Guest Author - Sharon Michaels
Begun in an apartment in Mount Vernon, New York, today the Lillian Vernon Corporation is one of the largest catalog retailers in the world with over $240 million in annual revenue. You’ll be fascinated to find out just how extraordinary the founder, Lillian Vernon, truly is.
She was born Lillian Menasche in Germany in 1929. Shortly before the beginning of World War II, Lillian’s bother was walking with friends when a Nazi soldier threw him down a set of stairs. Their father seeing his son bruised, beaten and bloody decided to move the family from Germany to the Netherlands and eventually to New York.
After moving to the United States, Lillian’s beloved brother joined the U.S. Army to fight in World War II and was eventually killed in battle. Despite this loss, her family still invited one G.I. per week to join them for family dinner. This was the foundation of Lillian’s strong sense of family and community.
Her father had been a lingerie manufacturer in Europe and he, his wife and daughter began the business again in New York. The three of them worked side-by-side to sell housecoats, leather goods and handbags. Lillian credits growing up in such an entrepreneurial environment for helping her appreciate the value of hard work and opening her eyes to the fascinating world of business.
She married a man whose parents owned a dry goods store. As she tells the story, after her marriage she took $2,000 from their wedding gift money and started her business. It was the early 1950’s, she was pregnant with their first child and wanted to supplement her husband’s $75 weekly paycheck.
From her kitchen table in Mount Vernon New York, Lillian began her multi-million dollar business. With part of the $2,000 she purchased stylish handbags and belts aimed at the teen market. With another portion, she took out a one-sixth-of-a-page ad in “Seventeen” magazine to advertise the bags and belts. Immediately, she decided to set herself apart from the competition so she offered to personalize the bags and belts for free. At the time, no one in the marketplace was doing this.
She received 50 orders from the first ad. Over the next few months, she received $32,000 in orders! In 1951 her business became Lillian Vernon, taken from her first name and the city in which she lived. Today, that original “Seventeen” magazine sits framed in her New York home.
During the years that followed she stayed true to herself and her business sense. The Lillian Vernon Company became known for personalizing and monogramming the variety of unique and well-priced items found in their many catalogs.
She’ll tell you she has three children, her two sons and the business. During this time of extraordinary growth Lillian was determined to maintain a balance between work and family. She made it a rule that they ate dinner together as a family every evening. Her son David said he learned about business around the dinner table.
Lillian Vernon is well known and respected for her generosity and giving spirit. She credits her mother and father for her desire to serve and give. She’ll tell you about how her father would give away his last of anything and her mother would walk through knee-deep snow to volunteer.
Lillian is passionate about giving back. She’s given to the Ronald McDonald House, Toys for Tots, St. Jude’s Children’s Research Hospital, Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts, Meals on Wheels and so many more. “I give as much as I can, and on a good year, I give more.”
When she began her business there were very few women entrepreneurial role models. You have to remember back in the 1950’s, 60’s and even early 70’s women generally couldn’t even take out loans by themselves – they often needed their husband’s or father’s signature. In 2003 she sold her company for over $60 million dollars.
Lillian Vernon is a true woman of wealth. She gives of her time, expertise and money. She is a positive and powerful role model for generations to follow.
Her philosophy: “I never gave up and I never let anyone get in my way. I use the power of positive thinking to tackle obstacles and challenges so they don’t defeat me.”
What can we learn about wealth building from Lillian Vernon?
1. Believe in yourself, your abilities and just do it!
2. Never loose sight of what’s important in life - your family and community.
3. Be grateful and give back to others.
4. Leave a legacy for future generations to follow.
5. Respect your money - use and invest it wisely.
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