Having recently moved, I had cable installed this past weekend. While I don’t have a DVR yet, I’m still keeping an eye out for business-, innovation-, leadership-, and technology-oriented programming. Last night, the show to watch was Tupperware!, which aired on PBS as part of American Experience.
Director Laurie Kahn Leavitt couched the documentary in the World War II era message of self-initiative and -realization. Needing new sources of income, women were attracted to the Tupperware party‘s revenue model, as well as the program’s emphasis on self-development. Given her relation to a southern union organizer, Wise was uniquely positioned — her circuit-riding inspiration and entrepreneurial idealism helped develop home-party selling, which drew on the natural networks of women. Tupperware parties became many women’s primary social outlet.
Wise convinced Tupper that delayed distribution was hurting the business and that the home party method was the solution. She took control of sales, enlisting a veritable army of independent saleswomen, creating a “monument to salesmanship” in Florida, and introducing new traditions, such as the annual Jubilee.
Her staff meetings were grassroots brainstorming sessions. “Like Brownie said while traveling to develop the staff, ‘If we build the people, we’ll build the business,'” one saleswoman remembered. Saleswomen were featured in the company newsletter, Tupperware Sparks. Women recruited other women to become saleswomen. “You recruit someone like yourself,” one woman said. In addition, every single prototype was tested by Elsie Mortland.
Publicity grew, and Wise was the first woman featured on the cover of BusinessWeek. While sales had been pegged as a hustle, Tupperware ladies were, well, ladies, complete with gloves and hats. Tupper avoided the Jubilee sales events, but the company’s growing success was apparent. Somes saleswomen made millions and gained additional responsibilities.
When a saleswoman became a distributor, her role expanded to her husband. Entire families relocated — even to Fort Wayne, Indiana — for the opportunity to move up. Wise coached women on potential gender conflicts and recognized that “Tupperware, a company built by women, was ultimately run by men.” Some critics speculate that the addition of regional management sparked that shift. Others say that Wise began to believe her own press notices — and that “her whole life was the business.”
Eventually, Wise’s leadership — female leadership — of the company came into question. In the late ’50s, production disagreements escalated into terse dismissals of “wide consumer demand.” Management disagreements between Tupper and Wise grew into personal detachment — perhaps related to her book deal — and leadership gaps grew. Suitors approached Tupper, who “wanted to sell the company but couldn’t sell it with a woman at the head of it.”
In 1957, Tupper challenged Wise on her expenses and the sales meetings. Wise refused to comply with his demands, and the power struggle peaked. Wise’s cousin claims she fell and injured herself. Another source says Wise was fired. Another indicates that she was let go for a monetary discrepancy. Wise had no contract. She had no employement agreement. Internal politics spelled her end. “The queen was gone,” as one person said.
Ironically, the first Jubilee after Wise’s departure had a pirate theme. Wise tried to rebound by founding Cinderella Cosmetics, hoping that much of her grassroots sales force would join her, but Tupperware dealers declined to follow her to the new company. “Not a soul stood up and walked out the door.” Saleswomen stuck with the parent company, and Wise lost her job, her sales force, and her fans. After a year, Cinderella turned into a pumpkin.
Wise was also practically expunged from the company’s history. “No one seemed to know who Brownie was. They erased her right from their files.” Some say that the legend shouldn’t have continued — that any cult of personality is dangerous. But the documentary raises some interesting questions. Tupper sold the company to Rexall in 1958 and moved to South America. Was this a leadership struggle? A succession disagreement? Should Wise have negotiated a contract? How else can we apply the lessons of this grassroots sales story? Wise died in 1992, but her sales ideas live on.