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The divine secrets of the Benefit sisterhood

By Heather Wood Rudulph

Maggie and Annie Ford Danielson are making a mark on the San Francisco-based cosmetics company their mother and aunt co-founded in 1976. Nine years ago, the younger duo had been nervous to take on leadership roles there. Says Maggie: “Once you join the family business you can never go back.”

The Sansome Street building is as nondescript as the other commercial high-rises in the Financial District: a simple rectangular pillar covered in glass windows with boutiques and bodegas on the street level selling prepackaged sushi and mini succulents in painted clay pots that make quick gifts for a coworker’s birthday. But once you exit the elevator on the sixth floor, home to one of San Francisco’s oldest independent beauty brands, you enter a different world.

The first thing you notice is the pink—it’s everywhere, covering the walls, encasing the furniture in the reception area, even the lighting seems to emit a subtle rosy glow. Being surrounded by so much pink produces a calming effect. There is psychological merit to this feeling. In the 1960s researchers in Seattle experimented with pink immersion, wherein test subjects were surrounded by nothing but the color pink, as if they were suspended in a chewing-gum bubble. The results of these tests proved that color can alter one’s mood, and even affect brain chemistry to induce a sense of contentment. Simply put: The color pink makes people feel happy.

It’s fitting then that the headquarters of Benefit Cosmetics would be swathed in the color associated with laughter. Looking at the flirty, feminine packaging of its products—from mini gift boxes that hold shimmer powder to tins of scented body balm featuring retro pinup art on the lids—Benefit’s slogan, “Laughter is the best cosmetic,” seems more like a directive than a mantra.

And there is laughter here, almost as ever present as the pink. The receptionist offers a warm smile and soft giggle to a visitor. Co-workers strutting down the pink hallways to glass-walled offices freely guffaw, mouths open, heads tilted back, void of any self-consciousness. In the center of it all, Maggie and Annie Ford Danielson are smiling big, bathed in pink lighting, standing in front of a photo wall decorated with images of their mother and aunt, and of themselves. It serves as both family legacy and company history.

Maggie and Annie are the daughters of Jean Ford, who, along with her twin sister, Jane, founded the tiny beauty shop that would expand to nearly 2,000 boutiques around the world. Since 2008 the younger set of sisters have served as the faces—and marketing minds—of the now-iconic brand that began with a coin toss.

During the mid-1970s, San Francisco was the epicenter of social change. But as women were casting off their bras and eschewing lipstick in the name of fighting against a society that too often valued aesthetics over intellect, Jean and Jane disrupted the beauty industry, and gave it a feminist edge not even they knew it needed.

The Ford twins grew up in Indiana, and had a brief modeling career in New York (they can be seen in those iconic “Calgon, take me away!” campaigns) before moving to San Francisco to forge a new life. Unable to decide between their shared loves of casseroles and makeup, the sisters tossed a coin and decided to open a beauty boutique. It sounds flip, made-up even, to make such a move based on a whim. But whimsical is what set the Ford sisters apart from the cosmetics brands of the era.

“The thing about our mom and aunt is they are not big planners,” says Maggie, 36, the eldest of the two younger Ford sisters. “They go by their gut feeling. They really just wanted a business where they could connect with people.”

“I believe that if they did end up picking casseroles we’d probably still be sitting here talking to you about a company that sells a billion casseroles a year,” adds Annie, 30. “They are just such innate saleswomen that it didn’t matter what they chose. There’s no doubt they would have become successful.”

Jean and Jane opened The Face Place in the Mission District in 1976, giving facials and makeup lessons and developing products that helped women enhance or conceal common beauty dilemmas such as under-eye circles or thinning brows. The Face Place’s first signature product—which is now called BeneTint and still a bestseller—was created to help an exotic dancer darken her nipples.

Over four decades, Jean and Jane grew The Face Place from a small boutique into an international empire—renamed Benefit Cosmetics in 1990. Nine years later, when they sold their company to Paris-based luxury conglomerate LVMH for an undisclosed sum, Jean-André Rougeot took over as CEO—but Jean and Jane stayed on to shepherd the direction of the brand. And when they retired in 2012, the siblings—now living in houses across the street from each another in Tiburon—left their legacy in the hands of Maggie and Annie.

Sitting side by side in a peony-colored conference room in the Benefit offices, Maggie and Annie seem to share a twin-like closeness. They finish each other’s sentences, filling in the blanks of stories they’ve told before but delight in still: Maggie toddling around The Face Place in the early days watching her mother do makeup; Annie being asked to test new products on her sensitive skin to check for any reactions; each helping their mother design window displays and showing up to school the next day covered in glitter and glue. They resemble Jean and Jane in stature—six feet tall without heels—and their dark, sharp features could have landed the two modeling contracts. They even wear the same jewelry (clover earrings and bracelets by Van Cleef & Arpels) given to them by their mother and aunt, who’ve treated their successors as if they were twins—junior versions of themselves.

Maggie and Annie grew up as Benefit did, so their ascent to the forefront of the brand seems predestined, but none of them ever expected it to turn out this way. In fact, this in-your-face closeness between sisters, aunts and mothers pushed them apart, at least temporarily.

Maggie went to Boston to study economics and French, and then worked in marketing in New York City for 10 years. Annie, who is six years younger than her sister, attended UCLA without giving much thought to what she’d do for a career after graduation. In 2008, Maggie began to contemplate a change. She called her sister and pitched an idea: Why don’t the two of them work for Benefit?

“I was like, Mom’s Benefit? Are you serious?” says Annie, who at the time had just graduated with an art history degree and was contemplating grad school. “We had never talked about it, in fact we didn’t talk much at all then. We weren’t very close. But Maggie was obviously much more mature and organized in her life, and she had put a lot of thought into it. All I knew at the time was that Mom told me I needed to get a job and pay my own rent. And so I was like, OK, let’s do it.”

“To be honest, I was a little scared. Once you join the family business you can never go back,” Maggie says. “So you have to really want it. It’s more than just a job. It’s a reflection of you, and of your family.”

The Benefit heiresses knew the company’s history—they lived it—but they weren’t going to be handed a cushy job based on lineage alone. Jean and Jane made sure they paid their dues.

“I always thought that somewhere there was this plan in their head (for us to join the company), but they never mentioned it,” Annie says. “They never said, ‘We’re so happy you’re here!’ It was all tough love. They wanted us to work hard and to want to be here.”

Maggie started as a glorified gopher in New York, schlepping products from store to store. Annie worked behind the counter at the Chestnut Street Benefit boutique, which she calls “the hardest job of my life.”

In 2009 Maggie and Annie were called into a meeting with the CEO. He wanted to bring Benefit to the home shopping audience via HSN—and he wanted Maggie and Annie to host the segments.

“I remember the meeting we had where Jean-André said he wanted to put us on air and I thought, What a big mistake,” says Annie. “But I started to get really excited. I thought I was going to become a big superstar. And then he said, ‘And it’s live.’ My heart sunk. I was terrified.”

The sisters proved to be naturals on camera, performing makeovers on models and morning show hosts, just as they had done on each other growing up. Since their debut, HSN sales have increased 56 percent year after year, according to the brand. Maggie now serves as the account director for HSN. Annie, who changes her job every five years to tackle a new challenge, makes HSN appearances with her sister and serves as the company’s keeper of brand DNA. Both are global beauty authorities for the company, charged with sharing the history of their family brand and traveling the world to promote Benefit’s philanthropy through the Bold Is Beautiful campaign, which raises money for women and girls around the world.

“Our mom and aunt are both very strong-willed women,” says Annie. “I don’t think they ever thought, I’m a woman, I have to work extra hard to make this happen. They just thought, I’m going to make this happen. Growing up with that gave Maggie and me a lot of confidence.”

They share stories about Jane in a board meeting of all men, haggling over $10,000 she needed for a project. Fed up, she took off her watch, flung it across the table and said, “Here’s your ten grand.” They laugh now at how Jean and Jane created a culture of respect in the office, once instituting a ban on ponytails, making employees eschew the low-key hairstyle for years. “They liked to mess with people big-time just to keep them on their toes,” Annie says. “I feel a responsibility to keep that presence, but hopefully not by scaring people.”

“There are so many times,” she adds, “when Maggie and I will be in meetings with people who have worked really closely with Jean and Jane and one of them will say, ‘Oh my gosh, that was spot-on like your mother!’ In that moment I gulp. But then I think, hells yeah!”

Focused on bringing Benefit into the future, the two bring a flair for social media­. (See: Benefit’s Instagram, which boasts almost 6 million followers.) Maggie notes that television marketing will remain a strong focus—expect to see the sisters on HSN for the foreseeable future—and the company will never lose sight of the things that made it famous in the first place, from the infamous BeneTint and the company’s innovating brow bars (1,056 locations and counting) to its origins in San Francisco.

“This is the only city where our brand could happen,” Maggie says. “Benefit has always been an outlier of the beauty industry, and it wouldn’t have worked in a city like New York or Paris. You have multiple personalities in one city, and it’s also a city where there are no rules. You can be yourself, and our brand has always been about that.”

After talking business for more than an hour, the sisters are feeling inspired. Annie wants to work through lunch with her sister to hash out new ideas. Maggie, still on maternity leave with her second child, agrees but stresses time management. Before they go, Annie offers the best piece of advice she ever received from her mother, Jean.

“She says it to me all the time: Just do the next right thing,” Annie says. “Whether it’s for yourself, your kids, each other, or for the brand, just do what’s right without letting fear, an agenda, or laziness talk you out of it. I hear her voice in my head and it eats me alive. But it’s also why I think every morning: I need to kick a little ass today.”

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