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Caswell-Massey marks 250 years of pleasing customers who have included U.S. presidents

Sweet smell of success

Sunday, May 12, 2002

By LaMont Jones, Post-Gazette Fashion Editor

George Washington may always be remembered as the cherry-tree-chopping, sword-brandishing first president of the United States.

To celebrate the company's 250th anniversary, Caswell-Massey has repackaged popular items such as No.6 Soap in a Tin (a favorite of George Washington) and English lavender perfume, which includes a history of the scent. (Martha Rial, Post-Gazette photos)

What many people don't know, however, is that Washington liked to smell good. One of his favorite fragrances was Number Six Cologne, a blend of rosemary, bergamot, orange blossoms and 28 other aromatics that is still made in its original formula by Caswell-Massey, America's Oldest Chemists and Perfumers.

Washington so loved the scent that he gave two cases of it to France's Marquis de Lafayette in 1780 as thanks for helping the United States win the Revolutionary War. The marquis, in turn, liked the cologne so much that he bought another case of it 40 years later when he visited the Caswell-Massey store in Newport, R.I.

Caswell-Massey is celebrating its 250th anniversary this year. Some historians say it's the fourth-oldest surviving company in the United States. The original owner, Dr. William Hunter, started the business in 1752 as an apothecary in Newport, R.I. In 1833, businessmen John Rose Caswell of Newport and William Massey of New York City bought the company; they changed its name to Caswell-Massey in 1876.

Since Washington, Caswell-Massey products have enjoyed a special place in nearly every White House administration. The Eisenhowers reportedly couldn't do without Almond Cold Cream Soap, and John F. Kennedy liked to wear Jockey Club cologne.

But "you don't have to be a president to love Caswell-Massey," says company CEO Anne Robinson.

The company's fragrances and toiletries also won a loyal following among Hollywood luminaries such as Carole Lombard, Greta Garbo, Judy Garland, Katharine Hepburn, Humphrey Bogart and George Gershwin.

Better hotels stock guest rooms with the products, and stores offer free samples and affordable trial sizes. Most Caswell-Massey products cost under $25.

"Instead of 'Don't touch,' it's 'Please enjoy,'" said Paula Mahoney, manager of the Caswell-Massey store in Fifth Avenue Place, Downtown, which opened in April 1988.

"We've had loyal customers for many, many years and are always getting more because of the quality of the products."

Renay Warren of the North Side began using Caswell-Massey products about 15 years ago, when she tried the almond soap and body lotion. They remain among her favorites, along with Elixir of Love candles scented with jasmine, passionflower and Egyptian musk.

"I had that candle lit last week for my niece's graduation party, and people were asking what the fragrance was," said Warren. "It's such a beautiful fragrance. Sometimes you can't really smell scented candles, but you can smell Elixir of Love throughout the house."

Almond-and-aloe products are the most popular at the Pittsburgh store, the only store in Pennsylvania and one of only 14 in the nation. The small shop has an alluring aroma because of hundreds of Caswell-Massey products and other respected bath, body and fragrance lines that mirror the store's antique feel, such as Ahava, Roger & Gallet from France, Mustela baby products from France and Biokosman herbal skin-care products from Switzerland.

Robinson -- not the acid-tongued host of "The Weakest Link" -- has run Caswell-Massey since 1995. When she took the reins, she says, the company was producing good products but had veered off course in other ways.

The store in Fifth Avenue Place, Downtown, is one of 14 shops in the United States that specializes in Caswell-Massey products. Manager Paula Mahoney, right, helps Sally Eggert of Baldwin make a gift selection. "We've had loyal customers for many, many years and are always getting more because of the quality of the products."

"We were falling down on serving the customer," she said. "When I came to the company, there were five separate divisions run by five separate heads focused on their business and not working together as a team. Today, we have one business. ... We have different ways that we sell the product, [but] we're all focused on selling the same products with the same message at the same price. I think it's a much more customer-focused business because now the customer responds to the product instead of different people pushing different products different ways."

Robinson, a Harvard Business School graduate, closed 15 unprofitable stores, fired a quarter of the staff and generally changed the corporate culture.

"When I came to Caswell-Massey, it was clear I had three things to work with: great products, very loyal customers and an amazing history."

But problems such as inconsistent availability of some products were causing "a lot of customer frustration," she said.

Today, all products are available in stores, via the catalog and online at www.caswellmassey.com. Packaging and presentation are consistent. And the company pledges never to run out of the most popular products, to ship all mail orders within 24 hours and to ensure that all shipped orders are complete.

"The customer gets to choose where and when they buy," said Robinson. "We want to eliminate every roadblock possible between them and buying the product."

Caswell-Massey had survived hard times before. During the 1920s, the company operated 10 successful stores in New York City alone. But the Great Depression took its toll, causing executives to cut back to a single store by 1932. That was the flagship store in New York City's Barclay Hotel, a swank hot spot with a soda fountain that opened in 1926 and quickly became a meeting place for such screen legends as Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall.

Robinson's future is more closely tied to her company's than that of the average chief executive. On Sept. 17, 1999, she completed a leveraged buyout of Caswell-Massey, gaining controlling interest in the company. She remembers signing the papers in a Manhattan office as Hurricane Floyd battered the city.

"Hopefully, that was the toughest day," she said, half-jokingly.

The company's focus now is customer satisfaction.

Some retired products have been reintroduced based on customer demand. Musk-scented Persian Leather cologne for men is back, for example, with matching soap coming this fall. And English Lavender Bath Soap, one of the company's best-selling soaps, will soon be available in larger, bath-size bars.

Employees are encouraged to be sensitive to customer demands and are rewarded for good ideas, said Robinson.

She has heightened the company's visibility in efforts to win new customers. Caswell-Massey donated castille soap, horn combs, straight razors and other toiletries and grooming products for use in the filming of "Frontier House," a PBS reality-based television show that premiered April 29. The plot revolved around three contemporary families who traveled back in time to live in Montana homesteads in the 1880s.

The company also has teamed with Miramax Films to give away English Lavender products in conjunction with promotion of "The Importance of Being Earnest," which opens Friday. Products will be given away at the film's premiere tomorrow in New York, and moviegoers in the 14 markets can take their ticket stubs to a store through June 15 for a 15 percent discount on merchandise.

And the Casma fragrance has been nominated for a Fragrance Foundation of America award (FiFi) this year in the fragrance, bath and body category. The perfume, with notes of rose, jasmine, magnolia, vanilla, plum and ginger, was launched in 1922 and reintroduced with updated packaging last year.

Caswell-Massey is celebrating its 250th anniversary with a dozen commemorative products, such as the Presidential Soap Collection of three triple-milled soaps ($22), miniature Model T Caswell-Massey trucks ($12), peppermint tins ($4) and colorful keepsake calendars full of company trivia ($8). There are also 1-ounce limited collector's editions of 33 fragrances ($50 each), some of which had been retired.

Coming in August is "Gifts of the Sea," a line of products infused with sea kelp, sea minerals and sea salts.

"We want to get it out sooner, but quality takes time," said Robinson, who was raised in Akron, Ohio, and later in Princeton, N.J.

Robinson plans to open two new stores each year. She said she's banking on the company's fascinating history, not just likable products, to keep attracting customers.

"We need to connect their heart and their mind to this wonderful company, and that's the challenge. We want them to love the company's history as much as the products."

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