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The Tiburon Twins Behind Benefit Cosmetics

Jean and Jane Ford turn makeup and cosmetics into a $500 million a year company

The Ford sisters today with Jean’s daughters, Maggie and Annie Ford Danielson.

It was a simple coin flip that changed the lives of twins Jean and Jane Ford and the faces of millions of women thereafter. Thirty-five years ago, they sat on the corner of San Francisco’s 23rd and Nellie streets deciding between a career in cosmetics or casseroles — the two things the women knew best.

With the lucky coin leading the way, the Fords combined their business acumen and beauty backgrounds to open a 455-square-foot store called the Face Place in the city’s Mission District. In 1990 they changed the company name to the now-well-known Benefit Cosmetics.

The six-foot-one sisters, who live across the street from each other in Tiburon, originally pursued modeling after completing their studies at Indiana University. “We really had no idea what we wanted to do after we graduated college,” says Jean. “I had studied art education, and Jane had studied marketing and finance. New York City was an exciting place with lots of opportunity. The city just lured us in.”

In Manhattan, they lived in a tiny apartment in an artsy neighborhood where everyone around was a struggling artist of some sort. “Every day we would go out on audition after audition and get turned away,” says Jean. “Our big break came two years later when we booked a series of national commercials for Calgon bath beads. We were so excited. It was our dream come true.”

But even with the success from the Calgon ads, they knew they wouldn’t be able to model forever. With the money from the ad campaign, they packed up their old station wagon, drove out west to San Francisco and let fate decide where they would invest their earnings.

Opening their makeup store, they focused on making problem-solving products that target particular beauty dilemmas. For instance, their top seller (over 10 million bottles), Benetint, a rose-hued stain for lips and cheeks, was originally invented for an exotic dancer who wanted something to make her nipples appear pinker.

Benefit Cosmetics is known for its quirky packaging and whimsical attitude — its motto, “Laughter is the best cosmetic … so grin and wear it” borne out by cleverly named basics like Dr. Feelgood (a mattifying complexion balm) and BADgal Lash (a rich black mascara). The creative approach is still going strong: Every new Benefit product moniker is vetted during candy-fueled weekly naming sessions, and unanimous approval is required.

As the Ford twins’ prowess at facial fixes grew, so did their company. Today Benefit Cosmetics can be found at 2,000 makeup counters and freestanding stores in almost 40 countries — including a flagship boutique in Mill Valley. And even as a $500 million–plus company that in 1999 was acquired by LVMH, it still feels like a small, family-run operation, in part because it is. Jean and Jane travel from their Marin home to Benefit’s San Francisco offices each day, and Jean’s daughters — Maggie Ford Danielson and Annie Ford Danielson — now work for the brand.

The younger Fords grew up in Marin watching their mom and aunt build their beauty business. “It’s really special, because it’s the same company it’s always been,” Maggie says. “But it’s grown into something so powerful and special, yet still retains that same vibe when I was three or four years old — which can’t be said for a lot of global makeup brands.”

While Jean and Jane most days are immersed in product development, packaging and customer relations, Annie and Maggie head up the Home Shopping Network part of the business; they also travel the world to attend meetings, store openings and press events. Annie says seeing her mom and aunt in action is one of the best parts of her job. “I get to see how Jean and Jane really have created this massive empire based on their personalities,” she says. “They walk into a room, and everyone is floored with their energy and creativity.”

The casserole idea may have been shelved, but the Fords aren’t looking back. “People always ask us how long we’re planning to work for Benefit, and we knew the minute we started we were in it for life,” Annie says.

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