How a little table talk got me in to profitable world of make-up
Like the poet Tennyson, I tend to believe "you'll have no scandal while you dine but honest talk and wholesome wine".
Personally, I am more than happy to skip the wine, irrespective of how wholesome it might claim to be. The honest talk at a dinner table, however, I've discovered to be not alone a great way to lock in friendships but also to tease out investment opportunities.
That happened to me recently when I had to turn up at one of those set-piece Irish-American events where you never know who you'll be sitting beside. I got lucky that evening and my immediate companion was a fascinating man who happened to be senior vice president for the Estee Lauder corporation.
Up to then, the amount I didn't know about perfumes, face creams, make-up, hair care and the world of exotic unguents would have filled many encyclopaedias. However, I did know it was a chunky business sector and was highly profitable. My eating companion for the next couple of hours would make it clear that while all that was true, there much more to the fragrance business than the unquestioned persuasive powers of Elizabeth Hurley and Gwyneth Paltrow.
After further examination, I bought the stock and it has turned out to be an inspired move, given the devastation happening elsewhere on the stock market.
As we demolished the soup, the VP told me Estee Lauder was a first-generation New Yorker whose parents were Hungarian immigrants. Her real name was Esther, but her Hungarian dad had trouble with his English and called her something that sounded like 'Estee,' thus the creation of the legend. She started experimenting with face creams using a kitchen blender – and that bit of home cooking would eventually make her the richest self-made woman in the US.
Predictably enough, he had really good insights on what made Estee Lauder a marketing phenomenon. Initially, he said, it was decided to sell all its top-of-the-range products in exclusive outlets in the very best department stores like Saks, Harrods and, of course, Brown Thomas in Dublin. Limited distribution helped complement the brand image.
He proceeded to tell me the other brands in the Estee Lauder Group – Le Mer, MAC, Bobbie Brown, Clinique, Aramis, Jo Malone and many more – 27 in total. Its top of the range Creme De Le Mer will set you back €1,480 for a 500ml jar.
The other sensational marketing initiative that Estee Lauder companies had a hand in occurred during the promotion of a product called 'Youth Dew' in the 1950s. Without a big enough promotional budget, the company found it impossible to find an advertising agency to handle the business. So it gave away free samples, a revolutionary concept at the time.
Over the excellent salmon with bok choy, the VP staggered me with his knowledge of the layout of the BT store in Dublin. I dare say he would have been able to amaze those familiar with the other high-end shops in the 130 countries where the corporation sells its products.
And, of course, Estee Lauder has moved well beyond face creams. Its men's fragrance, Aramis, will soon have been part of the product portfolio for half-a-century and Clinique is also a major part of the range.
The corporation was floated in New York nearly 18 years ago and it has never missed a dividend in the intervening period. Today, Estee Lauder has an estimated 25pc of the world's cosmetics market, having sales of $10bn (€7.6bn). In relation to its share movement, an investment over the past two to three years in Estee Lauder is now showing a significant return (see graph).
While the other guests were eating the desserts, the VP and I discussed the product secrets that the Lauder family is telling no one – for the very good reason that they still control 70pc of the stock.
That ownership concentration alone encourages the notion that the dividend is fairly secure. The company is a valuable piece of property and has a current market capitalisation of some $24bn.
All in all, it was a very pleasant, informative and profitable dinner. I owe you one, Lord Tennyson.
Dr John Lynch is a former chairman of CIE. Nothing published in this section should be taken as a recommendation, either implicit or explicit, to buy or sell any of the shares mentioned.