The Mentors Who Helped Ulta Beauty’s Unlikely CEO Make Up For Her Inexperience

In Personal Board of Directors, top business leaders talk about the people they turn to for advice and how those people have shaped their perspective and helped them succeed. Previous episodes of the series are here.

Mary Dillon has often been the unexpected choice over her decades-long career, even when she was chosen as the CEO of Ulta Beauty Inc. in 2013. She lacked the extensive retail experience that the board members had originally sought. She says she felt “determined to prove that the right choice had been made”.

During Ms Dillon’s eight-year career in the top job, the major US beauty retailer’s market capitalization nearly tripled to more than $18 billion. The number of stores has doubled. Now 60, Ms. Dillon remains its executive president.

Founded in 1990, Ulta Beauty revolutionized the way customers shop for beauty products by pulling items out from behind cases for them to pick up and try on. The Bolingbrook, Illinois company today offers more than 600 cosmetics, fragrance and hair care brands in approximately 1,300 stores. The retailer has significantly expanded its range of luxury brands during Ms Dillon’s tenure.

Organic Bits

  • Age: 60
  • Education: Bachelor of Marketing from the University of Illinois at Chicago
  • Family: Husband Terry; adult children Jack, Maggie, Moira and Fiona
  • Worst piece of advice you’ve ever received: Women shouldn’t be ambitious
  • New WFH hobby since the start of the pandemic: Family Pickleball
  • The last TV show she binge-watched: “Succession” and “Ted Lasso”, because one balances the other
  • Favorite sports team: Chicago White Sox

His childhood, however, was far from luxurious. Her parents – a steelworker and housewife – raised Ms. Dillon and her five siblings in a Chicago bungalow with a single bathroom for much of her youth. She first flew when she was 16.

She partly paid for her marketing degree from the University of Illinois at Chicago by serving at a burger joint, cleaning apartments and tutoring.

Ms. Dillon chose a business major because “I knew I had to get a job right out of school,” says the first-generation graduate. “I didn’t even know what a frame was.”

Quaker Oats Co. quickly selected Ms. Dillon for its brand management training program. The aspiring marketer was the first undergraduate degree entrant without an Ivy League pedigree.

Ms. Dillon got her first leadership position with Quaker when she was 27 years old. PepsiCo Inc.

acquired her employer in 2001. She eventually moved on to run Pepsi’s Quaker Foods division.

Despite her lack of global experience, she went on to lead global marketing for McDonald’s Corp.

The mother-of-four created a global moms advisory group to gather consumer feedback on nutritional issues. She also tried to improve the restaurant chain’s nutritional image with parents by revamping children’s Happy Meal options around the world, with the goal of making them healthier.

In 2010, Ms. Dillon made a sea change in the industry by accepting the position of CEO at US Cellular Corp.

, a wireless carrier. She knew next to nothing about selling cell phones when she took the job.

During Ulta Beauty’s subsequent search for a new leader, an outside executive recruiter recommended her because she could offer a fresh perspective, according to Ms. Dillon. She had previously spent little time in her stores.

She immediately focused on expanding the company’s e-commerce efforts, streamlining supply chains, and opening distribution centers. E-commerce accounted for more than 30% of sales in the fiscal year ended January 30, 2021, compared to 4% in its inaugural year.

The pandemic has brought heartbreaking dilemmas for the head of Ulta Beauty. Ms Dillon had to lay off 30,000 of her 44,000 employees and close all stores for nearly two months. “I remember being very stressed,” she says.

She visited the corner office twice, assisted by convincing advice from people she trusted. The mentors also taught him to “look for ways to help [other] for people to succeed,” says Ms. Dillon.

Here are four advisors who guided the career ascent of this often unlikely choice:

Andy McKenna

Chairman Emeritus of McDonald’s Corp.

Mr. McKenna has known Ms. Dillon since she joined McDonald’s in 2005, where he then chaired the board. He told Ms Dillon she should keep her style simple because “that’s what sets you apart”. Her honest and direct approach “leaves no doubt about what she was saying and meant,” recalls Mr. McKenna.

His comments persuaded Ms. Dillon to give an informative but entertaining speech to thousands of franchisees at a McDonald’s convention in 2008. She even refused to use the voice coach provided by the company, Ms. Dillon said: “I did it my way.”

She listened to Mr. McKenna again after taking over Ulta Beauty. “Your company doesn’t have a diverse board, and it really should,” he told Ms. Dillon.

Mr. McKenna introduced her to Michelle Collins, a black executive he knew. Ms Collins was the first person of color appointed to Ulta Beauty’s board of directors.

Sol Trujillo

President of Trujillo Group LLC and President of Latino Donor Collaborative

They met while sitting at the same table at a Pepsi leadership development program in 2002. She was vice president of marketing for several Pepsi brands and he was a member of the Pepsi board of directors.

“What exactly does a board do? Ms. Dillon asked Mr. Trujillo when they first met. Looking back, she said she realized that “that’s probably not a question a vice president should be asking!”

Mr. Trujillo, a telecommunications industry veteran, later encouraged Ms. Dillon to become CEO of US Cellular. He suggested Ms Dillon make sure “she understands her clients better than anyone”, he says. “I saw her transforming the wireless business first” and then Ulta Beauty.

Mr. Trujillo has also broadened his understanding of the power of Latino consumers in the United States. “She took the [advice] at heart, which has led to peak growth for Ulta,” he says.

Anne Mulcahy

Former President and CEO of Xerox Corp.

The longtime Xerox executive — and head of Target Corp. – taught Ms. Dillon how to effectively express her point of view in board meetings once Ms. Dillon landed her first position as a corporate director at Target in 2007. Ms. Mulcahy’s attorney brought Ms. Dillon to share her thoughts on marketing, e-commerce and other areas of expertise.

When Ms Dillon stepped down as CEO of Ulta Beauty in June 2021, Ms Mulcahy offered that she be very picky about her future pursuits. This idea “definitely came from my own learning and mistakes,” says the former CEO of Xerox. “I just said ‘yes’ to too many things” after his 2009 retirement from the top spot at Xerox.

Ms. Dillon is committed to pursuing her passion for “helping people see what is possible”. For example, she recently joined the board of directors of startup Daily Harvest, a subscription dining service launched and run by a woman.

Tracee Ellis Ross

Actress, producer and CEO of Pattern Beauty

The executives bonded during talks in 2018 during which Ms. Ross chose Ulta as the first retail partner for Pattern Beauty. Founded by the black actress, Pattern Beauty offers hair care products for people with curly, frizzy and tightly textured hair.

But black-owned brands “can’t make do with space on the [retailer’s] shelf,” Ms. Ross later told her mentee. “We need to see the diversity that exists in the world reflected in organizations at the executive leadership and middle management level.”

Ms Ross, a star of the ABC show ‘Black-ish’, warned Ms Dillon against looking at everything through a corporate lens. Increased diversity often requires looking at spaces where entrenched inequalities “are hard to see,” insists Ross.

Among other things, Ms. Dillon chose her as Ulta Beauty’s first Diversity and Inclusion Advisor. “Tracee brings a unique perspective” in driving greater internal accountability for critical diversity initiatives, she adds.

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Write to Joann S. Lublin at [email protected]

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