The story of Charles Revson, founder of cosmetics giant Revlon, is truly one of ‘rags to riches’. By the time of his death, Revson – an entrepreneurial icon – had grown his tiny cosmetic store into a global cosmetics giant.
The son of a cigar maker, Charles Revson entered our world in 1906, in Montreal, Quebec. His moved to Manchester, New Hampshire when Charles was a boy.
Following completion of high school, he moved to Boston. He got a job as a dress salesman, and then worked in a firm selling cosmetics. At age 25 he quit that job, when he was refused a promotion, and determined that he would start his own cosmetics business. To do so, he brought his brother, Martin, as well as a cosmetics chemist, Charles Lachman, with him, and together they started Revlon Cosmetics in New York City.
The company was funded with a mere $300 and initially specialized in nail polishes (Charles would test the products on his own nails), differentiating itself from the competition by the wide assortment of colors they offered to their clientele, which consisted of salons and what was then a new phenomenon, department stores. Using pigments rather than the usual dyes, the company offered the American woman a rich-looking nail enamel in a larger variety of shades than had ever before been possible. Many of the firm’s clients across the country were introduced to the Revlon products by Charles personally, who would travel the nation by railroad on marketing trips. From there they expanded the Revlon product line to include lipsticks that matched the colors of their nail polishes, and later introduced perfumes and other fragrances. And in a mere six years, Revlon became a multi-million dollar venture.
Using his tough and demanding business style and his intuitive understanding of his female market, Charles Revson then helped build Revlon into the biggest retail cosmetics company in America, with more than 3,500 products and with annual sales at the time of his death in 1975 of an amazing $605,000,000. Revson served as company president from its inception until 1962, and then as chairman of the board until his death.
Perhaps the low point for Revlon occurred in the 1950’s, with the scandal that surrounded the popular television game show, The $64,000 Question, which Revlon sponsored. It was alleged that the Revson brothers required that the quiz show’s producers rig the show’s questions to ensure that contestants could be assured of winning, so that the show’s national popularity and high ratings continue. Neither brother was ever charged with any wrongdoing though, and while the show itself was decimated by the scandal, sales of Revlon products actually increased during that period.
As a person, Charles Revson was seen as a boundless perfectionist and difficult to work with, so much so that most of his business associates would eventually cut their ties with him. He is quoted as saying “The big will get bigger; the small will get wiped out” and “I don’t meet competition. I crush it”. Notwithstanding his personality, the Revlon company flourished and with it did Charles’ personal fortune, which likely surpassed one billion dollars at his death.
While his reputation may have been one of tough businessman, Charles did also contribute significantly to charities. As an example, his Charles H. Revson Foundation has given over $150,000,000 in grants over the last 30 years.
Today the business Charles Revson founded some 75 years ago with his first $300 is a name known in over 175 countries around the world for its cosmetics, perfume and skin care products. The unparalleled achievements of Revlon are yet another example of the American entrepreneurial spirit at work.