/Ulta Beauty CEO Mary Dillon reflects on her career

Ulta Beauty CEO Mary Dillon reflects on her career

  • Mary Dillon, Ulta’s highly regarded CEO, is stepping down in June.
  • Her resignation comes at a critical juncture for Ulta.
  • Makeup sales were slowing in 2019, and the pandemic accelerated the trend.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

As one of the nation’s biggest cosmetics retailers and a go-to brand among teens, Ulta Beauty has an outsize effect on shaping the way women — particularly young women — see themselves. It is a responsibility that Mary Dillon, the company’s CEO, takes seriously.

When she arrived at the company in 2013, Ulta’s marketing was largely focused on white women and conventional portrayals of beauty. “We were steeped in the past,” she said.

Dillon made it a priority to increase representation in Ulta’s branding and products. And in the aftermath of Black Lives Matter protests, she strengthened the company’s commitments. She pledged to double the number of Black-owned brands on store shelves by the end of 2021 and invest $4 million in media campaigns featuring people of color, among other initiatives.

“We’re making great strides,” Dillon said. “But we’re not done.”

But in June, Dillon will be done: She’s stepping down as CEO to be replaced by Dave Kimbell, the company’s president. The transition, she said, is the result of “thorough succession planning.”

There’s no doubt that Dillon — who earned her business chops at PepsiCo, Quaker Oats, and McDonald’s and also spent three years as the CEO of US Cellular — left her mark on Ulta. During her eight-year run, she doubled the retailer’s store count, tripled the company’s market capitalization to more than $18 billion, and built a powerful e-commerce channel that helped solidify Ulta’s cult status among cosmetics devotees — whom Dillon refers to as “beauty enthusiasts.” She also pushed for internal cultural changes and led the charge on diversifying Ulta’s board.

Her departure comes at a critical juncture for the company. Makeup sales were slowing in 2019, and the pandemic accelerated the trend. (Why bother with lipstick when you’re stuck at home or wearing a mask?) In the past fiscal year, Ulta’s net sales declined 16.8%. Ulta is also locked in a battle for the $50 billion US beauty market.

Speaking from her home in suburban Chicago, Dillon reflected on her life, career, and tenure at Ulta. She was coy about whether she’d take another CEO job and said she had no definite plans. For now, she will serve another year as the executive chair of Ulta’s board and remain on the boards of two other companies: Starbucks and KKR, an investment firm. 

This interview was condensed and edited for clarity.

Describe your childhood.

We lived on the South Side of Chicago. My mother had all six of us within eight years. I was No. 4. My father worked in a steel factory. My mother stayed home. Where I grew up, everybody was pretty much the same — working class, you might say. 

I was super self-motivated. I was in the National Honor Society, and I worked a lot — as a bank teller, at an Osco drug store, and cleaning houses.

My parents knew it was important for us to go beyond high school, but we were on our own to figure that out. When I think back, the word that comes to mind is possibilities: Things are possible regardless of your background, connections, or education. I’m proud that I’m a first-generation college graduate.

Who were your early influences?

My oldest brother, Jack, was my role model. He was the oldest — a leader, and he pushed me. I lost him when we were young. He died when I was 16. My son is named for him.

As for professional role models, I didn’t know many women who worked when I was growing up. Most of my impressions about women’s careers were formed watching episodes of “Mary Tyler Moore.” It’s a feminist show. It’s very much about her job, pay equity, and doing good work. I took in as much as I could.

The announcement that you’re leaving Ulta in June took some analysts by surprise. How did you decide it was time to move on?

I’ve been a public-company CEO for 11 years, and I feel it’s the right time to go for a few reasons. One, the business is in great shape: We have good momentum, a differentiated model, and amazing brand partners. Two, the rest of the senior leadership team is supporting this transition. There’s no learning curve for Dave — he knows parts of the business better than I do because he’s run merchandising and marketing.

And for me personally, I am turning 60 next month. My husband, Terry, and I are celebrating 37 years of marriage. It’s time.  

You’ve often credited your husband’s support as being critical to your success.

He stayed home with our children for most of my career. I was pregnant with my second child and up for a big promotion. We thought we’d try it for a year. It was the best decision we ever made. We ended up having two more kids after that. 

Now that your four kids are grown, do you ever think back and wonder how you balanced building a thriving career with a busy family life? (This is a sexist question, I realize.)

If you’d asked me this four years ago, I’d have said, “Why am I still being asked this?” This question is asked almost exclusively of women, and the underlying tone is, “Did you feel guilty?” 

But with age comes wisdom: This question is still relevant, and generationally speaking, there’s a desire from both young men and women to be more involved in their children’s lives. I navigated these challenges when my kids were young in a supportive environment. Quaker was ahead of its time. Thirty-one years ago, I worked with another brand manager, and we happened to be pregnant at the same time. We created a business plan for a job share that allowed us to comanage a significant piece of the portfolio. It proved very successful for us individually and for the business. I also spent one day a week telecommuting, which gave me more control over my day because I didn’t have to commute.

After the pandemic, in most work environments, there’s a need to bring people back together in person. But I know firsthand there are big benefits to giving people a modicum of flexibility.

You’ve talked in the past about the importance of creating an inclusive workplace culture. How did you make sure the inclusivity is real and not just a buzzword?

I truly believe in the power of collaboration — colleagues talking to each other, solving problems, and getting to the best answers. There’s a notion that when you’re senior in corporate America, you have all the answers. But I do not know everything.

When I was a teenager working in the cosmetics department at Osco, I had points of view of what would make the business run easier or better. Our associates are the face of our business, and listening to them is the most important thing we can do. They should feel seen and heard.

What’s an example of how you help associates feel seen?

Early on, a stylist in one of our salons pointedly asked why we didn’t have more models with natural curly and coily hair. Most of our models were Caucasian. We weren’t representing the beautiful diversity of America — a country that is multiracial and multicultural and becoming more so all the time. So we took her feedback to heart. All of our campaigns now are diverse and feature people of color. We want all guests and associates to feel accepted and be represented.

The beauty industry — which has a shoddy track record on diversity and inclusion — has joined the wave of corporate support to show solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement. How do you view Ulta’s responsibility to address racial inequities?

Inclusivity is about larger commitments, smaller actions, and everything in between. We’re boosting spending to support Black-owned brands, investing in ways to amplify Black voices in beauty, and we asked Tracee Ellis Ross to join as our new diversity and inclusion advisor. It also comes back to listening to our associates’ needs, how they think we can improve, and what barriers exist for them. It allows us to meaningfully take action. 

Tracee Ellis Ross posed in what appears to be the same gown that she wore to the 2018 Emmys.

Tracee Ellis Ross, an actress and the founder of the hair-care line Pattern Beauty, has joined Ulta as its new diversity and inclusion advisor.

Axelle/Bauer-Griffin/FilmMagic


On your watch, Ulta’s board of directors has become much more racially and gender diverse. What does board diversity do for your business? 

There were two women on the board when I was hired, and we had no racial diversity. I knew right away we needed to change that. I asked Michelle Collins if she would consider joining our board. I also asked Mike Smith, Patricia Little, and Sally Blount

This isn’t about tokenism — it’s about making sure that the right questions get asked. It’s about helping us get smarter and sharper about how we show up in the marketplace. Younger shoppers care more about what a company stands for and does.

The pandemic caused many people to change their makeup, hair-care, and skin-care routines. Will those changes stick?

Beauty plays an emotional part in peoples’ lives — it’s a form of self-care. In some cases, people had more time to take care of themselves during the pandemic. People bought bath, shower, and fragrance products. Many people added skin-care routines and rituals. The categories that people discovered during the pandemic will stay with them.

Going forward, there’s a pent-up demand for celebration and fun. We’ll see growth in categories like hair color and lipstick. We’re still seeing high e-commerce demand, and guests are coming back to stores. Our beauty enthusiasts especially love to shop and engage in person. Beauty is physical — it’s about experimentation and playful inspiration. It’s finding something fun and exciting and something new. 

What’s one piece of advice you’d give your younger self?

Don’t be so hard on yourself. Women across the board are so hard on themselves. I tell this to my daughters who are in their own careers: Try to have some perspective. In the arc of your career, those things that might seem so hard in the moment — as long as you know that you’re trying to do the right thing for your people, for the business, and for yourself and family, it’s going to work out.

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