Among a curiously diverse collection of knick-knacks, trinkets, and novelties, there was one notable similarity—a name. To some it was simply the name of a mail-order catalog, but to a great deal more Lillian Vernon was an innovator, a role model, and a source of delight in homes across the country. However, it was here in Westchester where Vernon, who died on Monday in a Manhattan hospital at the age of 88, witnessed an ingenious idea bloom into 60 years of rapid growth.
Vernon initially came to the United States as Lilli Menasche in 1937, fleeing Nazi Germany with her family. After attending New York University for two years, she settled in Mount Vernon with her first husband, Samuel Hochberg. In 1951, with just $2,000 from wedding gifts, a yellow Formica kitchen table, and borrowing the latter half of her town’s name, Vernon started Vernon Specialties, a mail-order business that would flourish into nine catalogs, 15 outlet stores, and at one point, close to $260 million in yearly revenue.
“Her business had its fundamental groundings in the county,” says her youngest son, David Hochberg, a Westchester resident.
It was this yellow kitchen table that functioned as Vernon’s first office. Recently married and pregnant, she purchased her first ad in Seventeen Magazine for $495, selling monogrammed handbags and belts made from the leather her father, Herman Menasche, manufactured in his leather goods factory. From this ad Vernon received $32,000 in orders and used the profits to take out ads in other popular women’s magazines; her free, personalized monograms became a trademark amongst her products.
“My husband was skeptical at first and concerned about investing our wedding gift money and my mother thought I should concentrate on the birth of my son,” Vernon said in an interview with Business Know-How. “Some of my friends felt my idea was odd which left me feeling alienated at times. My decision proved better than I ever imagined and my customers certainly took me seriously because I received 6,450 orders my first year in business.”
By 1954, the company had generated enough revenue to move out of the kitchen and into three Mount Vernon facilities, where they would stay until the company’s headquarters relocated to a 41,000-square-foot building on New Rochelle’s Main Street in 1993.
Mailing her first catalog to over 125,000 customers in 1956, Vernon was cited as having a knack for reflecting the needs and tastes of her readers, middle-class housewives in
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particular. By 1987, the company went public, Lillian Vernon Corporation becoming the first company owned by a woman to be listed on the American Stock Exchange, and was mailing out close to 80 million catalogs per year.
Around this time, Vernon’s two sons played important roles in the company: David Hochberg as vice president of public affairs until the company was sold, and Fred Hochberg as president and chief operating officer until 1992, when he left the company. In August of 1998, the company moved headquarters one last time, to a 65,000-square-foot building on Playland Parkway in Rye, before being sold.
ZelnickMedia purchased Lillian Vernon Corporation for $60.5 million in 2003, moving the company’s headquarters to White Plains a few years later. Vernon received $24 million from the sale, and was retained as a non-executive chairwoman.
Vernon was a role model for women across the country, but particularly for women in the business industry. At a time when men were wary of a woman’s business prowess, Vernon worked hard to make a reliable reputation for herself.
“At first, it was difficult because the manufacturers I worked with were men and they were very skeptical doing business with a woman,” she told Business Know-How. “But I slowly won their trust because I was a businesswoman who was true to my word, who paid her bills on time, and who they liked doing business with.”
Lillian Vernon, Citymeals-on-Wheels board member, donates a refrigerated truck to the charity. Photograph By Annie Watt
In fact, President Bill Clinton appointed her chairwoman of the National Women’s Business Council in 1995. Also, The Women’s Enterprise Center created the Lillian Vernon Award in her honor, which is given to businesswomen who have made an effort to serve their community.
In Westchester her company employed over a thousand county residents. Moreover, Vernon was known for her generosity to both civic and non-profit organizations. She made donations to U.S. Marine Toys for Tots Foundation, and served on the board of quite a few organizations as well, including Citymeals-on-Wheels, and Lincoln Center.
In 1998, Vernon was inducted into the Connecticut Women’s Hall of Fame. Additionally, she was awarded the Gannett Newspapers Business Leadership Award, and honorary degrees from NYU, Bryant College, and the College of New Rochelle.
“Ms. Vernon was a trailblazer in our industry. She built one of America’s greatest direct mail businesses by relying largely on her gut and her innate ability to merchandise,” says Wendy Heck, the current CEO of Lillian Vernon. “She was a visionary, a fierce competitor, and she inspired and will continue to inspire myself and the many others that she impacted throughout her life.”
In addition to her two sons, Vernon is survived by her third husband, Paolo Martino, whom she married in 1998.
Photograph and ad provided by Lillian Vernon Corporation