Lift­ing the lid on the woman who trans­formed Tup­per­ware

The Washington Post Sunday - - BOOK WORLD - RE­VIEW BY ME­GAN MCDONOUGH

When Tup­per­ware — the nowu­biq­ui­tous plas­tic-con­tainer brand — first hit re­tail stores in 1945, it sat on the shelves gath­er­ing dust. The new kitchen help­mate needed to be demon­strated and ex­plained to con­sumers.

“The prod­uct it­self was rev­o­lu­tion­ary,” Bob Keal­ing writes in “Life of the Party.” “Now it just needed some­one equally in­no­va­tive to fig­ure out how to sell it.”

En­ter Brownie Wise, the trail­blaz­ing en­tre­pre­neur and ex­ec­u­tive whose mar­ket­ing ge­nius and sales method of tar­get­ing women trans­formed Tup­per­ware into the in­ter­na­tional, bil­lion-dol­lar busi­ness it is to­day.

Keal­ing’s book, orig­i­nally re­leased un­der the ti­tle “Tup­per­ware, Un­sealed” in 2008, has been re­vamped to fea­ture Wise even more promi­nently along­side Tup­per­ware founder and in­ven­tor Earl Si­las Tup­per. Ex­haus­tively re­searched and skill­fully de­tailed, Keal­ing’s thor­ough and en­gross­ing ac­count chron­i­cles the pair’s un­likely, dy­namic and of­ten tu­mul­tuous re­la­tion­ship, and Wise’s me­te­oric rise and sub­se­quent pre­cip­i­tous fall from grace within the com­pany she made a suc­cess.

Keal­ing aptly de­scribes how, be­fore be­com­ing the face and force be­hind Tup­per­ware, Wise, a di­vorcee and strug­gling sin­gle mom, worked as an ex­ec­u­tive sec­re­tary in Detroit and sold Stan­ley Home Prod­ucts — mops, clean­ers, de­ter­gents — to sup­ple­ment her in­come. Although she would even­tu­ally be­come a sales leader at Stan­ley, she was ad­mon­ished by her men­tor, the com­pany’s founder, that man­age­ment wasn’t a place for women.

Wise then dis­cov­ered Tup­per­ware and re­al­ized first­hand the im­por­tance of hand­son home demon­stra­tions to ef­fec­tively pro­mote the prod­uct when she ac­ci­den­tally bumped a Tup­per­ware bowl to the floor: It bounced and did not break. Right away, she re­al­ized its dura­bil­ity as a key fea­ture of its mar­ketabil­ity.

She had found her niche. Cap­i­tal­iz­ing on her ex­pe­ri­ence at Stan­ley, she be­gan buy­ing and sell­ing Tup­per­ware in­de­pen­dently. She in­ge­niously re­cruited sub­ur­ban housewives to sell the prod­uct at large gath­er­ings of friends, rel­a­tives and neigh­bors in their homes, which soon be­came so­cial events.

In turn, they re­ceived mer­chan­dise, a share of the pro­ceeds and per­sonal recog­ni­tion. Her motto? “Build the peo­ple, and they’ll build the busi­ness.”

The growth was im­me­di­ate and ex­plo­sive: Within her first year of sell­ing in­de­pen­dently, her team gar­nered more than $85,000 in Tup­per­ware or­ders (close to $850,000 to­day), out­selling depart­ment stores across the coun­try.

Tup­per, notic­ing her re­mark­able sales, saw an op­por­tu­nity and as­tutely pulled Tup­per­ware off store shelves. He piv­oted the com­pany’s strat­egy to cap­i­tal­ize on Wise’s home par­ties and pro­moted her to gen­eral sales man­ager.

By the mid-1950s, Tup­per­ware was em­ploy­ing more than 10,000 peo­ple, mostly women. Sell­ing Tup­per­ware gave home­mak­ers an op­por­tu­nity to work and ex­cel out­side the tra­di­tional do­mes­tic sphere. “Tup­per­ware ex­ec­u­tives had the shrewd no­tion — un­tried in any or­ga­ni­za­tion be­fore them — that women would power the en­gine of this home-sell­ing rev­o­lu­tion,” Keal­ing writes. “And they did.”

By 1958, the com­pany had hit $10 mil­lion in sales (more than $80 mil­lion in 2016 dol­lars). Tup­per­ware and Wise were quickly be­com­ing house­hold names. Wise was also be­com­ing a PR maven, plan­ning buzz-wor­thy events such as the com­pany’s an­nual Home­com­ing Ju­bilees. The four-day events, de­signed for Tup­per­ware’s na­tional top earn­ers, were fa­mously enor­mous, ex­trav­a­gant and elab­o­rate, filled with classes, mo­ti­va­tional speak­ers and more than $75,000 in prizes.

In 1954, Wise was the first woman to grace the cover of Busi­ness Week. The story dubbed her a “Prophet in Plas­tic.” As Keal­ing writes, “She showed oth­ers like her a golden road to a bet­ter life paved through sub­ur­ban Amer­ica.”

But Tup­per’s dis­plea­sure with Wise’s self­pro­mo­tion caused their re­la­tion­ship, once col­lab­o­ra­tive and con­ge­nial, to sour. Don Hinton, a former Tup­per­ware ad­ver­tis­ing ex­ec­u­tive, ex­plained that Tup­per “was jeal­ous of her be­cause she was the queen of Tup­per­ware and he was noth­ing.”

This, cou­pled with a se­ries of mis­steps that Keal­ing re­counts, led to her ouster from the com­pany she ef­fec­tively built. In 1958, she was abruptly fired and tossed aside like last week’s left­overs, with no stock, only a year’s salary (al­most $35,000 to­day) and a non­com­pete con­tract, while Tup­per left the busi­ness just a year later with $16 mil­lion.

In 1992, Wise died at the age of 79 in Kis­sim­mee, Fla., rel­a­tively un­known and un­cel­e­brated. Yet her pro­found im­pact on the com­pany and its iconic Amer­i­can prod­uct is still ev­i­dent, with home par­ties con­tin­u­ing as Tup­per­ware’s main mar­ket­ing strat­egy. Her sales tech­niques also paved the way for other suc­cess­ful big-name com­pa­nies, such as Mary Kay and Avon.

Keal­ing’s book is a much-de­served trib­ute to Wise, shed­ding light on the life and legacy of this ground­break­ing, for­mi­da­ble and vi­sion­ary woman.

Me­gan McDonough is a wed­dings and obit­u­ary writer for The Wash­ing­ton Post.

BROWNIE WISE PA­PERS, AR­CHIVES CEN­TER, NA­TIONAL MU­SEUM OF AMER­I­CAN HIS­TORY

Brownie Wise demon­strates Tup­per­ware at a “home party” on a beach in Hawaii in the 1950s. Wise pi­o­neered the sales tech­nique, which pro­pelled Tup­per­ware to suc­cess.

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