Lillian Vernon (1929-)

Company: Lillian Vernon Corporation
Started: 1951; sold for $60 million in 2003 to Strauss Zelnick

Lillian Vernon started her business at age 24, while a newlywed and pregnant with her first child. A German-Jewish immigrant whose family fled Nazi Germany in 1937, she wanted to make sure her children had a comfortable life growing up. She took $2,000 of wedding gift money and placed an ad in Seventeen magazine for monogrammed belts and handbags, which were popular in the 1950s. She expected a few thousand dollars in sales; she received $32,000 in orders. Vernon, whose married name was Hochberg, redubbed herself after the town she lived in, Mount Vernon, New York. After the couple divorced in 1968, she divided the business with her ex, giving him the $5 million wholesale side and keeping for herself the $1 million mail order segment. By the 1970s, her famous catalog was a familiar sight in homes across America, generating $60 million in sales of its gifts and decorating items by 1982.

“One reason women make such great managers in business is that they have experience dealing with multiple distractions. Time management is an invaluable skill, and I honed mine running a household and a business simultaneously.”

References:

  • Picture: Public Domain (with permission of Annie Watts).
  • Lillian Vernon, An Eye for Winners: How I Built One of America's Great Businesses--And So Can You.