It is probably safe to say that when charismatic Texan Mary Kay Ash founded Mary Kay Cosmetics in 1963, it did not occur to her that her products would one day become popular in China.
Ash died in 2002, but her can-do business model lives on. Since it relies on personal initiative and a proto-feminist message of empowerment, it is hardly a chapter from Chairman Mao’s Little Red Book, nor does it seem likely that Jiang Qing and her Gang of Four would have been particularly supportive of the Mary Kay way.
But in the China of today, Mary Kay is booming, and it is striking how much old-fashioned American reliance is finding root in the company’s sales force. Mao’s Little Red Book has been set aside in favor of The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, and the famously reserved Chinese culture, at least under the wing of Mary Kay, is revealing itself capable of the group hug.
Mary Kay entered China in 1995, and it hasn’t been all smooth sailing. The Chinese government banned direct selling for five months in 1998. That was when loyalty revealed itself as a feature of Chinese Mary Kay: During that time, not one employee was laid off. The company does not release earnings figures, but it reports annual growth of 89 percent since the direct-sales embargo was lifted.
"We are doing very well," says Paul Mak, president of Mary Kay China, which is headquartered in Shanghai. Mak says Mary Kay China has about 250,000 registered "beauty consultants," independent contractors who sell directly to consumers. About 100,000 of them are highly active. The company also has 370 full-time employees, including about 50 suppliers who provide product and motivate consultants and 120 who work in the factory producing skin-care and other products.
Mary Kay’s corporate motto in the United States is "God first, family second, career third." Mak says this has required a little adjustment for Chinese purposes. "God" is not a comfortable topic in this officially atheist state, so "Principle" has been substituted. His employees have the hardest time with the idea of placing career after family.
But other aspects of the Mary Kay culture, which Mak portrays as much as a way of life as a job, translate rather well. The Golden Rule looms large in the gospel according to Mary Kay, for example, but it is also a fundamental principle of Chinese culture.
Meanwhile, the company strives to create a holistic experience for its sales force. "We try to motivate the heart," Mak says. "My belief is we do it through the employee first, and the employee will do it for our sales force."
As in America, the company’s mission is to "enrich each woman’s life."
"We talk about family, their well-being, and try to convince them that when these things are in harmony, sales will follow," Mak says. "The value is more than monetary."
Social activism is also highly prized, and employees have pitched in $500,000 for tsunami relief. "We have to motivate their heart!" Mak says emphatically. "Direct selling is very hard, and you don’t make a lot of money at first. So our philosophy is, ‘Don’t sell to people; care for people, and that will help you to sell.’ If you don’t have company culture, you won’t have business."
Mak says that the workforce is young. His oldest employees are 40 and started 10 years ago. The average age is 30, so the ability to absorb the Mary Kay paradigm suggests that it’s easier for those less conditioned by socialistic work habits to adjust.
But there are incentives. Pink cell phones abound, and while a pink Buick currently is the Holy Grail, the legendary Cadillac in Mary Kay pink will be available to top sellers within six months.
Workforce Management, April 2005, p. 24-25 -- Subscribe Now!