Entrepreneur Lillian Vernon, founder of the eponymous mail order catalogue company, died in New York on Monday. She was 88.
Vernon who started the company in 1951 as an add-on to her husband’s dry goods store, borrowing the name from its Mt. Vernon, N.Y. location, reportedly launched the business from a yellow, Formica kitchen counter, with the help of a $2,000 wedding gift.
And Vernon used her personal taste as a guide to tap into pent up demand from women consumers.
“I like my house organized with corner racks, pullout dish things, drawer dividers,” Vernon reportedly said. “I wouldn’t sell anything I wouldn’t use myself.”
At its peak, the company, which sold knick knacks, gadgets and monogrammed consumer items that Vernon sourced from buying trips around the world, had sales of close to $300 million. The company created some of the first seasonal and holiday-themed catalogues in the mail order business, with nine regular catalogues and 15 outlet stores, in addition to websites and a business-to-business division, the New York Times reports.
Vernon, who was born Lilli Menasche in Leipzig, Germany in 1927, fled the Nazi occupation with her family in 1933. They settled first in Amsterdam, before moving to New York City in 1937. She changed her last name from Hochberg, her husband's surname, in the 1960s.
Vernon’s sons, Fred and David, helped run and build the company, which went public in 1987, as the first woman-owned company on the American Stock Exchange.
Fred Hochberg, who served as the company’s president and chief operating officer until 1993, is currently the chairman of the Export-Import Bank and was a former administrator of the Small Business Administration.
“800 numbers were an exciting innovation in those days,” Hochberg told Inc. in an interview last week in New York, adding that at it’s peak Lillian Vernon had 5,000 employees who worked in three shifts, six or seven days a week to get the orders out the door.
President Bill Clinton named Vernon chairwoman of the National Women’s Business Council in 1995.
Vernon later sold the company for $60 million in 2003 to private equity firm Ripplewood Holdings and ZelnickMedia, which took it private. It is now part of Taylor Corporation, which bought it following a bankruptcy filing in 2008.
Lillian Vernon’s legacy is a lasting one, however, for the country as well as her own children.
“It was [at Lillian Vernon] that I understood how business people think,” Hochberg said.