Revlon's overseas distribution was first handled by the United States Government.
During World War II, post exchanges all over the world carried Revlon products. At least
one GI would give his local ladies Revlon lipstick cases, promising the lipstick itself if
the relationship . . . matured. Thus the gospel spread. American cosmetics -- many of them
Revlon's -- became the envy of the rest of the world. As Inez Robb wrote in a syndicated
column (March 15, 1952) -- that Carl Erbe, Revlon's brilliant, roughhewn publicist, no
doubt planted: "What Scotland is to tweeds and tipple, Ireland to linen and
blarney, France to perfumes and Switzerland to cheese and chimes: that is what America is
to cosmetics in the eyes of the world and his wife, particularly the little woman."
("The little woman" -- how times have changed!) She went on to say that
"only a few months ago Revlon received a letter from Prague from a woman who enclosed
a big, old-fashioned dollar bill. She explained that it had been left to her by her
father, and would Revlon send her a shade of lipstick, which, incidentally, the factory
had ceased to make years ago." Not to mention a request from Agah Aksel, Turkish
minister to Budapest, who ordered "six pieces of lipstick and six pieces of nail
lacquer to match," or requests from Ethiopia, Patagonia . . .
Beyond the PXs, however, sales abroad were slight. Revlon had operations only in Mexico
and England at first, and in other areas merely exported goods to distributors over whom
it exercised little or no control. Bill Heller was put in charge of selling Revlon to the
world in 1960, but at the time of his death, in 1962, the world had yet to catch fire.
Foreign sales were then running around $20 million. A dozen years later, they would be ten
times as great.
The international division, after Heller, went to Robert Armstrong. Later, in keeping
with Charles's management style, Armstrong was given Sam Kalish as his second-in-command.
Where Armstrong was a tall, Gentile, easygoing diplomat, Kalish was the typical Revlon
killer. They were like a nice-guy/tough-guy team of cops, only they weren't just
playacting to get a suspect to talk. They hated each other. Kalish reported directly to
Armstrong, who theoretically could have fired him. But he also reported, unofficially, to
Charles, so Armstrong was stuck with him.
Except for translating ad copy, it was Revson's idea to sell abroad exactly as he was
selling at home. American cosmetics, like American denims and soft drinks, were in
great demand. Eventually, he came to allow each foreign subsidiary enough independence to
adapt their marketing to their market. But to a large extent, what worked in the U.S. was
equally successful abroad. One much noted TV commercial, for example, included in its
sixty-second message a silent, forty-seven-second kiss. The ad was for Intimate perfume,
the message universal.
Still, each country had its quirks. The Spanish would not allow such a kiss to violate
the pureness of their airwaves. In Italy, at least in 1960, commercials had to run two
minutes -- but only twenty seconds of that time could be devoted to "the sell."
The rest had to be entertainment of some kind. In Venezuela, the announcer had to be a
Venezuelan national, which meant re-recording everything. In Germany, it would have been
inappropriate to call Revlon's men's fragrance "Pub," because it was too close
to the German slang for "fart."
In Mexico, the 64,000 peso show went off without a hitch. But in England, in accordance
with a parliamentary white paper governing commercial TV, Revlon could only sponsor -- not
own -- The 64,000 Shilling Show. Moreover, the order of appearance of commercials
had to be determined by lot. Revlon could not even be sure of appearing first. Martin flew
over to watch the debut, broadcast live from the Palladium. Sitting with Lew Grade on his
left and Armstrong on his right, Martin saw, at the first commercial break, an ad for Max
Factor. "Livid" would hardly have described his reaction. As Armstrong recalls
"I don't understand this," Martin spluttered.
"Martin, the white paper . . ." Armstrong began.
"Screw the white paper," Martin said.
". . . from Parliament . . ." Armstrong offered weakly.
"Look, there's a way to do everything. Put the fix in if you have to," Martin
"Put the fix in -- to Parliament? Sir Lew asked.
"Well, you've got to do something," Martin said.
It was one of the few times Max Factor outfoxed Revlon. Years later, Factor went to
great expense to co-host the Versailles Ball in Paris -- but Revlon stole the show with
free gift packages at every table. The industry tittered for months. When Revlon went into
Japan, the largest cosmetics market in the world after the U.S., Revson decided to stick
not only with his western products, but with his western ads, western product names, and
western models. Only the ad copy was translated. Factor, already well established in
Japan, quickly countered with a "Japanese cosmetics for Japanese women" campaign
-- but Revlon sales took off. Eventually, Factor had to switch to the same Americanized
Revlon's success in Japan was doubly remarkable -- exactly double -- by virtue of the
fact that the operation was 100 percent Revlon-owned. From 1950 to 1967 there was a rule
that American companies had to obtain Japanese partners if they wished to set up shop.
Revson had been planning to go fifty-fifty with a wealthy Japanese named Takara, who flew
all the way from Tokyo to strike the deal. When he and his interpreter arrived in Revson's
office, Sid Stricker introduced them and briefly reviewed the purpose of the meeting.
Revson asked to be excused a moment. Stricker was then asked to step outside, too.
"Get rid of that Chinaman," Revson told him. But why, Charles? "I don't
like his gold tooth." Stricker spent the weekend showing Takara around New York and
then bid him farewell.
If there was more to Revson's ditching Takara than his gold tooth, it was not that he
had figured some brilliant way to go it alone in Japan. This was the achievement of some
of his brash and resourceful lieutenants. "We just went ahead and did
it," one of them explains. "No one stopped us."
(Similarly in 1944, when shipments to Italy were nearly impossible, one of the
play-it-by-ear Revlon types contrived to ship merchandise through the Vatican. He had a Yiddishe
kopf and Catholic connections.)
Charles visited the fledgling Japanese operation in 1962 with Ruth Harvey, Bill Heller,
George Beck, and his two boys. The trip included a ride up into the provinces in a private
railroad car, complete with geisha girls. Revson was quick to grasp that the geishas were
among the country's most avid and affluent cosmetics buyers, and fashion-setters to boot.
Accordingly, he spent considerable time studying them and urged his marketing people to do
Sailing from Capri to the Holy Land aboard his 257-foot yacht, with thirty-one in help
and cases of Dom Perignon in the hold, finding his products regally displayed in every
port along the way, and telephoning instructions to his generals back in New York, Charles
Revson in his later years was indeed an emperor. And self-made at that. An odd sort of
emperor when you looked beneath the robes -- but what emperor wasn't?
Twice a year, beginning in the late sixties, Revlon would gather its international
executives for a three- or four-day dog and pony show. One of the meetings was generally
scheduled during Revson's annual month-long Mediterranean cruise, in the fervent hope that
he would not break up his vacation to attend. He invariably did.
It wasn't that he lacked valuable experience to impart to the international staff, it
was just the way he imparted it. The executives from New York who were used to him could
ignore the profanity, follow the analogies and endure the digressions. Not so the
hundred-odd international managers, sales managers, and chief beauty consultants. It was
like listening to a verbal Jackson Pollack.
Charles would sit with a box of Kleenex beside him, periodically clearing his throat;
push his glasses up onto his head and rest his elbows on the table, supporting his temples
with the heels of his palms; look out over his audience of stuffy Englishmen, genteel
Frenchmen, stilted Germans, exceedingly well-mannered Latin Americans and Japanese --
well, any American entrepreneur would likely come off as something of a cowboy
before such a group ... and he would proceed to talk. And talk. And talk. No prepared
text, a few key words on a napkin. He always believed that a man who could not speak
extemporaneously was not worth much. (His boyhood "ambition," as given in the
yearbook, was "to be an orator.")
One talk ran five hours. During a break, Bob Armstrong and Joe Anderer pulled him off
to a corner and tried to get him to tone down his language. Charles returned to the group
fuming. "They tell me," he said, "that some of you are offended by
my language. Well, goddamn it, this is my fucking company, and if I want to
say 'fuck,' I'll say 'fuck!' Anybody object to that? . . . Nobody? . . .
Says one Revlon bigwig: "These were the most rambling, unstructured,
give-'em-hell, cover-the-waterfront, crude speeches you can imagine. Regardless of whether
the audience was ninety percent men, entirely men, or what, it was an entirely unnecessary
display of who was boss. I don't know how much damage they did, but I'm sure Bob Armstrong
spent the next six months picking up the pieces." Wasn't Revson aware of the
impression he was making? "Yes, I'm sure he was." Then why did he do it?
"I think Charles still thought in many ways that he was just a poor boy from
Manchester, dealing with polished foreign talent. He felt very much at a disadvantage and
had to gain control of the situation. The only way he could do it was to shock them, to
embarrass them -- to show that he was the boss and could get away with it."
But he was also trying to teach them. He once spent forty-five minutes in front of a
seminar of his international marketing executives having a dialogue with a glass of water.
He was trying to teach these people the meaning of product differentiation, and the water
glass caught his eye. He picked it up, held it out in front of him, and said, in his
friendliest way, "Hello, glass. What makes you different? You're not crystal. You're
a plain glass. You're not empty, you're not full . . ." and then he began telling the
glass how it could be made special . . . by changing the design, changing the color of the
water, giving it a stem, and so on. Sam Kalish was so bowled over by this performance, he
says, that at the end he went up to Revson and asked him to do the same thing for another
group upstairs. "C'mon -- I can't do that," Revson said. They went upstairs.
"You know," he began, "I was just talking with Sam Kalish and he
wants me to show yon what I did downstairs, how I grabbed a glass and started talking to
it, 'Hello, glass . . .' " -- and he did it all over again. Kalish acknowledges the
performance was "probably over the heads of eighty percent of the people there,"
but he thought it was great nonetheless.
Perhaps the fundamental skill Revson tried to impart in his long-winded lectures was
simplicity of thinking. "The funny part of it is that we get so smart, we get so
educated, we get so intelligent, that we forget the simple things of the A, B, C, D, and E
are the only ones that matter. All the rest of them just don't matter a goddamn
bit," he said. Take a watch, for example. "The first thing I must understand
about a watch is that it is a timepiece. Regardless of how beautiful it is, regardless of
how expensive it is, that the purpose of this watch is to tell time. Is that correct? Now
the minute I forget that this watch is a timepiece I'm a horse's whatever it is. Is that
correct? And we get so smart, sometimes, that we want to take a watch and make it into an
alarm clock. And we keep forgetting that this is only a watch. The next thing that a watch
has to be after it keeps time . . . now, there's such a thing as keeping time and there's
such as keeping perfect time. And there's such a thing as not winding it -- that's a great
help, too. Then there's such a thing as being most beautiful -- then there's such a thing
you don't have to repair it for five years. Then it is in solid gold. Then it's this and
then it's that and it has a great name. That's a watch."
One reason Charles's ramblings were hard to follow was his unfamiliar use of language.
Revsonisms: "Stop beating around the rosary bush." "I want it done one,
two, six." "Asshole to asshole." (Like peas in a pod.) "What you guys
have to do is reupholster your thinking." "Remember the dumb lady." (The
typical consumer -- things must be kept simple.) "It should be at
least twenty-four-karat gold." "Mediocricy." "Don't answer that --
that's a historical question." "Who hit Annie in the fanny with the
flounder?" (Who started it?) "I'm the kind of a guy who burns his graves
behind him." "There are lots of slips between the cups and saucers."
"Five-hundred-dollar millionaires." (Little guys who thought a
Rolls-Royce and $1 million made them Big Men.) "It's too Jewish." (Said
of a packaging design -- too gaudy.) "Is it clearer than mud?" (Perfectly
clear?) "It's as plain as the five fingers on your face." "That's not my
dish of wax." "Don't make a case celerb out of it."
Norman Norman, rather than being confused or put off by Charles's endless malapropisms,
says he found them "enduring." (Endearing.)
Charles was an inadvertent master of non sequitur. "If you had all the
money in the world," he counseled once, "whatever it may be, you can't have it
all. You can't have all the window displays and all the advertising you want, and all this
and so forth. It's impossible. And so therefore, you must find out what are the most
important things that you need, and what are the winning numbers. What are those numbers
that pay off the best? [I.e., the most profitable marketing formula.] Is it seven? Is it
eleven? Or is it three? Or whatever it may be. Because what do we want fundamentally? [Profit?
Share of market?] We want the least amount of turnover as far as people is concerned . .
A handwritten note: "Birthdays couldn't happen to a nicer guy. So keep
on having more of the same, and the same is good enough."
After viewing the results of a decision he himself had made, he would say, "How
could you let me do this to myself?"
Launching into one topic, but wanting first to cover another, he began: "Might I
say before I say what I am about to say...
He would say: "The first thing is that the color must be right, and the second
thing -- which is really the first thing -- the texture must be right." He tried to
crowd everything up into the number-one position. Everything had to be right, so everything
was number one. The idea of ranking bothered him because he didn't want to accept a
lipstick, even if it had great luster, if it didn't have great wear. The two are somewhat
incompatible and he had a tough time making a choice -- so he put them both first.
"The reason I am opening my talk this morning of marketing,'' he said once, about
a thousand words along in his preface, "is because I think it is one of the key --
that does not mean and I don't wish to infer that operations are not important.
They are. Administration is important and it is. But it does mean that you can have great
administration and great operations, but if you don't have great marketing, you will not
make it. You do have some chance with great marketing and mediocre administration and
mediocre operations to make it, but vice versa, you will not make it . . ."
As Mandel says, he had a hard time setting priorities. Paul Woolard suggests this was
also the reason for his frequent use of the phrase "in turn" -- everything
relating to everything else at the same level. Others saw the "in turns"
as a nervous stalling mechanism, like "uh . . ." Revlon personnel occasionally
ran pools based on the number of "in turns" counted in a given speech.
Revson was not unaware that his mind worked better than his tongue. It caused him great
frustration. In the midst of one of his lectures, having become hopelessly involved in --
"a round lamp with an electric light in it and I think the outside of it is chrome
and you press the button and the light reflects on the base and, in turn, it reflects on
her face, so that she, in turn, can then take some of the makeup off her face and, in turn
. . ." . . . but trying actually to make a simple point about window displays versus
counter displays (namely that women can't sample a product in the window, but they can at
the counter) . . . he finally said: "Now, these things come out very childlike, and I
know they do, but goddamn it, for anybody who wishes after this meeting is over, which
will be on Thursday morning or Wednesday night, I will go with them into this city or any
city that they want, and I will prove with the greatest conviction and positiveness that I
have that that does not follow." (That what does not follow? Hello?)
Because his foibles contrasted so sharply with his position and success, they drew
attention. But attention should be drawn, too, to the cold competence his success was
based on. There was his much noted preoccupation with detail, but also the ability to see
the big picture. He could ramble endlessly, but also cut through to the heart of a matter.
He could choose an odd assortment of friends and confidants, but also frequently tell when
he was being conned. The power behind this emperor's throne was his own inner strength.
The brains behind his operation were, notwithstanding the hundreds of good minds in his
organization, his own.
The following account shows the emperor at his efficient best; the boy from Manchester
High School coping effectively, if undiplomatically, in a rarefied atmosphere.
Revlon's Man in Argentina
I was general manager of the branch in Argentina and he was making his first trip here,
in 1971. He had been as far south as Caracas once, but he'd never been to Argentina or
Brazil. He flew to Brazil, looked at Rio, looked at Sao Paulo, and then cruised to
Argentina on the Ultima II just after New Year's.
Argentina is the most European of the South American countries and it's like the U.S.
in both climate and habits, except that it's got the Latin temperament. We organized there
in 1962 and I took over as manager in 1966.
He had been in Argentina maybe three or four days when he requested a meeting with
prominent people who knew something about the Latin American common market and the general
economy. The major Latin American countries years ago set up a common market to try to
trade between each other, but it never really functioned because of too much acrimony and
vested interest. Revson was interested because we weren't in Brazil at the time, or a lot
of other countries, and he wanted to see if he could manufacture in Argentina and export
from there. The company was always afraid of Latin America because of what they read in
the papers . . . changes of government, devaluation of currency . . . so they
were very cautious. I set up a meeting with bankers and industrialists and a man directly
involved with the Common Market. They all spoke English.
Most Argentines have one hang-up: They are sometimes irrationally proud of their
country. At that time, Argentina had gone through what was for them a relatively stable
period. They had a military government which came in about 1963 and the currency was
reasonably stable . . . there wasn't the terrorism you read about today, Peron was still
in Spain with his wife, and there really weren't any thoughts of his coming back.
We went over to the bank around noon and discussed the economy of Argentina, the common
market, and so on, and these people kept going back to one point.' "If you
want to invest in Latin America, the only place to put it is in Argentina. The currency is
stable, the government is stable, even though it is a military government . . . The guys
in Brazil haven't come down from the trees yet and the Chileans have got a Communist
government coming in . . ." They were giving him half a story, not the true story.
Finally they came down to this: "Charles, as long as the generals run the country we
will never have any trouble. This is really the only place to go."
Up to that point he had just