Profile: Lillian Vernon
Not content to stay home and raise the kids, this career woman raised a business as well. She built a catalog empire of belts and monogrammed bags, linens and children’s toys.
“So what do you think is in the box?” she asks, pointing down to a brown cardboard package sitting on the marble foyer of her grand apartment on New York’s Upper East Side. It looks like a duct tape-sealed carton, angled about 45 degrees away from a wall of paintings. “It’s art,” Lillian Vernon reveals with a sparkly smile. “The box is the art.” In fact, the box in question is a remarkably precise bronze sculpture. After all, who knows the beauty and value of a cardboard box better than the maven of mail order?
Despite her petite frame and delicate features, Vernon, the 77-year-old founder of the leading catalog business bearing her name, is a striking woman. Her auburn shoulder-length hair is perfectly set and her clothing and jewelry make an elegant ensemble. And while she may at first appear tough, there is something very endearing about the woman who escorts visitors around her sprawling New York pied-à-terre—her main residence is in Connecticut—and then inquires about her guest’s transportation home and plans for dinner. At her core, she is a Jewish mother.
And like most mothers, Vernon has found the experience of letting her children spread their wings and fly to be bittersweet. Though her two sons, Fred and David Hochberg, have long been successes in their own right—they are a Clinton Cabinet member turned professor and an executive with Lillian Vernon Corporation turned sales, marketing and communications consultant, respectively—Vernon recently sold her company, her third child, after more than 50 years of nurturing and kvelling. While she remains involved by offering guidance to the new leadership, she relinquished control of the daily operations when she sold it in 2003 for $60 million to ZelnickMedia, a media management group.
“There are incredibly big shoes to fill,” says Jonathan Shapiro, president of LVC. “Not only is she a successful entrepreneur but she has unbelievable guts. She was undaunted by being pregnant and starting a business when women weren’t as empowered as they are today. She was not afraid to go to the Far East to find the best values for her customers. When I think of what I aspire to and the people I want to model my own drive and courage after, she is at the top of the list.”
Passion, focus, vision and drive are the qualities to which David Hochberg attributes his mother’s business success. Vernon, however, thinks it’s much simpler.
“I have an eye for mail order,” she says with a what-can-you-do? roll of the eyes. “I sold the things that I liked and thought others would like.”
With speaking engagements, fund-raisers and travel, this latest chapter in Vernon’s life is certainly full. And the new LVC management hasn’t completely cut the monogrammed apron strings: “She’s very much a senior statesperson,” says Shapiro, who continues to send drafts of catalogs her way seeking advice and guidance.
Born in Leipzig, Germany, Lillian Menasche fled the country when she was 6 years old after a Nazi officer threw her older brother, Fred, down a flight of stairs. Though the war had not yet begun, her father viewed Fred’s bloodied face and bruised body as a bad sign and moved the family to Amsterdam.
A few years later they relocated to New York where Fred, her only sibling, joined the American Army: He was killed in battle. Despite their loss and heartache, her father, Herman Menasche, continued to invite one G.I. every week to their home for Shabbat dinner.
“I learned early in my life that you cannot get away from anything,” Vernon says. “There is nothing that can change destiny.”
When they arrived in New York, Menasche, a wealthy lingerie manufacturer in Europe, began making and selling housecoats, handbags, leather goods and other items with help from his wife, Erma. Raised in a successful, hard-working family, Vernon was fascinated by the industry. “I have always liked business,” she says. “There is a drive in my gut.”
After she married Sam Hochberg, her first husband, whom she met at a hotel in Lakewood, New Jersey, on a Presidents’ Day weekend break from her undergraduate studies at New York University, she set aside $2,000 from their wedding gift money to start a business. It was an idea she conceived of while pregnant and sitting at the yellow Formica kitchen table in their Mount Vernon, New York, home. She named the company Lillian Vernon after that suburban Westchester town and legally changed her last name to Vernon in 1990 after her divorce from second husband Robert Katz. The concept: personalized handbags and matching belts sold by mail. In 1951, she placed a $495 advertisement in Seventeen magazine and, to her utter amazement, received $32,000 in orders. “I thought, ‘Me?! My God, it’s a fortune!’” she says.
Though the business was her own, separate from her parents, everyone lent support. Soon, Vernon and her father whiled away weekend hours at department stores seeking inspiration from designer fashions and then manufacturing their creations at her father’s plant. “Three-dollar handbags, two-dollar belts—we were the first to sell leather at that price,” she recalls, beaming with pride.
Unable to afford an adding machine of her own, she worked out an arrangement to use one at a local bank. “Many people would be discouraged by that—‘If you can’t afford an adding machine, you better not be in business!’—but I never let any of those things discourage me,” she says. As a female business person in the 1950’s Vernon faced her share of challenges but managed to maintain a successful balance between her personal and professional life.
“She worked when I grew up but we always ate dinner as a family—I learned the business at the dinner table,” says her son David. “Her home office was in the den, so she was with us when we watched TV. I was always proud of her.”
“I was a closet worker, people didn’t know what I was doing,” she says, recalling how she was “outed” when there was a school bus accident in the neighborhood and other mothers noticed she was missing from the scene. “That’s when people found out I was a working woman and most were very surprised… Women [were] not expected to be that smart. I’m not saying you’re looking at the smartest person in the world, but I have good business sense.”
Within a few years of her corporate debut, she rented a storefront as a warehouse and a building next door for her monogramming operation. A store across the street became the shipping department. Soon, she began manufacturing and wholesaling custom-designed products for companies such as cosmetic giants Revlon and Max Factor.
In 1956, she published her first 16-page black-and-white catalog and mailed it to the 125,000 customers who had responded to her advertisements. As the orders flooded in, she began to expand the product line: In 1970, she hit her first million-dollar-year in sales. “I should have [made a million dollars the first year], but I didn’t,” she says, still oozing ambition half a century later.
LVC has since expanded and now markets gifts and housewares as well as gardening, children’s and holiday products. It has more than 28 million households in its database, employs over 4,500 people during the holiday season and publishes 22 catalogs a year. And just to make sure she never forgets her roots, an original of that 1951 Seventeen magazine is opened to the ad page and displayed in a glass case in the New York apartment Vernon shares with her third husband, her former hairdresser Paolo Martino, whom she wed seven years ago.
The outstanding success she experienced with the business led to consistent generosity to those in need. “I give as much as I can and on a good year, I give more,” says Vernon, who sits on the boards of several charities and has donated to and been honored by countless organizations.
“My father was really philanthropic, he would give away his last everything. My mother was incredible. She’d [walk through the snow] to volunteer her time. They were very wealthy people in Germany but I admire their frugality. I have respect for people who make money and hold on to money.”
Vernon has contributed to causes including The Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts, Meals on Wheels and the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts. She has also given over $250,000 in toys to Ronald McDonald Houses across the country as well as sheets, towels and blankets to New York’s homeless.
She is a longtime supporter of Israel, both personally and professionally. Her company has sold Israeli-made linens and, in June, she was honored as a Woman of Achievement by the Women’s Division of Shaare Zedek Medical Center in Jerusalem.
“Being Jewish is very much a part of me,” says Vernon as she reminisces about taking her sons to synagogue on Friday nights when they were growing up. “In Germany we were Orthodox and became Conservative in America. I’m not as observant now as I’d like to be, but my holiday dinners are…” She raises her eyebrows to imply they are something special.
While some of her time is spent at the opera, hosting intimate dinner parties and watching movies (film is her favorite form of entertainment: “Gone With the Wind? Loved it! What schmaltz!”), her innate work ethic has hindered her wholehearted embrace of retirement. Vernon is contemplating a follow-up to her 1996 book An Eye for Winners: How I Built One of America’s Greatest Direct-Mail Businesses (Harperbusiness) as well as flirting with ideas for new ventures.
“I have so much experience,” she states emphatically. “I’m already saying’‘How big do I want it to be?'”