Lillian Lets It Fly in New York

New York–Catalog pioneer Lillian Vernon spoke about life, love, work, and Martha Stewart to a packed luncheon crowd at the Direct Marketing Club of New York on Jan. 8.

Vernon, the founding chairman of the eponymous Rye, NY-based company she sold to ZelnickMedia and Ripplewood Holdings last year, didn’t bother to sugarcoat her message. On work: “Find your passion, and work hard. If it’s something that will make you get out of bed in the morning, then do it. But if you have a husband who wants you home at seven o’clock cooking dinner, it probably won’t work.”

Several times during the question-and-answer session, a feisty Vernon wouldn’t answer questions or cagily interrupted the moderator. In one exchange, the moderator said, “I’ve read in your book…” Vernon interjected, “Did you buy it?”

At another point, the moderator asked, “Can you help us understand how to diversify sales between channels?” Vernon’s reply: “No.”

Vernon, 76, has come a long way from that initial space ad in “Seventeen” magazine in 1951 that netted $32,000 in sales on a $500 investment. “Things are different today,” she said. “Our online business makes up 35% of our sales—and that’s doubled in the last year. And who would have thought that possible [years ago]?”

Only a recent knee replacement surgery is slowing her down. She’s writing a weekly business column for Scripps-Howard News Service, has begun writing another book, and goes into the office at least four days a week.

When asked if she had any advice for another iconic merchant, Martha Stewart, Vernon said flatly, “Martha gives advice, she doesn’t take advice.”

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