This is The SPP Spotlight, a new feature on our blog that spotlights women who have become leaders in the community, made a positive impact on people’s lives, or is a great role model for women in some way. Our guest is Madelin White, owner of Merle Norman Cosmetics and Wigs and Day Spa. In addition to running a successful business for four decades she’s served on the Board of Trustees of Family Education and Support Services (F.E.S.S.), Zonta, Washington Retail Association, as well as won several awards from the Girl Scouts of America, YWCA, and Pierce County’s Woman of Influence, among others, all without sacrificing a family life, making Madelin a shining example for women all over the Pacific Northwest.
The SPP Spotlight: Madelin, thank you for being with us. It is such a pleasure to have you.
Madelin: You’re welcome. It’s nice to be here.
So, there are only 4 Merle Norman locations in the entire Puget Sound region. Madelin, you own the Olympia franchise, which is the only location in Thurston County. Tell us about your business.
Well, I started it 40 years ago – actually I was in partnership with my parents at first, because I still worked for the state at the time. We started growing it and it grew to a point where one of us had to leave our positions with the state. My dad was the Assistant Director of Agriculture and I was the Head of Administration for the Department of Transportation.
What’s one thing that your business offers that most people probably don’t know about?
We have grown the business and added beauticians who are hair dressers. We have massage therapy and an esthetician who does facials and waxing. So those have all been added since 40 years ago when we started and have increased what we do here so that the customer can come here and spend the whole day. We do make-overs and help people with wigs.
You’ve owned this franchise for 40 years. Can you tell us, what are some of the biggest changes you’ve seen in the beauty industry from when you first started and now?
Women have become a lot more knowledgeable about skin care and how important it is. In so doing, it has increased my business, because I can teach people how to take care of their skin and, of course, the fun part of it – the make-up part of it – and the fun colors and things like that. Not only that, I’ve seen more men get involved with skin care products. It’s been interesting. They either come in themselves, or, more often, they have their wives or girlfriends pick things up that’ll help their skin.
So, for men, is it primarily skin care lotions, things that –
— Yes, lotions, cleansers… just skin care products that’ll help in any way. Some people have problems with acne. We have products that are just for that. […] Each person is so individualized that we don’t even sell groups of things. We talk to each individual and come up with what they need for their skin.
You said men have become more interested over time. What do you attribute that to?
Part of it is the baby boomers. There’s a lot of us. [laughs] I think men are realizing that they also want to keep up and look younger – or at least not age as in the past, because it didn’t matter before; that’s the way life was. It just matters to men more now.
I heard recently that there are over 1,200 women-owned businesses starting up every day nation-wide. I’m sure that wasn’t the case when you first started out. Can you tell us how attitudes have changed towards women owning businesses over the years?
I can give you a really good example. When I worked for the Department of Transportation, I held a job that had always been held previously by a man. This was in the early ‘70s. I can remember sitting in the garage underneath the Highway Building saying to myself, “It’s not you they resent, it’s your position. It’s not you they resent, it’s your position.” I just kept that up, because it was tough at first. Men could not possibly see a woman doing this work that had always been handled by a man. There were engineers that were bridge-builders. It was mostly men. I actually had probably 75-80 employees and 90% of them were male. So, it was very hard for women back then.
As you started to get into the Merle Norman business, which led you to be more involved with the business community, what were you, um…
Faced with? I was faced with the Old Boys Club. Even the Chamber back then. I remember I belonged to a different chamber then I do now and it was very tough, because it was mostly the Good Old Boys [who] were the nucleus of everything. You just couldn’t get into those groups very easily. I want to say it was snobbish, but I think it was more than that. It was men thinking women could not possibly do as well as they do in this business.
How much of that has changed since?
It’s changed. It was very slow-changing. Now, I’m finding a lot more openness to women business owners. In fact, I am on the Advisory Committee for the Thurston County Academic Development and it’s all about [women business owners]. This advisory group is trying to help more women get into business and finding help for them. There’s a lot more help. Back then you couldn’t… The SBA [Small Business Association] didn’t really help you. There really wasn’t anything that helped women. [You’d] go to a bank and the bankers would look at you like, “Oh, sure…” [laughs] It was tough.
Because they thought you were a bigger risk? That you wouldn’t last as a business?
I’m not sure what they thought. It was just, I think, they thought women couldn’t run business as well as men. And I can understand that, because there were only men doing that.
Now, you’re also President-Elect of the Lacey Chamber of Commerce. What do you love most about the Lacey Chamber?
It’s fun. [laughs] They are a lot more open, a lot more welcoming to people. There’s a lot more interaction. I find that there are ways to get more involved in it and it is open to anybody. It is open to anybody who wants to get involved. For instance, the Ambassadors. If you really want to meet a lot of people, you go and be an Ambassador, because they go to all the functions – or as many as they can. So there are a lot more interaction with people. But that group of people are fun people who want to help. It’s just a much more comfortable situation.
What are some of the things you hope to bring to the Chamber that you’ve noticed has been missing over the past couple years?
We’ve been working really hard, having been part of the Chamber Board for a few years now, to get people more involved. One of the things that’s happened in the past is you pay to belong to this and then what? People don’t realize that you get out of it what you put into it. I have found that a lot of us are reaching out to those new people and saying, “What can we do to help you?” and getting them more involved that way. That’s my goal, if nothing else, is retention and getting out and trying to meet people. Even though I’m working full time, I want to take time to get out and meet people I don’t usually see in the Chamber and find out why they don’t interact. I know, for instance, restaurants, it’s very hard for them, because they’re open at noon and our forum is at noon. But there are a lot of After-Hours things. We’re growing that part of it, having more 5:01 Surges and more Open Houses –
— What’s a 5:01 Surge?
5:01 Surge is a business that opens their doors to people in the Chamber for guests to go into their business, meet the people there, see where they come from, find out what that business does that you or someone else could utilize. When we go to those places, a lot of times, I’ve been quite surprised, not knowing exactly [what they really do]. By going to these 5:01 Surges you really find out.
You’ve also been doing some work for over 20 years with women stricken with cancer. Could you tell us a bit about that?
Yes, I did start 23 years ago when Look Good, Feel Better was just starting. I served on a national board to help get the structure of it and started teaching it here 23 years ago. I just donate my time to it at least once a month. I used to do it a lot more often. I’ve done it so much that actually American Cancer Society sends me to other states to teach them how to teach the program.
Could you explain what the Look Good, Feel Better program is?
Yes. It’s a program that started to give women more comfort with themselves in an otherwise not good time in their lives. We try to have some fun. What I do is teach them how to camouflage the side-effects of chemo and radiation. They get a bag of make-up [and] skin care products. We go through those and start laughing – not to belittle what they’re going through – but they’re all there for the same reason and going through the same kind of thing, so they feel comfortable. I purposely don’t teach it here [at Merle Norman], because I don’t want them to think they have to buy from me. I do not teach it for that reason. I teach it for many reasons. It’s a subject that’s very near and dear to my heart.
Why is that?
I lost my grandfather to stomach cancer. When my little brother was 19, I lost him to bone cancer. I lost my dad to lung cancer, my aunt to bladder cancer, my two best friends to ovarian and breast cancer. That’s why. And I just lost my only other sibling to colon cancer. So, yes, my whole family has been wiped out by cancer. But, in addition to that, way back when, one of my best friends had come in to my store and we started playing with make-up and wigs. We ended up laughing so hard at some of the things we did. She finally just stopped and looked at me and said, “Madelin, you should do this for a lot of people, because look what’s happened. You’ve brought me from here to here.” Low and behold, I got a call that week from St. Peter’s Hospital from one of the corporate people that had heard about me and asked me if I would be willing to do that for them. That’s how it started.
It sounds like you’ve had a tremendous impact. It’s a beautiful thing.
It is. A lot of people ask me how I can keep doing it, because it can be depressing, to be real honest about it. But you know what? I get a lot out of it, too. When I can make someone go from here [hand down below] to here [hand up high] in an hour and a half, it makes me feel good, too. It makes me know that I’ve helped somebody in an otherwise not good time of their lives. Having done it for so many years now, I’ve had so many people come in and say “I can’t thank you enough for what you’ve done for my wife, for my sister, for my daughter, for whomever.” Even if they aren’t alive anymore, they come in and tell me that I had a huge impact on their lives. So, it makes me feel good, too.
If it’s not too personal – ‘cause we haven’t gotten personal at all, yet, right? Would you mind telling us how many kids you have?
Two. I have two children.
All grown up. Were there any challenges you faced owning and starting a business and juggling a marriage and family life?
Considering both my kids’ dads died when they were very young; I raised both my kids myself – and they survived in spite of me! [laughs] My kids are 19 years apart. I was putting one in college in Arizona while I was pregnant with the second one. So both boys actually grew up in my stores. […] They both learned a lot about business and sacrifice. I don’t know if you want to know this, but we’re being pretty liberal. When you own a business you have to be very conservative about a lot of things. The only reason I bring this up is when he was in Western Washington University, which is one of the most liberal colleges around, he was kind of in with that group until somebody said something about small business owners. He let loose on them. “There is NO ONE who works harder than my mother does!” So, he has learned both sides of the story. Challenge? Sure. My family has had to give up. I used to work seven days a week, eleven hour days. That’s how you start a business. But it was rewarding some days, because if one of the kids had a ball game or this one [gestures to son in office] plays nine instruments, so he was always in concerts or in bands or played football or was in plays or whatever, I could take off and go to most of those things. Even if it was in the middle of the day, I could just work my schedule around theirs. In a lot of ways it was wonderful.
So, I’m curious, how do you think… obviously, their being in an environment where their mom owns a business has helped form an appreciation for business owners, but how do you think them being in the environment of cosmetics and wigs field has helped shape them?
[laughs] Well, my younger son at one point said, “I think I can do a full set of nails.” [laughs] I think, probably because the type of personality I have and watching me with so many people that aren’t well, that it has made them very compassionate people, very caring people. I think that’s the biggest thing. They don’t do anything I do, but they have compassion, caring, and they understand that when people are in business it’s a lot of hard work. There’s a lot of people in this world that think if you own a business you must be rolling in the dough. You know that. It’s not that way and these kids know that.
That’s lead you to your involvement with Family Education Support Services, did it not?
To a point. One of the things the Family Education Support Services does is a program called Kinship. What Kinship is is grandparents raising their grandchildren. When I started seeing that – because a friend of mine is the Executive Director of that – and started seeing the sadness of people in their 70s and 80s retired, on a fixed income, and all of a sudden they’ve got 3, 2, 5 grandchildren that they’ve got to raise, it’s tough. This program not only helps educate them, but helps with programs that help them. Programs that help them financially, but give them support [groups]. It gives them time away and it [allows] them to feed off each other. […] The rest of the program is educating. There’s a program called Father’s Parents. Some fathers have a hard time – especially those fathers that’ve come back from the wars – have a hard time understanding the life at home, period. Their first reaction, unfortunately, is a war-type thing [slams fist into hand]. It’s a class that helps those fathers learn to be fathers without having to be mean. So, that’s a great program. There’s another one that’s really sad that teaches kids to be parents. The worst one was an 11 year-old girl who was pregnant, because she had been raped. She wanted to keep the baby, because it’d be the first time in her life that she’d be loved unconditionally. She didn’t have family that loved her or cared about her. The person that acted like it raped her. Unconditional love was what she was going to get from that baby. I think it’s pretty sad that an 11 year-old is going to raise somebody, but on the other hand, I could see where she was coming from. So, not to get maudlin, it is also very near and dear to my heart.
You’re also involved with the Washington Retail Association. Tell us a little about that.
I joined the Washington Retail Association, because of the legislative portion of it. I go down to the legislature every year and fight for small businesses. Either fight for a law or I go down there to tell them why these laws will kill small businesses. I’ve been successful sometimes.
What are some of your biggest successes?
I’ve been able to… the beauticians that work here are able to not charge sales tax, because they are providing a service. The legislature has tried and tried and tried to get services like that to have to charge tax. That would be devastating to these people. One that they tried to pass, which is, in my opinion, micro-managing businesses, is that if an employee walks through that door and there’s any indication at all they might be ill, I’m supposed to send them home. Now, first of all, who’s going to regulate that? But when you’re a small business you can’t afford to send people home all the time. It has become a joke here, because I cough every morning, so I’ll start coughing and somebody will yell, “You need to go home!” So I have fought that successfully, so far. I have helped with a lot of taxes that they’ve tried to add to businesses. […] So, then I started realizing that the legislature, the governor are playing games with businesses. If you don’t become proactive about it laws are going to get passed that’ll kill us. I wish I could see more business owners find something like that so they are proactive so they can understand what can happen if they sit back and let it happen.
Are there a lot of young business owners in that association?
To be real honest, a lot of the people are… well, there’s probably more that’s small businesses, there’s both. For instance, […] they sent in government affairs people from federated stores, which are all kinds of different [stores] from Home Depot from Georgia, they send in the head of some of the huge stores – Wal-Mart – they send in people from all over the United States to our meetings, because, again, they know how these laws are going to affect them. And the reason small businesses are so important in this is because the legislature will listen to small business owners before they’ll listen to corporate, because we actually are working in the trenches and know what it’ll do to us. Like this minimum wage thing…
That’s actually surprising, because a lot of people would assume that the bigger corporations…
I know they do. That’s why I’m sitting down there so often. Because they know that what I say they are going to listen to more. It’s so bad that I have one legislature say, “Don’t you ever come back here!” because I really made an impression on the rest of her committee. Do you think I’d stay away because of that?
Yeah, I’d count that as a good thing.
Yeah, it was a very good thing. I thought it was funny. [laugh] Oh good, I did this!
Well, Madelin, you have obviously been a very compassionate presence in a lot of people’s lives and have touched so many people. Who has inspired you over the years and inspire you today?
My parents. They were wonderful, wonderful people. It makes me sad when I hear about some of these childhoods. I had a wonderful childhood. I was raised on a mountain, so I was protected. But my parents probably started it. Compassion comes for me from all the people I’ve lost. So, I understand when somebody has lost someone. I understand when somebody is trying to help someone who is sick, being the caregiver of them. I have a wonderful friend who is just amazing. Her name is Myrna Weston and she has never worked, but she has helped so many people in the community. She is somebody to look up to.
I want to thank you for being with us today.
You can find Madelin online at www.merlenormancosmeticsolympia.com or on Facebook at facebook.com/merlenormanolympia. You can also come by and see Madelin at her Merle Norman location for a free facial and make-over and every month at the Lacey Chamber of Commerce forum. You can find details on that at www.laceychamber.com This is the SPP Spotlight. I’m Jeff Gibson.