Lori Bush, MBA ’85, retired in January 2016 as president and CEO of Rodan + Fields, the San Francisco-based startup that in her eight years on the job became one of the nation’s top premium skincare companies. And as she walked out the door, she couldn’t help but think of everything that paved the way to her success.
It was not only the faith of Drs. Katie Rodan and Kathy Fields, the dermatologists who founded the company and brought Bush aboard, knowing she was, as Rodan said, “a force of nature.” And not only the support of Bush’s husband, Steve, himself a successful executive, or the inspiration of her late father, Meyer Hermelin, who she said expected her “to break through gender boundaries.”
It was also because of all she had learned in her years at the Fox School of Business, where she took night classes toward attaining her MBA while working as a product manager at a Philadelphia-area diagnostics company called BioData. It was during that time, Bush said, that she came to understand principles that have sustained her throughout her career.
In other words, the fundamental rules still apply all these years later. They have allowed her to hopscotch from one high-profile position to another, with consumer health and beauty giants like Neutrogena, Johnson & Johnson, and Nu Skin, before landing at Rodan + Fields in the fall of 2007.
There, Fields said, “(Bush) literally, single-handedly, was tasked with creating what is now a billion-dollar company.”
“Lori,” Rodan said, “was just the absolute perfect person to execute that dream that Dr. Kathy Fields and I had for this company.”
While Bush’s career didn’t start at the Fox School, it certainly gained direction and momentum there. A Cleveland native (and the older of two daughters born to Meyer and his wife Barbara), she earned her degree in medical technology from The Ohio State University in 1978, and worked for a time at a laboratory in Muncie, Ind., before coming to BioData in 1980.
Her drive was unquestionable; in addition to her full-time job and classwork (which she began in 1983), she waited tables at the Comedy Factory Outlet, a Philadelphia nightclub, and worked as an aerobics instructor. As she put it, “I developed a very poor habit of not sleeping. … I’ve always said I’ll sleep when I’m done.” (That, too, has carried over. Fields mentioned that, more than once, she has received dead-of-night emails from Bush about one business matter or another.)
Back then, there was no Internet. There were no cell phones. Bush can remember pounding out assignments on a manual typewriter.
“In order to really produce a piece of work that was meaningful,” she said, “it required a sense of courage — being able to pick up the telephone and calling somebody that you didn’t even know and asking them to provide you with their time, information, and resources, to be able to produce a body of work that at the time allowed me to get an A on an assignment. But more importantly, really, it allowed me to develop the know-how to make things happen — how to get things done, how to put yourself out there and ask for what you needed, and position it in a way that others would see how it could benefit the greater good.”
It wasn’t too long before her fellow students sought her out, not only wanting her to be a part of their teams while working on a project, but also to set the tone.
“I think probably the most material thing that came out of that graduate work for me,” she said, “was the courage to lead, really.”
The influence of her first marketing professor, Robert Linneman, was also invaluable. While Bush’s science background led her to adopt a methodical approach to business matters, Linneman, who worked at Temple University from 1964-90 and died in 2007, helped her to understand how applying such an approach to marketing was a key to unlocking creative ideation.
“To this day, when I’m looking at a piece of blank paper, I always start off with his approach,” she said, “which he referred to as a shirtsleeve approach to strategic planning. He started off with the situation analysis and I remember him saying, ‘When you truly understand where you are, where you need to go starts to become obvious.’ It works. All I can say is, it works.”
She might not have been able to predict her life’s next turn, however. It came when she attended a clinical pathology conference at a hotel in Las Vegas, soon after completing her graduate work at the Fox School. While awaiting an elevator the day before the conference began, her future husband approached. Steve recalled everyone had been setting up their exhibits, and as a result Lori was dressed in jeans and a sweatshirt. She nonetheless had a certain presence about her, he said. He would later tell friends that he knew right away he wanted to marry her, even if she was far less certain.
After some idle chitchat about the speed of the elevator, he asked if she was a pathologist.
“Do I look like a pathologist?” she asked.
“I don’t know,” he replied. “This is my first pathology meeting. You’ll have to tell me what a pathologist looks like.”
They talked some more in the elevator. (“I was young and cocky then, too,” Steve said with a laugh.) He learned where her booth was, and made it a point to visit the next day. In the meantime, Lori did her homework as well, learning from one of Steve’s co-workers that he was a brilliant business mind.
Long story short, they were married in February 1987. Steve estimates that they have lived in the same place for no more than a five-year stretch during their 29 years of marriage, while he has assumed one executive position or another, and she has gone from Minnetonka (in Minneapolis) to vice president of professional marketing at Neutrogena (in Los Angeles), to executive director of Worldwide Skincare Ventures for Johnson & Johnson Consumer Companies (in Skillman, N.J.) to president of Nu Skin (in Provo, Utah).
They’ve had their weekends, though. They’ve vacationed all over the globe. And they phone one another each and every night, no matter where either of them happens to be at that moment.
“I think the important part of that is each of us felt a strong commitment to the other person’s career, and so that meant in my case I needed to help Lori,” Steve said. “I wanted Lori to have it all. I wanted Lori to have a family. I wanted her to have a career. I wanted her to have a relationship with a spouse that was fulfilling.”
By Lori’s telling, that has been the case.
“Sometimes I think he knows me better than I know myself,” she said, “and he’s been a great business adviser.”
After all these years, Lori still has that same presence Steve noticed in that elevator. He said he has seen her making presentations at awards ceremonies, and while the other executives on stage wilt as the proceedings wear on, she remains fresh throughout. It’s a great quality, he noted, one that enables her to light up every room she enters, to draw people to her, to lead.
The other thing that sets her apart in his estimation is the fact that she is “a strategic visionary.”
“She can see further out than most people can,” he said, “and she understands very well the consequences one, two, three, four years out of behaviors and policies that you put in place today.”
All of which has made her a valued executive, wherever she has been. Rodan and Fields noticed that when they first crossed paths with Bush in the early ’90s, while she was at Neutrogena. The two doctors, close ever since they had done their residencies at Stanford from 1984-87, had developed an anti-acne regimen called Proactiv, and approached Neutrogena COO Allan Kurtzman about marketing it.
Kirtzman, who died in 2001, declined, saying that Rodan and Fields would be better served doing an infomercial.
“Personally, I thought he was insulting us,” Rodan said. “I thought either he was going to test and see how low we would go in order to sell our product, or he was just out of his mind.”
It turned out that he was right, though — they marketed Proactiv in just such fashion (through Guthy-Renker), and the product was a hit.
In 2002 they expanded their footprint into anti-aging products, launching the Rodan + Fields Dermatologist brand in department stores. In short order they sold to Estee Lauder. They also continued to stay in touch with Bush, but the timing was never quite right for a collaboration, nor was Bush able to make much headway with some of the products she had in mind at Johnson & Johnson. It was then that Jan Zwiren, the then-J&J head of business development, mentioned direct selling to her, something with which Bush had no familiarity.
“All I could think about was Avon,” she said. “I said that. ‘Like Avon?’ And she said, ‘Like Avon or Mary Kay or Amway.’ There were business models I didn’t understand — in some cases business models that didn’t have the best reputation — and so I started researching direct selling.”
Bush quickly got up to speed and, upon leaving Johnson & Johnson for Nu Skin in 2000, immersed herself in direct selling, calling it “an amazing outlet for innovation.”
After six years at Nu Skin, Bush struck out on her own as a strategy consultant for consumer health and beauty companies. And after doing so she contacted Rodan and Fields about some technological matter related to Proactiv. Before she even had a chance to pose her question, however, she was told that the two doctors were considering buying back their company from Estee Lauder, and were interested in taking it into a direct-selling channel. They needed her expertise, and in time would need her in the fold — something that became a reality about a year later.
Rodan + Fields went from less than $4 million in revenue in 2008 to more than $600 million last year, and from 7,500 consultants to well over 100,000, and continues to grow at high double-digit rates. It is, Rodan said, the nation’s second-largest premium skincare brand.*
* Source: Euromonitor International Limited; rsp terms; all channels, USA, 2015; research conducted in 2015
The timing of their launch was good, in that people were seeking alternate income opportunities with the nation in the throes of the recession, and because of the digital age. If word of their products was once circulated by word of mouth, it was now spread through social media — “word of mouth on steroids,” as Rodan put it.
But the biggest thing was Bush’s leadership — her knowledge, her foresight, and, as always, her drive.
“When she came in, we were just getting started,” Rodan said. “It was really a concept. She helped us not only develop the whole concept, but then execute it to a place where it exceeded our wildest expectations for what this business would become.”
Bush had laid out her retirement plan a decade ago (and true to Linneman’s long-ago advice, she put it in writing): She would step down when she turned 60, as she will in June of this year. Steve, nine years older, retired last August, and they have a vineyard in Sonoma, Calif., called Gremlin Vines, an homage to her dad’s military nickname. They also own a restaurant in that same town, Oso, which is run by David, one of Lori’s five stepchildren, and she and Steve have a 26 year old son, together. (She is, additionally, a step-grandmother to 10.)
Lori will continue to devote herself to charitable causes; she was named co-chair of the International Women’s Day Campaign run by buildOn, Rodan + Fields’ NGO partner. (That organization is dedicating a school in Mali in Lori’s name.)
Beyond that she will see what other new opportunities might await her, what doors might open before her. And when they do, she will once again be more than willing to barge through them.