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The BoF Podcast: Estée Lauder’s Group President on the Aspirational Business of Beauty

John Demsey, in conversation with Imran Amed, discusses his career path, working with Mac Cosmetics post-acquisition, and what it takes to build the perfect, enduring beauty brand.

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In the 1980s, when most of America's high-end retailers were enjoying the spoils of the industry's glamour and success, John Demsey was just getting started. Serving a total of five jobs in 10 years after graduation, he laid important groundwork for his career at the likes of Macy's, Bloomingdales and Saks Fifth Avenue, where he carved out a way into prestige beauty amid the fine fragrance boom of the 80s.

"Every job I ever had," he said, "gave me a front-row seat to really understanding how things were built and where the action was."

From the world of department stores, Demsey moved to Revlon before joining Estée Lauder when it was still a private company. Following its IPO in 1995, he oversaw many of the group's acquisitions as an executive, most notably moving to Toronto for two years to carry out on-the-ground work with Mac Cosmetics.

Demsey said he initially went into beauty because, as part of a Jewish immigrant community, he grew up with the same aspirational concepts of self-improvement seen throughout the industry — be it through the larger-than-life figures behind namesake brands such as Tom Ford or the unique brand DNA of Mac, which he says "transformed the way cosmetics were sold" by fostering a sense of community, social responsibility and influencer marketing long before the digital age.

Amid all the noise of today's myriad beauty upstarts, what does it take to achieve longevity in the industry? For Demsey, it's a mixture of the aforementioned unique DNA and storied, aspirational imagery, but also customer loyalty:

"The true profitability in the beauty business is repeat," he said. "The true cost in the beauty business is trial."

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