The Great Oak
The Story Of A Man Who
An Autobiography of the Founder of Avon
To me this early autobiography of D. H. McConnell, Sr., and of the California Perfume Company, which in later years became the House of Avon, is the greatest story of its kind that I have ever read. I hope that everyone in our organization will read it, and then re-read it at intervals, for it is packed with sheer inspiration. What a privilege it is to be able to carry forward the ideals and principles of this individual, and those of his son, D. H. McConnell, Jr., second President Of Avon, under whose leadership this company enjoyed such remarkable growth.
J. A. Ewald
of the California Perfume Company
by David H. McConnell (c. 1903)
To give you a sketch or history of the birth and growth of the California Perfume Company1 is, in a measure, like writing an autobiography: our lives have become so identical and so interwoven that it seems almost impossible to separate us, even in history. I will ask you, therefore, to pardon whatever personal reference I may make of myself in describing to you how the California Perfume Company has become the largest of its kind, not only in the United States, but I believe, in the entire world.
In 1878, when but a mere lad, I left my father's farm located near Oswego City, New York State. Here I spent my boyhood days, and through hard work and proper training developed a good, strong, hardy, rugged constitution. When I started out in the world "to make my fortune", I had this positive advantage over many who were less favored.
My first experience in the business world was as a book agent. I took this up during my school vacation, and developed quite a faculty for talking, which I have since learned is quite essential, and has stood me well in hand many times.
My success in canvassing was such as to invite me into the same field the following year, and after two years' hard work in the canvass, I was promoted from local canvasser to that of General Traveling Agent. As General Agent I traveled in nearly every state east of the Rocky Mountains; this gave me a valuable knowledge regarding the country; and my experience, both as canvasser and as General Agent, gave me a good insight into human nature.
It is uninteresting to you to follow me through the different work from Chicago to New York and from New York to Atlanta, Georgia, and back to Chicago, and finally back to New York. During all these years I represented in different ways the same publishing company with which I originally started as a canvasser; canvassing, appointing and drilling agents; starting and drilling General Agents, and corresponding with both after they once entered the field. My work as a canvasser and on the road taught me not to enter right into the everyday work of the canvasser and advise and encourage, so as to obtain the best results. If I learned to be anything, I learned to be practical.
The book business was not congenial to me, although I was, in every sense, successful in it, but there were many things that were not pleasant.
On my return from Chicago, I purchased the entire business from my employer and managed it myself for sometime. During this time the one thing I learned successfully was how to sell goods to the consumer.
My ambition was to manufacture a line of goods that would be consumed, used up, and to sell it through canvassing agents, direct from the factory to the consumer.
The starting of the perfume business was the result of most careful and thorough investigation, guided by the experience of several years' successful operation in the book business; that is, in selling goods direct to the consumer or purchaser. I learned during this time that the proper and most advantageous way of selling goods was to be able to submit the goods themselves to the people. In investigating this matter nearly every line of business was gone over, and it seemed to me, then, as it has since been proved, that the perfume business in its different branches afforded the very best possible opportunity to build up a permanent and well established trade. Having once decided that the perfume business was the business, the question naturally presented itself, "By what name are these perfumes to be known; by what name is this company to be called?" The gentleman who took me from the farm as a boy became in the past years, not only my employer but my personal friend, and after buying him out he moved to California, and while there wrote me glowing accounts of the country, and to him belongs the idea of the name California, as associated with this business.
I started the perfume business in a space scarcely larger than an ordinary kitchen pantry. At first I manufactured but five odors: Violet, White Rose, Heliotrope, Lily-of-the-Valley, and Hyacinth. I did much experimental work in making these odors, and the selling price to the first batch of perfumes I made did not cover one-half the actual cost of the goods, but experience is a great teacher, and I applied myself to the task of making perfumes with the same vim and energy that I had in selling books and after a short time, I fancied that I could produce as fine an odor as some of the old and tried perfumes; at least my perfumes pleased my customers; they were the natural perfumes of the flower, made in the most natural way and by the process employed by the large French perfumers.
I soon found it necessary to increase the odors, and to add to the line other articles for the toilet. Among those first put out were: Shampoo Cream, Witch Hazel Cream, Almond Cream Balm, Tooth Paste, which afterwards was made in the Tooth Tablet, Toilet Waters, etc.
As the business increased the laboratory must, of necessity grow, so that at the end of two years I was occupying one entire floor in this building for manufacturing purposes alone.
It is perhaps unfair to note the progress of
one side of the business without carrying with it the natural
development on the other.
My ambition was to manufacture a line of goods superior to any other, to be moneyed value into the goods themselves, and just enough money in the package to make them respectable, and as stated above, take these goods through canvassing agents direct from the laboratory to the consumer.
While in the book business I had in my employ as General Traveling Agent2, a Mrs. P.F.E. Albee, of Winchester, NH. Mrs. Albee was one of the most successful General Agents I had in the book work, and it was in her hands I placed the first sample case, or outfit, in the perfume business. Mrs. Albee was the only General Agent employed for the first six months of the business. During that time she secured a number of good workers, some of whom are with us today. It is, therefore, only befitting that we give her the honorary title of Mother of the California Perfume Company. For the system that we now use for distributing our goods is the system that was put in practical operation by Mrs. Albee.
As the business grew, through the work of our agents, we were forced from time to time to increase our laboratory space, and in 1895 we built our own laboratory in Suffern, New York, 32 miles out on the main line of the Erie Railroad. This building has been enlarged and remodeled three different times, until today we have a building 120 feet long, main building 50 feet wide and the wing 30 feet, all three stories and basement giving us four working floors, each floor having 4,800 square feet of floor space, or a total floor capacity of 17,200 feet. This building is equipped with the best possible machinery, tile latest devices for bottling goods and so on, until I feel we can truthfully say that there is not a plant of our kind in the country so large and so well fitted for our business, as the laboratory of the California Perfume Company.
As well directed efforts and hard work must eventually win their way to the front, so the manufacturing end of the California Perfume Company grew out of my hands; that is to say, I found that it was almost impossible for me to manufacture, to give the personal attention to both manufacturing and correspondence which the merits of each required. Therefore, in 1896, I secured the services of the best perfumer I could find, a gentleman who had been in the perfume business himself for 25 years and had the reputation in New York and vicinity for making the finest perfumes on the American market. In order to secure his services I was obliged to buy out his business and close up his laboratory, and he now has full charge of the manufacturing of every ounce of goods we put out.
My object in locating the laboratory at Suffern was that as Suffern is my home I can give much more personal attention and supervision to the affairs of the laboratory than if it was located in New York. So that every day in the year, unless when I am out on one of my trips, visiting agents and general agents, I am at the laboratory every morning, and spend an hour with our chemist, going over his work and see that every ounce of goods, every package in every department is made and put up in the best possible shape.
During these years of progressive work we never lost sight of the fact that the quality of our goods was the one thing that recommended them to our patrons, and we have never been satisfied to allow the quality of our goods to remain at a fixed point, but you, who have been with us year after year, know that our entire line of goods has been improved, until today, I feel sure that there is not their superior on the market.
As identical with the progress of our business itself, has been the progress in our methods and in our helps to our Depot Managers3.
We study each individual Depot Manager's work, plans and prospects, as a wise physician studies his patient. My experience in the work should enable me to advise you wisely and accurately, and you, who follow my advice and suggestions month by month and year by year, know that my suggestions are practical, and when carried out bring the best possible returns.
Compare, if you please, the first catalogue we ever published with the catalogue of today. It would be interesting to compare each edition, one after the other, and see the progress and improvement.
It is a great pleasure to me to look back and note the uniform progress in the different departments of our work. I think there is no concern in the country that can boast of a better or more conscientious and trustworthy force in any manufacturing establishment, than those employed in our laboratory. Their hours of work are comparatively easy and everything has been done to make their work pleasant and agreeable, and as a result every girl and every boy enters into the work with heart, as well as with hand.
I cannot say less of those employed in our Shipping Department. The utmost care and pains must be taken in filling, packing, and shipping every order. You can hardly appreciate the amount of work there is in filling an order of, say, $40 to $75 at wholesale. The articles must be first laid out, carefully counted, then checked, rechecked by a third party, re-counted and packed; each order is handled as though it was the only order to be shipped.
In conversation with one of our Depot Managers a few months ago, he told me that in 1902 he had sold over $2,000 worth of goods at retail, and during the entire year there had not been as much as one slight error in the shipments. This reflects great credit upon our system and those who are responsible for the carrying out of it.
Perhaps the most important department in our business is our Correspondence Department. To this department I give most of my personal attention. We have in this department a large force of very competent stenographers, who take as much interest in the work as I do myself. Every report, every letter, suggestion or request is considered carefully before it is answered. It is our motto, that if any department in our entire business must be neglected it must not be our Correspondence Department. Our aim is to keep in the closest possible touch with you; to aid and assist you in every way; to enter right into your every-day work, and in the letters we send you we try to convey to you our untiring efforts and interest, giving you the benefit of my experience in every way, so that your work will bring you the best possible returns. It is our aim to merit the entire confidence of every Depot Manager in our employ. If we have failed in any one instance, it is not through lack of effort on our part, nor through any disposition to be arbitrary, but through a misunderstanding; we simply have not understood each other. I want you always to be just as frank in your correspondence in every particular, as though I was right there and you were going over every experience with me.
Contrast, if you please, the appearance of our office today with that of when Mrs. Albee first started out with the California Perfume Company's goods. Then, I had one stenographer, and I myself filled the position of correspondent, cashier, bookkeeper, shipping clerk, office boy, and manufacturing chemist; today we have on our weekly payroll over 125 employees. Mrs. Albee for the first six months was the only General Agent on the road; today we have 48 General Agents traveling over this country and selecting and drilling agents for this work; the first six months we had perhaps 100 agents in the field, today we have over 10,000 good, honest, industrious and energetic Depot Managers. All of you have your own customers, so that it is difficult to accurately estimate today the vast number of families that are using our goods; if each of you have 100 customers, or sell goods to only one different family, we are supporting goods to at least one million families in the United States. This will give you an idea of the magnitude of our business. The growth of the California Perfume Company only emphasizes what energy and fair dealing with everyone can accomplish. We propose first to be fair to our customers — your customers — by giving them the very best goods that can be made for the money; we propose to be fair and just, even liberal, with you who form the bone and sinew of our business.
As the California Perfume Company's business has grown in the past, so it shall grow in the future; the limit in this business is measured only by the amount of hard work and energy that you and I put in. While you and I have both worked faithfully and loyally in this work, yet if we stop and look over the past and then into the future, we can see that the possibilities are growing greater and greater every day; that we have scarcely begun to reach the proper results from the field we have before us. The millions and millions of people in this country of ours today, who are not using the California Perfume Company's goods, are the losers, and it is our place and our purpose to see that at least they must be made acquainted with the merits of the goods, the honesty with which they are made and de- livered direct from the laboratory to the consumer.
1. The early name of the company was "The
California Perfume Company," the name change to Avon Products having
been made in 1939.
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2. Those who appointed
Representatives were called "General Agents." They correspond to
Avon's City and District Managers.
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3. In the
early years Representatives were known as "Agents" or "Depot Managers."
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