Deborah Hernan: Learning from Icons to Launching New Lines

IMG_1680 If luck is when preparation meets opportunity, then Deborah Hernan has had a career full of it. While most of us settle for reading about the business and creative greats of our time, Hernan has had a career replete with learning from some of the best first hand.

From a successful decade at a NYC advertising agency, she was recruited to Revlon where she became a brand and marketing machine. And then as the AIDS charity, amfAR (the Foundation for AIDS research) was growing at an astronomical rate, she was again recruited to provide some discipline to the organization founded by Elizabeth Taylor. But after decades of travel, Hernan longed to stick closer to home. Inspired by her own tween daughter, she decided to launch a skincare line for girls, Ottilie & Lulu.  But true to the greats she worked with, Hernan is not just launching a product line but an industry.

A native of Brooklyn, NY, and a graduate of Seton Hall University, at first Hernan thought she might want to be a teacher. So she headed to Massachusetts, earned a Masters in Education at Boston University, and stayed up north to teach English grammar and literature to college-bound seniors. But after a few years, she was questioning that path. “I knew I loved writing, and the field of advertising had always seemed interesting to me, especially the copywriting side.”

She started networking and interviewing, but was encouraged to consider account management instead. It turned out she was quite skilled at that track.  Over the course of ten years at Laurence, Charles & Free, an advertising agency, she rose from account assistant to vice president, along the way developing the critical skills to succeed in that world – balancing demanding clients with the internal creative forces. Eventually however, the frustration of nurturing creative campaigns that could be killed by a client with the drop of a hat became too much for Hernan.  “I really wanted to be able to say, ‘YES! I want to do that,’ and then be able to make it happen.”

Again, preparation met opportunity, and Revlon recruited Hernan to manage their fragrance brands and help launch new ones. “Everyone at Revlon eventually spends time on Charlie and Jean Naté, which were fun to work on, but one of the best parts of the job was working with Diane Von Furstenberg.”

Von Furstenberg’s fragrance, Tatiana, named for her daughter, was struggling financially at the time. “She knew how to make a fragrance, but her then business partners mishandled her business with pricing and distribution all over the place.” In fact, Von Furstenberg was on the verge of bankruptcy when her friend, and new Revlon CEO, Ron Perelman acquired her fragrance business and put Hernan in charge of managing it.

“She was a very clever woman and really interesting – that word doesn’t do her justice, but she truly was really so interesting to be around … and she was always looking for ways to channel her creativity.”

Hernan fondly recalls one afternoon when she met with Von Furstenberg at her family’s farm in Connecticut, Cloudwalk. The task at hand was to discuss designs for the Christmas fragrance set, but Hernan walked away with a gift she treasures to this day. “Diane was throwing out ideas for how to make it really special, and of course, it was my job to balance creativity with the cost of goods.”

She happened to have a tray of beads in front of her, and as they spoke Von Furstenberg casually starting picking up beads and stringing them on a thread.  She was just doing it nonchalantly, not following a pattern or a drawing and when she finished it, Hernan found the result, a strand of onyx, and silver with beads mixed in, breathtaking.

“I said to her, ‘I love this,’ and she said ‘it’s yours, take it.’ To this day, when I wear it people say, where did you get that necklace?”

The flip side of getting to marvel at Von Furstenberg’s creativity was justifying the numbers to Perelman. While Von Furstenberg’s creativity was inspirational, Perelman’s business acumen was equally amazing but also massively intimidating. “Once a year I had to present to Ron and it was a total nightmare, but there’s good and bad in every situation, and the good was that you never went into a meeting with him without knowing your numbers inside and out. You never wanted to be embarrassed or ridiculed… even though you would be anyway. The man was a walking computer.”

Revlon was an exciting but rigorous environment and the toll began to show. “One night out to dinner, a friend said, ‘You look terrible-you really need to find a new job. I know someone looking and you would be perfect.’”

The job was at amfAR, the leading AIDS charity that was wildly successful in fundraising but also screaming out for some experienced leadership. While the nonprofit was a departure from her corporate past, amfAR was aggressive and the opportunity intrigued Hernan. “AIDS activists then were educated and very demanding—and with good cause.  Their lives and the lives of their friends demanded deliverables.”

Hernan took over communications as well as managing the schedule and communications of one of the charity’s founders:  Elizabeth Taylor.

The day-to-day job had her managing everything from fundraisers at leather bars to black-tie fundraisers in Cannes where people thought nothing of dropping $40K on an auction item.  But by far the best part of her job was tending to Taylor: “It was just the most fascinating thing in the world,” says Hernan. “Elizabeth was a really smart, really passionate woman and, by the time I met her, a lonely woman.”

Working for Elizabeth Taylor meant going to work wherever she was, whenever she was available. So Hernan had lots of meetings at Taylor’s house in Bel Air and in hotel rooms around the world. “I’ll never forget one room in her house. It had huge black and white photographs of all of the loves of her life who were gone: Richard Burton and Roddy McDowell, Montgomery Clift, and Rock Hudson.”

Despite being lonely, Taylor still had her jewelry, another great love of her life.  “Part of my job was to convince Elizabeth to wear the jewelry of our event sponsors. They were paying a lot of money to underwrite our events, and in return they hoped she would be photographed in their pieces, but Elizabeth believed that if you couldn’t own it, you shouldn’t wear it. It was a real challenge.”

And as a late riser in the morning, Taylor would hold meetings with those she was close to right in her boudoir.  And if she liked you enough, you would have your business meetings right on her bed: “One day, I walked into her bedroom, and she was wearing a simple white cotton nightgown with more jewelry on than I had ever seen, and I said, “Oh, I see we slept with our jewelry on?” And she replied, “Oh Debbie, jewels stay longer than men so they’re good to sleep with.”

While Taylor was a captivating force to be around, managing her schedule could be challenging.  If Taylor was supposed to be on the podium at 8, she would sometimes not arrive until 10. “Time was not a reality for her then,” says Hernan. “People would be screaming at me and I would be doing a lot of pacifying. It was so embarrassing, but then Elizabeth would arrive, the sea would part, the sun would come out, and no one said a word.”

While very few people could pull that off, Elizabeth taught Hernan a lesson she follows in her business today. Elizabeth always said, “It’s better to deliver something late and great, than something poor and on timeIMG_1049.”

When Hernan became a mother in her mid forties, the travel schedule began to wear on her.  “I was in Southeast
Asia one week, then South Africa, then Europe, and so on. If something went wrong at home, it wasn’t easy for me to get back, and it occurred to me why would I want to do this (be a parent) if I can’t actually be with my daughter?” She started thinking of other jobs she could do closer to home.

She didn’t have the answer until one day when she was bathing her daughter, Jules, who was just four or five at the time. Looking at all the soaps and bubble baths and other potions with pictures of babies the precocious girl asked, “Mommy, what are we going to use when I’m not little any more?”

It was a good question. Hernan realized that while the baby and toddler markets were inundated with natural products for skin care, when you became a tween, the options were dismal. The few products that were out there tried to appeal to tweens with sassy girl images but nothing truly natural, nothing made in the USA, and nothing that Hernan could imagine buying.

It was her “a-ha” moment. With her experience at Revlon, creating a product line for girls didn’t seem daunting. She knew the process – identify labs to create a formulas, test the products, seek regulatory approval and market them. And of course, find the capital.  “You can never have enough money to launch a product line, but you really can’t even think about it unless you have about half a million.”

In 2008, Hernan got to work. Branding her product line, Ottilie & Lulu, she was insistent that her line be manufactured in the US, which required even more capital because of the high minimum requirements.  She was fortunate to have a captive audience of potential investors at her daughter’s school.  “All my investors are mothers of tweens who believe in this idea and want their daughters to have access to quality skin care products.”

With capital in hand and manufacturing complete, at the end of 2009, Hernan launched her direct-to-consumer website. Some of the air was taken out of her sails when she realized that, while getting to this point was a huge accomplishment, it was only the first hurdle. “I thought it would be easy to enter the market, but once I created the product I realized that was just the beginning. Then I had to sell it.”

Sales limped along slowly for a year with no additional funds available for advertising. But then, once again, preparation met opportunity when Hernan was introduced to a senior executive — who was also a mom with a young daughter- – at FAO Schwartz. She opened the door for Ottilie & Lulu to have its own outposts at the flagship FAO Schwarz and Toys R Us stores in NYC.

ottilie_lulu_familySales slowly built thanks to a healthy national and international customer base introduced to Ottilie & Lulu at FAO Schwartz. But in 2012, Hernan began to feel tired and couldn’t shake a cough.  She was diagnosed with multiple myeloma, a blood cancer, that sidelined her for most of 2013. Although she went through a successful stem cell transplant, she had to remain in isolation with a long period of rest until her immune system recovered.

While the momentum halted, her thinking did not and the alone time proved to be valuable for refocusing the business on a core product line: five items for tween girls’ face care and a growing online component: Back in business, Hernan is ready to tackle the challenge of both launching a tween skin-care category and becoming its leading brand.

“I’ve been very fortunate in my life,” Hernan says. “Now I’m back on track, and as Elizabeth advised me, it may be later than I planned, but I’m going to market with a great product.”

Tips from Deborah Hernan

  • Be open to different lifestyles and others’ experiences.  They can inform and enrich your perspective no matter how hard it may seem in the moment.
  • Never, ever underestimate yourself.  You have amassed a body of experiences and learning that can be applied to a broad spectrum of situations.  Maximize your flexibility.
  • Disappointment and setbacks are a part of life’s experiences.  Pull out what’s valuable and move forward.