As Tupperware hit the headline news today, Giles and I thought it the perfect time to share the story of Brownie Wise – The Queen of Tupperware.
Giles usually cites Brownie’s story as one of his favourites in the Wonder Women book as it’s such a good example of women succeeding in the face of prejudice. I love it because she helped so many women towards financial independence and success. An example of how women inspire other women.
In 1949 Brownie started throwing home parties to sell Tupperware. It was a move to spark a mini revolution. Tupperware didn’t just help extend the life of leftovers, it was to become a career maker for Brownie and millions of other women.
After being told she would never become an executive because its halls were ‘no place for a woman’, she became General Manager of a newly created division for home parties because this approach to selling was so successful. Then in 1954, she was the first woman to appear on the cover of Business Week.
But it didn’t all end well for Brownie – here’s the full story:
In 1956, the Houston Post reported: “It has been estimated that Brownie Wise has helped more women to financial success than any other single living person.”
But who was Brownie Wise and what was the brand on which her and so many other women’s success was built?
Brownie’s was born in rural Georgia. Her parents divorced and, as a teen, she travelled with her mother, who organized union rallies. It was on these trips that Brownie started giving speeches and soon proved to be an extraordinarily gifted and motivating orator.
The next stage on her path to success started with a bad door-to-door salesman. When a Stanley Home Products salesman knocked on her door and proceeded to deliver a terrible sales pitch for cleaning supplies, Wise scoffed and said she could do better.
By coincidence, Stanley had just started experimenting with home parties as a sales method and the salesman said if Brownie was so sure of herself why didn’t she show them what she could do. She jumped at the chance and started selling Stanley products at parties. Before long she was making enough money to quit her secretarial job. She continued to rise up through the ranks,
and she was soon in management and hoping to ascend even higher. However, those aspirations were quashed at a meeting with Stanley’ head, Frank Beveridge, who told her she’d never become an executive. Its halls were “no place for a woman,” he said.
She was furious and started to look for other opportunities. It was a near-accident at a sales meeting that was to give her inspiration. One of her coworkers had seen some plastic storage tubs gathering dust in a department store and decided to bring them in. At first Wise didn’t think they were anything special, but when she accidentally knocked a bowl off the table, it bounced instead of breaking, and the contents remained safe inside. Brownie saw the potential there and then.
She left Stanley, and in 1949 started throwing parties to sell Tupperware. It was a move that was to spark a mini-revolution; Tupperware didn’t just help extend the life of leftovers, it was to become a career maker for Brownie and millions of other women.
Many of the women who came to one of Wise’s parties were convinced not only to buy the products but to become Tupperware salespeople themselves.
As she hosted more and more parties, Brownie discovered more and more ways to convert women into Tupperware loyalists and advocates. She found that putting people on waiting lists, something she was initially reluctant to do, actually made them more eager to buy.
She quickly amassed outstanding sales, but more importantly, she started to build her team of more and more salespeople, and they in turn built their own networks. Soon, other Tupperware parties were taking place across the country. Wise’s team in Detroit was selling more Tupperware than most department stores. This soon attracted the attention of the founder of the Tupperware Corporation, Earl Silas Tupper.
He offered her a promotion: distribution rights for the entire state of Florida. In the spring of 1950, she moved south with her son and mother.
However, things didn’t go as smoothly as she hoped; there were disputes over turf with other distributors, but what annoyed her most was that she was constantly contending with botched orders, shipping delays and product shortages.
In March 1951, Wise had had enough. She called Tupper in a fury and demanded action – this was hurting not just her bottom line, but also his. Tupper listened and assured her that he’d fix the issues but wanted a favour: to hear her sales secrets and thoughts on growing the business.
The next month, the two met at a conference on Long Island and Wise explained her belief in the power of parties where people could touch Tupperware, squeeze it, drop it and seal it in the company of trusted friends or neighbours. With regard to growing the business, her suggestion was radical: ditch department stores altogether and focus entirely on throwing home parties.
Tupper took the advice to heart and the day after their meeting, he created a new division just for home parties and asked Wise to be the general manager. The halls of Tupperware executives weren’t closed to women. Her stellar track record continued – she was selling more Tupperware than anyone anywhere.
The new approach saw Tupperware sales rocket, and wholesale orders exceeded $2 million in 1952. Tupper increased her salary to $20,000 and, on her birthday in 1953, he presented her with a gold-dyed palomino horse. He also gave her the freedom to do practically whatever she wanted.
Wise started travelling the country recruiting, presiding over sales conferences and announcing contests and doling out prizes as an incentive – including, sometimes, her own clothes.
The beauty of selling Tupperware at parties for many women was it allowed them to be employed, yet not appear to challenge their husbands’ authority or the status quo in what was still a very traditional, male-dominated world. The parties allowed women to contribute to their family’s bottom line. Wise embraced the spirit of female entrepreneurship wholeheartedly, she wrote a newsletter called Tupperware Sparks, published a primer called Tupperware Know-How, and had a 52-minute film, A Tupperware Home Party, made as a training tool
Wise had become the face of Tupperware, the result of her success, but unfortunately it also sowed the seeds of discontent with Tupper. In 1954, she was the first woman to appear on the cover of Business Week. The magazine’s profile was glowing, to say the least. It credited Wise and her sales technique with Tupperware’s estimated $25 million in retail sales while seeming to downplay Tupper’s role as president of the company he had created.
Tupper had never craved the spotlight for himself; in fact, he was known to use the back door of his office. He believed the focus should be on the product and not the employees. After the Business Week article, Tupper sent a note to Wise: “However good an executive you are, I still like best the pictures … with TUPPERWARE!”
It was the beginning of the end. Their relationship started to deteriorate and, in 1958, Tupper fired Wise. After a heated legal battle, she received only $30,000 as a settlement. She had no stock in the company.
Tupper ordered her name expunged from the company history. Later that year, he sold the company to Rexall Drug for $16 million.
Wise tried starting new companies but never achieved the same success she had with Tupperware. She ended up leading a quiet and content life, knowing she had contributed so much to the financial success of so many women. She died at her home in 1992.