Gregg Renfrew of Beautycounter on Toxic Chemicals and Getting Fired by Messenger

Gregg Renfrew, the founder and chief executive of Beautycounter.CreditCreditPhilip Cheung for The New York Times

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Gregg Renfrew of Beautycounter on Toxic Chemicals and Getting Fired by Messenger

Before starting the all-natural personal care business, the New York native worked for Martha Stewart and Susie Hilfiger.

Gregg Renfrew, the founder and chief executive of Beautycounter.CreditCreditPhilip Cheung for The New York Times

It started with “An Inconvenient Truth.” In 2006, Gregg Renfrew watched the Al Gore documentary on climate change, and became convinced that her next business would be one that introduced cleaner, less environmentally damaging products to the market.

Ms. Renfrew, who grew up in New York City and its suburbs, had already had a successful run in the corporate world. After graduating from college, she held a series of sales jobs, living in New York, Hong Kong and London. Then in 1997, she started the Wedding List, an e-commerce pioneer catering to brides and wedding guests, in the United States.

She sold the Wedding List to Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia a few years later and, after a turbulent stretch working with Ms. Stewart, moved on in 2001. Soon she was associated with another high-powered woman in business, Susie Hilfiger, the ex-wife of the designer Tommy Hilfiger. Ms. Renfrew spent a couple of years working for Best & Company, then owned by Ms. Hilfiger, but was fired in dramatic fashion.

In 2011, Ms. Renfrew founded Beautycounter, which makes cosmetics and personal care products. But instead of creating just another makeup brand, Ms. Renfrew made several unorthodox decisions.

First, she made a list of more than 1,500 potentially harmful ingredients that she vowed never to use in her products. Next, she turned the conventional business model on its head, eschewing department stores in favor of a network of independent consultants — think Avon rather than Estée Lauder. Finally, she embarked on a campaign to introduce new regulation to the personal care industry, noting that the last comprehensive law governing it was passed in 1938.

Beautycounter, which is privately held, has raised some $ 86 million from investors including the U2 frontman Bono and the private equity firm TPG, and is valued at about $ 400 million.

This interview, which was condensed and edited for clarity, was conducted in New York.

What was your childhood like?

My father worked in finance. He was quite successful early on, but then fell on hard times. My mother started working to support the family, selling real estate, and also buying houses and renovating them. We moved 11 times when I was little, and it was a good learning experience for me. From a very early age I understood the value of money, how quickly it can come and go, and the need to be financially independent. I'm not driven by money to be extremely wealthy. I’m driven to not have to worry about money, which is a different thing.

What did you do after college?

When I graduated, my mother gave me a black briefcase with my initials on it and a check for $ 5,000 and said: “This should be enough to get you your first and last month’s payment on an apartment, and some furniture, and a suit. You’re on your own.” I wanted to go be a ski bum. My mom said, “You can do whatever you want to, but this is the only money you’re going to get.”

So I moved to New York and started at a company called Marke Communications, which was a print advertising firm. About six months in, I had racked up a large American Express bill, and I called my mom and I said, “Mom, I think I need some help with this Amex bill.” And she said, “Guess it’s time to get a new job.” And that was that. Click.

So what did you do?

Within six months I switched jobs, because I needed to make more money. I learned that Xerox Corporation had the best sales training program at the time in the country, and before long I was selling copiers in the jewelry district on the West Side of Manhattan.

It was a particularly challenging district for me. I was a young woman and am Protestant, and this was a group of primarily older, Orthodox Jewish men. I had to learn them culturally before I could actually sell to them. Once I learned how to deal with these guys, then I became one of the top salespeople in the country.

You eventually launched the Wedding List.

It was one of the first multichannel retail businesses in the United States, which was good and bad. People weren’t quite ready. When I would pitch venture capitalists and talk about the convenience of online purchasing, people would look at me like I was crazy. I mean, no one was buying wedding gifts online at the time. Now you can’t imagine going to the store.

What was it like working for Martha Stewart?

She’s an extremely demanding woman. She used to call me every single Friday at 6:01 p.m. to make sure I was still in the office. She can find the one flaw in your strategy, or in an image, and if you’re not equipped to handle that conversation, if you don’t have all the data, it is going to be a very long meeting.

You left Martha and went to work for Susie Hilfiger at Best & Company.

I’ve had the pleasure of working for some very strong-willed women.

Any commonalities there?

Businesses are successful when the business side and the creative side have good checks and balances. When one side of the business has too much power, it can be really challenging. And those two companies tipped more toward creative than the business side of it. When the creative could always trump business decisions, it made it very difficult to do my job.

So what happened at Best & Company?

Susie flat out fired me by messenger in front of my entire team when I was C.E.O. in the fall of 2006. The messenger came and said, “Are you Gregg Renfrew?” And I opened up this package, and it said: “You’re fired. You’re out of this building right now.” I was in the middle of a meeting in front of the entire team. So that was a humbling experience.

What did you learn from Martha and Susie?

One of the challenges that we face as women leading an organization is there’s this desire to be liked, and this desire not to be considered a tough bitch. Women who are powerful are often considered to be tough, as opposed to strong. I try to be strong and confident, as opposed to tough and abrasive.

How did Beautycounter get going?

I watched “An Inconvenient Truth” and had become impassioned with the environmental health movement. I was washing my children with a natural foaming oatmeal body wash by a name brand, but when I went on the Environmental Working Group’s database, it rated it an eight out of nine for toxicity. I thought I was using natural oatmeal body wash, and in fact I was putting toxins on my babies. I was just outraged. And I became truly obsessed with this.

At the same time, I was looking at where direct to consumer was going, and where I saw the biggest white space was in beauty. No one had pioneered meaningful change in that industry. It took me a couple of years to concept the idea, the selling model, create the products from scratch. I went in thinking that we could just use white-label products and change a few ingredients. That was certainly not the case.

You’re very focused on bringing more regulation to your own industry. That’s unusual.

Most people still believe that the Food and Drug Administration is protecting them in terms of personal care products. And most people believe that the products on the market are safe. But the F.D.A. is not necessarily screening ingredients for safety, which is very different from the food industry. The F.D.A. can be protective of the consumer in certain industries, but in our industry, we are woefully underregulated, and they don’t have the power to recall products. And this is one area where you have bipartisan support. Everyone agrees that we need to update the laws. It’s been 80 years now.

So what ingredients do you use and not use?

There are mostly natural ingredients that are safer, but some natural ingredients are not safe. There are heavy metals in the ground that are not safe for your health, and there are perfectly benign man-made ingredients. We have something called the Never List, which is a list of ingredients we chose not to formulate with.

And if you look at the younger generation right now, they are very conscious of sustainability efforts. They’re focused on wellness and doing right by the earth. They are keenly aware of the environmental challenges that we face. Whereas older generations may be slightly less focused on that.

Beautycounter has an unusual business model, with a network of independent consultants selling products to other consumers. How do you make sure you don’t come off as a pyramid scheme?

Well, you can start by not calling it a pyramid scheme. We are creating economic opportunity for women, where they have the opportunity to sell a product that they believe in and get paid on the sale of that product. We pay our consultants on the sale of products, and they are also able to build a team to monetize other people’s time, but they only get paid a very small amount on their team.

Are you really optimistic about the prospect of new regulation during this administration?

The Trump administration is focusing on undoing regulations. They’re anti-regulation. And we are asking for regulations. That puts us at odds with the administration. That said, I think that for whatever reason — maybe because every single person has someone who is ill, maybe because it has been 80 years — there does seem to be bipartisan support for cosmetic reform.


An earlier version of this article misstated Gregg Renfrew's role during her two years at Best & Company. She worked there but was not chief executive for all of that time. The article also misstated the date of the founding of Beautycounter. It was in 2011, not 2013.

David Gelles is the Corner Office columnist and a business reporter. Follow him on LinkedIn and Twitter. @dgelles


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