Monday, May 13, 2013

"What made Maybelline a Giant in it's Field" Interview with Maybelline Executive Harris A Neil Jr. Explaining growth and production strategies

 My name is Harris A. Neil Jr.  I worked at Maybelline  in Chicago from January, 1959 to August, 1968, a period of great growth and excitement in the history of the company. Among the wonderful people I had the privilege of working with were your cousin, Tom Lyle Williams Junior,  and Harold “Rags” Ragland. I was very much their junior, 28 years old when I started in 1959. The math tells you that I’m now 82. 

 As Production Manager, in a highly marketing-oriented company, I would like to explain the packaging program, as it came down during those years of growth and new product rollouts. The changes and improvements you mentioned in your book, finally resulted in a whole new look and methodology, and kept our production floor plenty busy.

 I would also like to explain the outside vendor program, which people nowadays call “supply chain management” or simply “logistics.” That involved both packaging and product components, which became more of a tightrope act as volume and product increases pushed us forward. It was even more exciting because we only had a finite amount of floor space for warehousing and production.

     I want to comment on the Maybelline management style and interactions as I saw them from my “worm’s-eye” view. I still remember it well, and learned as I moved on in life that it was unique, but it was I think bewildering to the Plough group who did things very differently.

     And yes, I want to give my thoughts on the Plough merger, as it was announced and as I lived through it for the ten months I remained with Maybelline afterward. It became a different company immediately without Tom Jr., Rags and Dorothy Molander. That topic alone is one that maybe will make this story worthwhile all by itself. Also, and only in this subject area, we’ll have to discuss some negative events, but they happened and we’ll face them head on.

     Then there’s T. L.’s gift to his long-time employees. I couldn't find the letter outlining the details of the gift, but I clearly remember the basics, and can give you a pretty fair idea of the scope and impact of this wonderful gesture on his part. 


It all began in one day in January, 1959, when I received a phone call from an employment agency on the north side of Chicago, where I lived in a bachelor pad with three other friends. I had registered with that agency earlier, part of a job search that I’d been on for weeks, going back to late 1958.

The nameless voice on the phone asked if I was available to talk to a local company about an opening they had in “inventory control.”

I said yes, and he set me up for an interview at the Maybelline Company, a mile up the street from our apartment. I got there at the scheduled time, to meet a Mr. John Cole. The street address was 5900 North Ridge Avenue, and as I entered the building I saw a large sign proclaiming

World’s Largest-Selling Eye Beauty Aids

It wasn’t too late to chicken out, but I swallowed hard and opened the swinging door and walked in. After all, I was so broke I couldn’t even afford gas for my ’53 Ford, among other things.

John Cole couldn’t have been more gracious. He was older than me by ten years or so, a trim and friendly man. He gave me a brief rundown on the company and the job in question, and politely asked me about my background and experience. After that exchange I guess he thought we could go to the next step, and made a call to a Mr. Tom Williams.
That cleared us to walk down the hall to another, larger office. I met Mr. Williams and we continued the interview, the upshot of which was a job offer. John offered a starting salary of $5,500 per year, with annual raises to be discussed on each anniversary. The company would also reimburse my employment agency fee, about $300, after 90 days on the job. I accepted, and we agreed that I would start on January 19. (Tom Lyle Williams Sr. Birthday.)

As I learned very quickly, John would be my boss and trainer. He functioned across all operating areas of the company, with heavy involvement in purchasing and supplier relations. Also, I learned that Mr. Williams was the son of the company founder, T. L. Williams. At that time and for years afterward, I heard the elder Mr. Williams referred to only as “T. L.”

John needed me to help him with the heavy detail in keeping the inventory balanced. In turn, this function required heavy contact with the wide range of packaging and product suppliers, located literally across the country at that time. This would relieve John to concentrate on his many other responsibilities, both external and internal.

That was the thinking and high hopes as we began. No luck. Things began to unravel almost immediately because I had no direct experience in that kind of work and couldn’t avoid making an almost immediate mess of things. Of all things, Tom Williams saw the disaster shaping up, and stepped in personally. The main tool in daily inventory actions was a hand-posted weekly inventory report listing all Maybelline items, starting with the finished-goods quantity, followed by the quantities of all component parts that related to that item. Well, those numbers were supposed to shout for action if they were out of position, particularly if they were dangerously low. Shout? Those numbers just sat there on the report, and they all looked the same to me.

Okay, Tom and John could have fired me right then, but I guess they figured I was the bird in hand, and they’d be farther ahead if they could salvage me rather than starting over again. So Tom would get that weekly inventory report ahead of me, and leave me with an “action list,” hand written, with detailed instructions to call such-and-so and order this much material. While this burdened Tom with what I should be doing, it was something he had done in his earlier years with the company, and he was good at it.

Slowly, slowly, two things began to happen. The inventory began to resemble the profile that Tom wanted to see, and I began to understand what needed to be done without Tom’s time and attention. In my case I was like a newborn bear cub, coming into the world unable to see for the first part of his life, then slowly gaining vision and focus.

If Tom hadn't spent the time he did in this early phase of my Maybelline experience, this would be the end of the story. Both he and John had salvaged my job, and now I was out there in solo mode, thanks to them. In sum, that was a close one!

Stay tuned tomorrow.  I will be posting more of Harris A. Neil Jr.'s story everyday for the next four weeks.  If you are interested in business, marketing and production, you won't want to miss the inside workings of a Mega-Company from the man who was there and saw it all unfold everyday.

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