A blog post with Finesse (and Suave and Salon Selectives)


I left Helene Curtis, my first post-MBA job, in 1995, and I have spent the last 13+ years trying to find my way back to a similar organization  (I went back for 5 more years after Unilever acquired HCI, and it was good, but nothing like the old days.) I know that not everyone who worked there feels the way that I do; however, I know from talking to people that many of my former colleagues feel the same way.  It was not perfect, but it was great.  I’ve spent a lot of time over the years trying to figure out why, and I think that these are some of the reasons:

1. We were working against a clear, simple motivating goal: “Beat Procter & Gamble.” Everyone knew what it meant, and everyone knew how his/her role contributed to the goal. It helped that there was a “David vs. Goliath” angle as well.  Everyone likes a challenge.

2. We hired great people. I have never met a more outstanding group of smart, funny, talented, interesting people.  Granted, there was not a lot of diversity, either in color or in thinking.  We were mostly ENTJ’s on the Myers-Briggs scale (at least those of us in Brand Management), and we were either graduates of top business schools or hired from some of the biggest and best consumer packaged good companies.

3. The company was committed to training and development.  We hired great people, we trained them well, we focused on performance improvement, and we counseled people out who weren’t a good fit.  Unlike some other packaged goods companies where the culture was “sink or swim”, we did everything we could to help people succeed.

4. Everyone knew how decisions were made. Decisions were made based on fact and logic.  If the pre-work was solid (and there was ALWAYS pre-work sent in advance of the meeting, the meeting was usually unnecessary (although we always had the meeting anyway, since there was popcorn), because it was clear what the outcome would be.

5. We had huge marketing budgets. Let me repeat: we had huge marketing budgets. The likes of which I will never see again.  This was a huge contributor to the company’s eventual sale – we often paid consumers to take our products.

6. It was small enough so that everyone knew everyone.   We had huge brands with huge budgets, but we didn’t have a lot of brands.  So we all knew each other. And did I mention that we all liked each other (well, most of us, anyway.)

7. We leaned on each other.  Because the brands were growing (top-line, if not bottom-line) and we were launching new brands, there was plenty of opportunity. If you were ready for a promotion, there was usually a spot waiting for you. So we didn’t have to compete with each other for jobs.  This created a highly collegial atmosphere, where information was shared, knowledge was passed on, and we were invested in each others’ success.

I think that for me, it was a moment in time that will never be repeated.  I’m fortunate in that my current job at DePaul comes close. I’m proud of the work that we did, I have great memories, I have lasting friendships, and I learned a tremendous amount from teachers like Stan and Anne and Leslie, who taught me everything I know about Marketing. (And who also taught me how to write for business, which was painful at the time, but for which I am now eternally grateful. Just thinking about that first Finesse analysis makes me shudder.)

Any other thoughts on the HCI experience from those of you who lived it?



Filed under Gratitude

5 responses to “A blog post with Finesse (and Suave and Salon Selectives)

  1. Kath

    I echo your heartfelt respect and love of our old days at Helene Curtis. We truly worked with an amazing group of people – many who still count as lifelong friends. Not a lot of places can boast that!


  2. Deborah Maue

    Thanks for your comment, Kath. I also have to add your separate email comment about another thing that set it apart: we were given a tremendous amount of responsibility as new Assistant Brand Managers, and then gave us mentoring and guidance to ensure that we succeeded and grew. I couldn’t agree more.

  3. Mike Mistele

    “This was a huge contributor to the company’s eventual sale – we often paid consumers to take our products.”

    As Erich Pagel used to say: Suave was like Uncle Al’s Used Cars: we lose a little bit on every sale, but we make it up in the volume!

    I agree with you…it was a pretty special group of people, and a pretty special place.

    BTW, I’m an ENFP, which, in part, explains why I eventually left, and eventually moved to the agency side. 🙂

  4. Marta Fearon

    Reading this brought a smile to my face as well as great memories of Helene Curtis. It was a time and place where all of the stars aligned. A growing company that was entreprenuerial and nimble with a lofty goal as a carrot. We celebrated our accomplishments happily with recognition of everyone’s involvement – like the ‘billion $ bash’. Remember that? What fun it was to celebrate as a company! I’ll always treasure the Helene Curtis days and all the things I learned during my 13 1/2 years there. Although the Unilever years did not ever even compare on an emotional level like the Helene Curtis years!

  5. Maria Mihalik Crockett

    Loved this column even if I only ever worked on the fringes of marketing (holding focus groups and attending magazine circulation meetings counts in my book!). Rodale Press was my first job experience–four amazing years in retrospect that spoiled me for the rest of my life. Discovery Channel came CLOSE to that, but not quite. It’s sort of a curse to start “at the top,” I came to believe…the years to follow always felt so frustrating.

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