Andrew Tobias - Demystifying Finance

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FIRE AND ICE
The Story of Charles Revson -- the Man Who Built the Revlon Empire.

Chapter 3

The Obsession

In terms of marketing, you've got to have the will to win. You've got to see the blood running down the street. You've got to be able to take it. You've got to be able to shove it. If you're not, you're nobody. You never will be. You think you are? Fine. Love it. Go on-have happiness, have love, have this, have everything. But as far as marketing is concerned [which is what really counts] -- nyenta. Nothing.

-- Charles Revson

Whatever else he was -- nasty, crude, lonely, virile, brilliant, inarticulate, insecure, generous, honest, ruthless, complicated -- Charles Revson was a man of single-minded persistence and drive, entirely dedicated to his business. And a perfectionist. You could even say he was a fanatic, in the same way Bobby Fischer is, or J. Edgar Hoover was. Each lived exclusively for his own particular "business," and each knew his business better than anybody else.

"To Charles, Revlon was not a business, it was a religion," explains Irving Botwin. And while, unlike Fischer and Hoover, Revson had enough sexual diversions to fill one of those FBI file cabinets, even these were carried on with a certain market researcher's detachment. Women were his business. And nothing distracted the man from his business. The day John Kennedy was shot, Charles was in a meeting in New Jersey at the offices of Evan-Picone, a sportswear company he had bought the year before. A secretary came into the conference room with the news. Revson looked up, got up, walked around the room, and then continued with the meeting. The secretary was instructed to keep them posted. What good would it do to listen to the radio or call off the meeting? Would that help Kennedy? Not everyone would have been able to concentrate on the spring fashion line after hearing such news, but Charles Revson could.

Nor was he one to sit around at home wallowing in the national tragedy. On the official day of mourning, when businesses were closed and families throughout America were sitting sadly around their television sets, Charles Revson was at Revlon headquarters presiding over a marketing meeting. There was too much work to be done to take the day off. Because no matter how large or profitable Revlon grew, it was always nothing compared to what it should be. Nothing was ever right. It was one continuous crisis (a state of affairs he fostered), which only he could straighten out. "Why am I the only one who thinks around here?" he would complain to his people, most of whom were killing themselves on his behalf.

On November 9, 1965, the evening of the great blackout, he was up at the lab -- his great love -- working with a group of people on the new men's line Revlon was introducing. (Braggi.) Bill Mandel, his top marketing man, was there; Norman Greif, the newly appointed head of the lab, was there; Sam Kalish, a miniature Revson who would later be sent out to terrorize the international division, was there; and several others. Charles was pontificating about how he wants the image and how he wants the look and how . . . and the lights begin to flicker. And he is going on about the concept and the market . . . and they flicker again. Suddenly the lights dim and go out altogether. Charles, people who were present swear, did not miss a beat. He simply went on talking in the dark.

In those days the company was selling little candles soaked with the Intimate fragrance. Someone groped around for a batch of them, and the meeting, which took on the look of a sťance (but a considerably stronger smell), went on for a good forty-five minutes more, by candlelight, until Charles decided he was through. Fairly soon, of course, word filtered in from outside that this was no blown fuse, but rather a full-scale emergency. But Revson would have none of it. "That's Con Ed's problem," he snapped. "They don't worry about how we sell lipsticks." He felt he had important business to finish, and finish it he did.

(Later, driving into Manhattan in Bill Mandel's car, as his chauffeur had been unable to make it up to the lab through the chaos, he turned his attention to the blackout -- and, now that he was focusing on it, became thoroughly intrigued. The sensible thing would have been to drive away from the city the ten minutes or so to his home in New Rochelle. But he was not about to let this emergency push him around. He insisted on going into the city, snuffed traffic lights and lifeless elevators be damned. And when he stopped off first for his well-done greaseless steak at Billy Reid's Little Club, he would not accept the fact that an electric kitchen couldn't prepare a steak during a blackout. In great detail, he instructed Billy Reid on how to rig up a special burner of some sort . . . and he got his steak.)

The weekend in 1969 when the first astronauts were landing on the moon -- certainly one of man's more dramatic achievements -- Revson called Joseph Anderer at home. His call came about ten minutes before mankind, in the persons of Neil Armstrong and "Buzz" Aldrin, was to land. Anderer, an ex-marine flier, said, "Charles, I don't want to talk to you now. I want to watch them land." Being president of Revlon and on good terms with Charles, he could talk to the chairman of the board that way.

"Oh," said Charles, not used to being rebuffed. "I didn't think that was the big thing. I thought it was when they got out and walked."

"Well, it's big enough for me, Charles," said Anderer. "If they get down safely, then we'll worry about their walking. Why don't we talk later in the day?"

Charles frequently called Anderer and others after midnight. "He didn't do it deliberately," says Anderer, who left Revlon at the end of his three-year contract to become president of a half-billion-dollar textile company. "He would just have something right then he wanted to get into and wouldn't be conscious of what time it was. Time meant nothing to him. Being best meant everything."

Revson was just too absorbed by his own world to pay much attention to the schedule of the world outside -- and so close to the business he sometimes missed what was going on. There is the story, for example, that he once called a meeting of all his top people to discuss the problem of executive turnover. Why couldn't Revlon keep its goddamn executives? The meeting was called for six o'clock on the Friday of a July Fourth weekend; Charles walked in at eight o'clock; and he proceeded to tell the assembled that the reason they couldn't keep their goddamn executives was that they weren't training them properly.

He knew about national holidays and events like Christmas, of course. But for him holidays were interruptions in the urgent work to be done. He hated holidays and vacations and did his best to keep his people from taking them. As for Christmas, that was no holiday -- it was the pivotal selling season and, always, the greatest crisis of all. More than once he called meetings late on December 24 -- because to him it was just December 24. There were the decorations at home and the chestful of silver dollars for his wife, Ancky, but these were secondary and in the heat of the business easily forgotten. One Yuletide meeting was called to discuss how heavy the returns of unsold Christmas-promotion merchandise might be. The bells of St. Patrick's down the street chimed eight ... nine ... ten times. But he was oblivious.

To some extent, of course, Revson would feed his voracious ego with such displays of power over his people. But it wasn't that they had to stay late while he was home decorating the tree. He was right there at the head of the table with them. Which suggests, inasmuch as he was highly competitive with his men, that such meetings were also a way of testing their stamina and devotion to the business against his own. Two tests he could never lose. Then, too, he may simply have been trying to milk every last ounce of effort out of them, as was his standard procedure. Finally, he and at least a few of the other men at such meetings must have taken some pleasure in the self-sacrifice involved in working late on Christmas Eve. By implication, it made their work seem that much more urgent, that much more important.

Still, whatever other motives may have been involved, Charles's basic obliviousness to time and complete absorption in his own empire were genuine. Like a sports addict with the score tied in the last inning of the last game of the World Series, he wondered how anyone could have his radio tuned to anything else. And for Charles the score was always tied, at best. He never felt secure enough in his lead to sit back and relax a little; egotist though he was, he did not think of himself as "a winner." He was constantly, irrationally afraid he might lose . . . which is to say, fail.

He made little effort to remember where business began and left off. Asked to say a few words at a farewell party at Raffles for one of his international executives -- a man with whose performance he was uncharacteristically pleased -- he turned it into a half-hour harangue of the others present, chiding them for not performing as well. This was hardly the occasion for such a lecture. "But that was Charles," as those resigned to his behavior were given to saying. He could almost never bring himself to verbalize praise or thanks or affection. Such warm and positive sentiments did not fit his tough, manly, street fighter's self-image, or his generally negative outlook on life. So that on those few occasions when he did say something nice, he generally accompanied it immediately with something cutting or sarcastic. People who were close to him understood this. They could usually tell when he was trying to express the warm feelings that, most of them say, he genuinely had.

He did not waste time going out to lunch or socializing over executive martinis in the middle of the day. Instead, he ate lunch at the office with one group or another of his executives. For years lunch was prepared in a private kitchen by Henri Gieb, formerly chef at "21." For Charles, it would typically consist of an extremely well-done, entirely dried-out hamburger patty, preceded by tomato juice, followed by Jell-O, accompanied by Fresca, and served by either the maid (Rosa) or the butler (James) on magnificent gold-plate tableware in Revson's private dining room.

These were always working lunches and they would sometimes run until four or five in the afternoon. All business. Charles had no patience for small talk. One day Pope Paul was in town and scheduled to pass right by Revlon's office as lunch was underway. Charles excused himself to go into his adjoining sitting room for a minute or two, and while he was gone somebody says, "Isn't it great? We have perfect seats to see the Pope -- a once-in-a-lifetime thing." And as he is rambling on about how the Pope has never set foot in America before, Charles comes back into the room. "What the hell are you guys talking about?" Charles asks testily (for him a standard entrance). So somebody says, "We were talking about the Pope's visit." And Charles says, "What the hell for? We don't sell to the Vatican."

One may guess that when Charles said things like this he was only half-serious, in the sense that he was conscious of the role he was playing. And, for that matter, he may have assumed the others were conscious of it, too. John Wayne knows he is being John Wayne when he is being John Wayne. But whether or not this was the case with Charles, two things are certain: First, he wasn't just trying to be funny. He almost never tried to be funny. Second, though he may in fact have understood perfectly well why his people were talking about the Pope, he didn't want them wasting their -- which was really his -- time with it. Is that what he was paying them so well to talk about? Besides which, Charles could be comfortable in a group of people only if he was dominating it. The Pope's visit was not a subject on which he was the authority, so he would want to belittle its importance and return to the game at which he was, in both senses of the word, master.

Why couldn't these guys concentrate? Christ, you leave them alone for three minutes and they're talking about the Pope. Well, Charles Revson could concentrate. Not just on the business in general, but on individual details, as well. He would home in on a nail enamel bottle and study it and study it long after everyone else in the room would have run out of things to study, and nothing would be more important than that bottle. Or that lipstick shade. Or that advertisement. Needless to say, he often drove less exacting people (which is to say, everybody) crazy.

At one lunch he took a phone call, and while he was yeah?-yeah?-ing into the phone, the other men at the table got onto a new topic of discussion. "The trouble with you guys," he said when he got off the phone, "is that you don't know how to concentrate on what you're doing. I'm going to tel1 you something. You know what that phone call was about? That was my broker, and he told me that I lost a million dollars just now. But it didn't bother me. I got right back into this conversation."

Granted, he had not gotten back into the conversation at all -- he had switched it to the news from his broker. And granted, every time Revlon stock went up or down a point, he "made" or "lost" a million dollars -- so it was hardly devastating news. But there was no disputing his ability to concentrate. He could spend an hour and a half going over one engraving proof trying to decide what color red the lipstick on the model's lips should be. "It happened all the time," says Norman B. Norman who, for a longer time than most, serviced the Revlon advertising account.

He could go through thirty drafts of an ad before he was satisfied. And then make a change at the last minute. In the early days he had an advertising director working for him named Helen Golby, whose fingernails were bitten and bloody from the experience. She came in to him one day with a mock-up of an ad that was really sensational. But Charles never commented on what was right. What was right could be left alone. He only saw what was wrong. And there was something in this ad, down in the corner somewhere, that didn't look right. So as Helen Golby held up this terrific ad for him to see, he zeroed in on the corner with his finger and said, "That stinks!" And out she went in tears.

He could see subtleties in color, in particular, that few laymen could see and even fewer printers reproduce. On nothing did he so stickle as on color. There was a meeting of salesmen and distributors at a hotel in Asbury Park, New Jersey, in the forties at which he was to be the main speaker. Everyone was already seated when he arrived. The regional manager made a brief introduction, but Charles refused to speak. He was offended by the tablecloths. They clashed with the rest of the room. This was Revlon, a color-conscious company; he was Revson, the color genius; he owned the goddamn company and was paying the hotel for the goddamn meal . . . and he wouldn't start talking until the tablecloths were changed. It took at least half an hour for the waiters to find acceptable tablecloths, remove all the silverware, dishes, glasses, water pitchers and so forth, switch the tablecloths, and then put everything back again. Then, and only then, could the luncheon begin.

Charles was not being theatrical; he was being typical. He wanted things right.

He set up a full-scale laboratory and sophisticated quality controls long before anyone else in the industry had them; he recalled batches of products long before -- thirty years before- product recalls and "consumerism" were invented. Revlon's Sheer Radiance, a recent example, was selling very well when Charles, having first approved it, began to have second thoughts. "It could be better," he said. Right in the middle of a promotion he made them empty every bottle in the house, wash them all, and refill them with an improved formula. Sheer Radiance was out of stock for three months; Revlon lost a small fortune. But he didn't care. He thought the product was a little too frosty, and that it had to be a bit oilier so that women could have more time to put it on their faces. ("Play time.") Any other company that had a product selling so well would either have left well enough alone or gradually changed the formula as new batches were prepared. Not Charles.

If you were a bank president or an advertising hotshot or a potential supplier, you couldn't get him on the phone. But if you were a woman with a Revlon lipstick that smeared, you got through to him like that. "The reason I talk to them," he used to say of such consumer calls, "is that they are the real boss."

To show some skeptical ad men how easy it could be for a stranger to get through to Charles Revson (years ago), a Revlon executive told them to have one of their secretaries give him a call. She happened to have a Revlon lipstick in her pocket book -- who didn't? -- and she was told to say she had bought it at such and such a place in Brooklyn, and that it bleeds. It's too soft. She called Revson's office, with the others crowded around to hear, and in a minute he was on the line. "You got the lipstick with you?" he asked. She said she had. "Turn it around and there's a batch number. Give me the number." She gave it to him. "What kind of dress were you wearing with that lipstick?" She shouldn't wear Fifth Avenue Red, he told her, she should wear Pink Lightning. Or whatever. She got a nice lecture about what she should wear with what, her name was put on the list with the consumer relations department, and they sent her samples and questionnaires and everything else.

That batch of lipsticks may not have been recalled; but others were, on the basis of no more than a complaint or two from the field. A malicious competitor could have cost Revlon a fortune in recalls by planting complaints.

If Revson was in the company of a woman using a competitor's product, he had to know why. And in most cases he would replace it with a bunch of his own. When Ruth Harvey was first interviewed by Revson to become his secretary, Charles asked what kind of makeup she was using and she admitted that, though hers was definitely "a Revlon family," this particular liquid makeup happened to be a competitor's. He told her he had this marvelous liquid makeup, called Touch & Glow, and she should wear such and such a color. He called down and got one for her and asked what she planned to do with the competitive makeup. "I guess I'll put it in the wastepaper basket," she said. "No, don't do that," said Revson, "the cleaning lady will get it. Put it down the drain."

Surely he was at least half-joking? Yes and no, says Ms. Harvey, who to this day reveres the man. "When he says something like that," she believes, "he is saying it with a certain amount of charm, but he is dead serious."

Charles would not joke about the business any more than Hoover would joke about the Bureau. The enemy, whether Communists or competition, was anathema.

 

Even his friends were all business. He had no "life-long" friends as some people do. The only boys from Manchester with whom he kept in close contact were his brothers . . . and that was business. In fact, after Joseph (1955) and then Martin (1958) left, or were forced out of, Revlon, Charles froze them out of his consciousness altogether. He said barely a word to Joseph from 1955 until he died in 1971. And though Charles and Martin settled their differences around that time, for years they would pass each other in public places without so much as a nod of recognition.

The few close friends Charles did have over the years all worked for him in one way or another:

For many years, he and his wife Ancky would socialize with Harry and Helen Meresman. Meresman was Revson's accountant from Day One and remained his closest financial adviser.

Lester Herzog was Charles's closest friend from the late thirties to the early fifties. He and Charles shared a "bachelor's" pad on Central Park South (the quotation marks in recognition of the fact that Charles was not a bachelor). Lester worked for Revlon as one of Charles's key yes-men, despite his lack of any apparent talent. If brains were dynamite, one veteran explained, Lester couldn't have blown his nose. But he was thoroughly devoted to Charles, and Charles was genuinely fond of him. Yet even Lester was pretty well forgotten when he married and could no longer spend his evenings out on the town. (I refer to the second time Lester got married. The first time, Charles was so displeased that he persuaded Lester to "get rid of her" within months. )

Lester Herzog's successor in this role, Bill Heller, was first brought in as Revlon's controller, and later became head of the fledgling international operation. Divorced, he was for some years Charles's closest companion. Another friendship that was born of the business.

From the late sixties until Charles's death in 1975, he was closest to Jack and Lorraine Friedman, both bright, charming people. There was less lackey-ism in this friendship than in the others, but Jack Friedman's company, Florasynth, was Revlon's chief supplier of essential oils for perfumes. Revlon was by far Florasynth's largest customer. The relationship between the two companies was so close that many people in the industry were under the mistaken impression that Revlon owned Florasynth. So Jack and Lorraine, in a sense, worked for Revlon, too.

Particularly in later years, Charles was too much consumed with Revlon to have any interest in or time for making friends outside the business. For the better part of his life, most of the people Charles knew worked for him. Which may have had something to do with his autocratic outlook. He did not feel comfortable outside his own environment, or with equally forceful, successful men or women whom he could not dominate. Nor were the corporation heads, financial men, political figures, and New York cultural people you might expect to find in the circle of the chairman of a leading fashion company beating down his doors to gain entry. He was not first on everyone's guest list, since before each appearance his wife or his secretary would call up once or twice to dictate his menu and to check that it would be cooked specifically as required. And woe to the hostess who was not prepared with the Dom Perignon. (Sometimes he brought his own.) One hostess recalls having him over among such distinguished guests as Gore Vidal and Judy Holliday. And while she cannot recall his taking much interest in them (or they in him), she vividly recalls him at her sumptuous, elegantly decorated buffet table, mixing some white, chalky Maalox-type liquid into a glass, right there on the table, to accompany his dinner. She recalls, too, that he passed judgment on each dish, unasked. "But that was Charles." True to his need to be in charge, he was a better host than he was a guest.

He belonged to Old Oaks Country Club in Purchase, New York. But he had no friends there. Whenever he came to the club to play golf (poorly), he would insist that the pro go out on the course with him to tee up every ball. Sometimes people from the company would join him. (Harry Meresman, his accountant, was treasurer of the club.) But often he would play alone with the pro. He wasn't out there for the game, anyway; he only played four or five holes to stay in shape for the business. And if he didn't like a shot, he would have the pro tee up another ball and try it again.

As for the Ultima II, a sensational yacht which should have served to win anyone friends, of a sort, anyway, the guest list was less impressive than the vessel. For many people the idea of being set adrift in large but nonetheless confined quarters with Charles Revson was . . . unappealing. The regulars on the yacht were a group from which he could expect absolutely no competition or argument.

How would Charles Revson spend much of his time in the middle of the Mediterranean? On the radiophone back to the office or the laboratory in New York. And was his yacht named after his wife? Naturally not: it was named after his prestige product line.

Even more than with most entrepreneurs, the story of the man is the story of his business.

***

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