Eye for Winners: How I Built One of America's Great Businesses--And So Can You

Overview

In 1951, with $2,000 of wedding-gift money, Lillian Hochberg founded a mail-order business. Today, the Lillian Vernon Corporation ships more than $200 million worth of goods to a lifetime customer base of 18.6 million people.

This successful book is the first of its kind to tell the inside story of the mail-order catalog business and the secrets to its success. An Eye for Winners is also the highly personal story of Lillian Vernon's family's flight from Nazi Germany; her ...

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1997 Paperback New Harper Paperbacks 1997 Remainder mark on bottom page edge. Editorial ReviewsFrom Vernon, one of the nation's best-known merchandisers, here presents an ... ingenuous self-portrait. Born to wealth in Germany, her family fled Nazi persecution, settling first in Holland, then briefly in Palestine, before arriving in New York City, where they built their fortune anew. After she married, to make extra money for her growing family she began a mail-order business at her home in suburban New York. For many years she ran the entire show, relying on her "golden gut" to select the products, which are primarily aimed at the middle-aged wife who works outside the home. Successes include the "Hurry Door Knocker" for families with only one bathroom and crocheted snowflakes for a Christmas tree; the average order totals around $50. How does Vernon account for her success A single-minded devotion to business and a lot of hard work. Unfortunately, the seems to have been written in haste and includes some co Read more Show Less

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Overview

In 1951, with $2,000 of wedding-gift money, Lillian Hochberg founded a mail-order business. Today, the Lillian Vernon Corporation ships more than $200 million worth of goods to a lifetime customer base of 18.6 million people.

This successful book is the first of its kind to tell the inside story of the mail-order catalog business and the secrets to its success. An Eye for Winners is also the highly personal story of Lillian Vernon's family's flight from Nazi Germany; her immigrant childhood; and her loves, marriages and children. Imbued with the same dynamism that has made Vernon one of this country's most-sought-after speakers, this inspirational and insightful book stands as a testament to the truth behind the American dream.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Vernon, one of the nation's best-known merchandisers, here presents an ingenuous self-portrait. Born to wealth in Germany, her family fled Nazi persecution, settling first in Holland, then briefly in Palestine, before arriving in New York City, where they built their fortune anew. After she married, to make extra money for her growing family she began a mail-order business at her home in suburban New York. For many years she ran the entire show, relying on her "golden gut" to select the products, which are primarily aimed at the middle-aged wife who works outside the home. Successes include the "Hurry Door Knocker" for families with only one bathroom and crocheted snowflakes for a Christmas tree; the average order totals around $50. How does Vernon account for her success? A single-minded devotion to business and a lot of hard work. Unfortunately, the book seems to have been written in haste and includes some confounding contradictions: e.g., she claims alternately two primary residences. Yet as the unselfconscious disclosures of a terribly ambitious woman, the book has the power to absorb readers. (Oct.)
Library Journal
Vernon offers a step-by-step, how-to book on creating your own mail-order business wrapped snugly inside a larger autobiography detailing a great American success story. Readers can follow her from Nazi Germany to the United States, through two marriages, to the rapid growth of a mail-order business that started with an ad in Seventeen. At times, Vernon the writer is as entertaining, engaging, and straightforward as her own Lillian Vernon catalog. Writing as clear as this in a book about business is a treasure in itself; a lesser writer could put readers to sleep with details of the monogrammed belts and bags and the quest for precious Christmas ornaments and other baubles. Vernon gives us an attractive mix of the best of sound business advice with a compelling personal story told from the heart and delivered concisely. The reader learns what it feels like to have a passion for business. Recommended for all public libraries.-Randy L. Abbott, Univ. of Evansville Libs., Ind.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780887308796
  • Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
  • Publication date: 10/17/1997
  • Pages: 213
  • Product dimensions: 5.31 (w) x 7.99 (h) x 0.58 (d)

Meet the Author

Lillian Vernon lives in New York City and Mount Vernon, New York.

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Read an Excerpt

One Woman's Heart
A Born Entrepreneur
A Woman in Business
Repaying My Debts
Questions and Answers

Mail order is truly an American business. Like so many other great U.S. institutions, it was founded by Benjamin Franklin. In his very first catalog of scientific and academic books, which he published in 1744, Franklin included a reassuring guarantee of delivery: "Those persons who live remote, by sending their orders and money to said B. Franklin may depend on the same justice as if present." Knowing what we do about the man's integrity and business savvy, we can be certain he lived up to his promise. And given the way mail-order businesses have flourished in the decades since, we know "those persons who live remote" did indeed send in their orders and their money. In 1872, Aaron Montgomery Ward shipped his catalog to farmers throughout the Midwest. In 1886, Richard W. Sears followed suit. Sears, along with his partner, Alva Roebuck, created not only a catalog but American folk history as well. In 1912, L. L. Bean initiated his enduring catalog (and his own folk legend) when he offered far-flung shoppers a hunting boot with a lifetime guarantee.

When I took my first tentative steps in mail order, years ago, I had no aspirations to folk history, fame, or fortune. I was a young homemaker, pregnant with my first child, trying to make ends meet. I was hardworking, I was hopeful, and, frankly, I was na‹ve. What was I thinking when I started all this back in 1951? Only this: perhaps I can earn enough money to pay some household bills and ease our family's financial concerns. You could say that I entered the business world through the back door. Yetmy small enterprise, started with an investment of $2,000, has grown into a substantial organization that brings in revenues of more than $238 million annually--all of which goes to prove that sometimes a little na‹vet‚ can be a useful thing.

Direct marketing, simply put, is selling retail directly to a business. Mail-order businesses offer merchandise through newspaper and magazine ads, catalogs, radio, and, more recently, through television--especially cable TV. Many of us advertise on the Internet, and even produce our own CD-ROMs.

Mail-order revenues have grown to more than $62.6 billion. With the introduction of credit cards and the toll-free 800-numbers, the mail-order business received a major boost. Customers could get speedy delivery by calling in and charging their orders, without bothering to fill out forms, purchase money orders, or put up with delays. The first toll-free numbers--introduced in 1967--only made buying by phone more irresistible. By the early 1990s, more than half of the adult population of the United States did a portion of its shopping from catalogs, increasing mail-order revenues by 52 percent between 1984 and 1994.

Despite compelling evidence to the contrary, certain analysts have more than once predicted the imminent demise of mail order. First the telephone was going to kill it: people would dial stores directly to place their orders and toss catalogs out with yesterday's newspaper. Then it was the automobile: all the glorious highways we built after the World War II would induce people to leave their homes and drive to department stores and shopping malls. I guess the crystal balls didn't pick up on the impact of traffic jams, gas shortages, parking fines, and snowstorms. I guess the crystal balls didn't pick up on a lot. In fact, they were, I'm glad to report, dead wrong.

There are many reasons for the big jump in catalog shopping--some perfectly obvious, some hard to define. The increasing numbers of women who've entered the workforce had a major impact: fewer people now have time to go to stores. Why waste precious Saturday afternoons or desperately needed lunch breaks trying to accomplish what can be done right from your desk? Why deal with indifferent clerks or long lines at the register? With the printing and production values of catalogs higher than ever, there's little doubt about the exact look and the quality of products you can buy from the comfort and safety of your home.

Mail order today is a big and growing business. It has simplified people's lives, expanded their purchasing options, and handed them more free time. I'm glad to have opened that back door all those years ago and entered into this business. I'm honored to have played a part in it and, on my own terms, to have remained a part of it today.

A Born Entrepreneur

Recently, my foundation had the enormous privilege of endowing a chair of entrepreneurship at New York University--the Lillian Vernon Professorship. To expose students to different points of view, the university will name a new professor to the chair every three years. I couldn't be more pleased. After attending New York City public schools, I completed my own formal education at NYU. By completed, I mean I studied for two years and then left to get married. But what I learned in those years has stayed with me. Professor Thomas Cochrane, a kind of early mentor, taught me the merits of independent thought and rigorous mental self-discipline. I learned the importance of clear-headed analysis and came to understand how an honest appraisal of my personality and business could prove invaluable. I've always felt indebted to NYU, and this $1.5 million endowment is my way of giving back. I hope that others will learn as much there as I did. Perhaps more, after the endorsement of the Lillian Vernon Professorship.

In my student days, entrepreneur was a word you didn't come across outside French class. There was no formal guidance in this area, no instruction. Looking back, I realize I am an entrepreneur by nature. My greatest business skills were gained the hard way--on my own. I learned by doing, by making choices, and by making mistakes. At first, many attributed my early success to luck. I started with one small ad in a magazine for teenage girls. The ad--promoting monogrammed bags and belts--cost $495. In three months we sold $32,000 of goods. Who wouldn't feel lucky? I knew nothing about strategic planning and financial projections. I was running on my most valuable ally--my golden gut, trying to stay solvent and sane. Sometimes I look back and wonder how I managed to remain either.

A Woman in Business

When I began my business, mail order was a man's domain. Women were expected to be wives and mothers. Ambitious, capable women were regarded warily. Luckily, I never gave too much credence to conventional wisdom or common prejudices. My husband and I needed a little more money. I had an idea about how to make some.

In the course of my business dealings, nobody ever took advantage of me simply because I was a woman. Men did, however, feel entitled to a discouraging amount of condescension and patronizing behavior. When my company became a big supplier to Revlon in 1963, I was told that Charles Revson was surprised to hear that a woman headed the Lillian Vernon Corporation. Why did he think the name wasn't a woman's? When I shopped for merchandise at trade fairs, suppliers would frequently ask, "Are you buying for a gift shop?" or "Do you run a little business in your basement, dear?" My feelings of annoyance and outrage were tempered by delight at knowing that my "little business" was outgrossing them all. Fortunately, attitudes have changed. Women in business still face hurdles, but on the whole, we're treated with the respect we've earned. It pleases me that my company's success has contributed to this shift in attitudes, opened some minds and more than a few doors.

Repaying My Debts

You might think that today I'd be ready to sit back and relax. When I started, I would have thought so. Instead, I'm just as busy as I was when my sons were growing up and my business was expanding. In addition to my duties as CEO and chairman of the Lillian Vernon Corporation, I'm involved in a variety of charitable activities. I want to repay what I consider my debt to a country that has rewarded me so generously. I serve on the boards of many nonprofit organizations. Because I love the arts, I'm on the board of New York's Lincoln Center, the New York Film Festival, and the Virginia Opera. I also work with the American Friends of the Israel Philharmonic, the Kennedy Center, and the National Actors Theater.

Outside of the arts, I am on the executive committee of City Meals On Wheels and serve on the Board of Overseers of New York University's College of Arts & Science.

Even though fourteen senior managers help me run the Lillian Vernon Corporation, and my two sons, Fred and David Hochberg, are independent adults with lives of their own, I still seem to be short of time. My commitments outside the company last year demanded as much schedule juggling as I practiced when I was running the company alone and raising my children. The evening I get to spend at home, quietly reading, heading off to bed early, is a rare event.

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