Episode 11: Ian Ginsberg, President of C.O. Bigelow Apothecaries

Meet Ian Ginsberg. President of C.O. Bigelow Apothecaries. Listen as he describes the perks of being a pessimist, and what it means to run an old-school 4th generation business in an ever-evolving beauty marketplace.

Dan Hodgdon
AnnouncerWelcome to Where Brains Meet Beauty, hosted by Jodi Katz, founder and creative director of Base Beauty Creative Agency.
Jodi KatzHello everyone. Today we are joined by Ian Ginsberg, President of C.O. Bigelow Apothecaries, the oldest apothecary in the U.S. A New York Institution, and from my point of view, an originator of the beauty specialty retail model.

Hi Ian.
Ian GinsbergHow you doing? Thanks for having me.
Jodi KatzThanks so much for being here. We're so happy to have you here. Welcome to "Where Brains Meet Beauty". Our listeners are curious about career paths and journeys of executives in our industry. Not the glossed over, shiny, PR version, that we hear so often, but something really honest and revealing. You certainly have an incredibly interesting story to tell.
Ian GinsbergI hope so.
Jodi KatzI thought since Bigelow has been such an institution for so long, let's start with a little history lesson. C.O. Bigelow opened in 1838 and your family bought it 100 years later. I'm curious to know, what does running a 4th generation family business mean to you?
Ian GinsbergIt's a crazy honor and a privilege to be able to spearhead not only a 180 year old brand, but also a brand that's been in the family for 80 years. It's a lot of pressure too, because I don't know if you've heard the old story, first generation starts it, the second builds it up, and the third, fill in the blank, blanks it up. That's an incredible amount of pressure, and I kid with my son, he's now 4th generation, I said that he's very lucky because the story starts over again.
Jodi KatzRight.
Ian GinsbergThere's also been other family through the years who are still alive, and so you think on that side the personal pressure is mounting because you don't want to be that guy, and you want to make sure that you represent the family in what this brand has meant to people, and do it right. As I look through the archives constantly, and all the stuff we have, it never gets old. It's as cool today to me as it was 30 years ago.
Jodi KatzI never thought about the fact that when you were growing up in the business and running the business your way, you probably really had this constant pressure of like, "am I going to mess this up?"-
Ian GinsbergIt's a minute by minute, day by day. It hasn't left me today either. As hard as it is to keep a 180 year old brand alive, just imagine the pressure that you're the 3rd generation. Every generation has put their thumbprint on it, and you don't want to be the one that screws it up, right?
Jodi KatzYeah! That leads me to another question, which is on the topic of self doubt, which I feel like is my disease. I feel like one day it feels great and everything makes sense and I have clarity, and then the next moment something small can happen and all of a sudden I'm struck down by self doubt, rethinking everything. Am I doing this right? Is this the right thing? Am I making enough money? Am I X, Y, and Z? When I talk to you I sense someone that's so grateful and so comfortable in his own skin, and I admire that so much. So how do you keep it together? How do you deal with this pressure that you've had? Either that we put on ourselves, I guess the generational aspect of your business puts on you? How do you keep it together?
Ian GinsbergI don't know if I keep it together. I think I have an amazing life, but I'm the ultimate pessimist. I'm always looking at the dark side. Because I feel like if you understand what you're up against, then you can be a student of how you can surpass them. If you're too optimistic, you make a lot of mistakes. I'm trying to think far, far ahead. I'm running an old style business in a modern world, so I'm always kind of thinking, "Oh my God, where are we going to be 5, 10 years from now?" I do, personally and spiritually, I get up every morning, I'm an avid runner, so I go out on the road and I run. I guess somehow if I can get out there and run at my age, almost 55 years old, every day, if I can still do that then I can do something else. It's an internal competition with myself to what I can do and if you can do that then I can achieve other things.

I've fallen out of it, but I used to meditate a lot. I'm just always striving for reminding myself that life is okay. I have amazing kids, I'm healthy, and I have a really great gig that I love doing every day. Self doubt is within everybody. Don't let anybody fool you. There's nobody there that doesn't second guess themselves on a daily basis. I think it's healthy to a certain degree. It keeps you hungry.
Jodi KatzI think it's about, I have a better awareness about it now. I talk myself out of it. I have that creepy bad feeling, and I actually like go through my head. Well, I'm confident. I'm capable. I literally talk to myself in my head, and I undo it. I think that's growth, because maybe a year ago, two years ago, it would stay with me. I would go to sleep with that thought, I'd wake up with the thought. Now, little by little I'm learning how to unravel the self doubt in that moment.
Ian GinsbergLook at my life. I grew up, and I think I mentioned this before, I grew up, I'm blind in one eye, I went through multiple surgeries. I couldn't play contact sports as a kid, so I became a musician instead. I channeled that into music. I was a club kid, so I was all over the place. I was smart, but I never applied myself in school at all. I used to goof around in school. You grow up a little bit, I'm still not grown up today, but you grow up a little bit. I used to party a lot in college, so I started running, and I figured if I run that will clean me up. I do all these things and then I became obsessed with running. I ran a marathon. All these things are a reminder, like if you can conquer these things then you're okay. My father used to say, "give me a paper bag and I'll fight my way out of it." I'm grateful. I guess you're right. I'm grateful, I never thought that I'd be in the position I am today. Everybody measures success in different ways. To me, I'm crazy successful, but it's necessarily in financial ways.
Jodi KatzLet's talk about that topic. As my agency evolves, I think a lot about how I define success. I think my definition of success is different than other agencies I see around me. For me it's always about keeping an eye on my personal life, and not letting the work erode it. How do you define success and why?
Ian GinsbergA lot of different ways. Bob Dylan says, "a man is a success if he wakes up in the morning and goes to bed at night and does what he wants to do in between." I was at this event last night with Roy Williams, the famous basketball coach, and he said, "I'm the luckiest guy in the world, because I get up every morning and I don't go to work. I'm doing what I want to do." I define success as being comfortable where you are, doing what you love. For me, I don't go to work, I still love what I do. I have a great family. My kids are awesome. Married almost 30 years. For me it's not about money, it's about living a full life. One would argue my personal life and my business life are too linked. [crosstalk 08:38] what's that?
Jodi KatzToo connected.
Ian GinsbergYeah, because I'm obsessed with ... It's not a competitive nature, it's things that interest me. The problem with, I don't even know if it's a problem, but the problem with enjoying what you do, is that where is the separation? If you don't enjoy what you do and it's a job, then you have to separate your work life from your personal life. For me, I don't look at it as work. I look at it as something I really enjoy. I like reading about it. I like listening to podcasts, I like watching TV about it. It's part of the life. Success is just getting up every morning and loving what you do.
Jodi KatzOn this note of how intertwined your personal life is with your work life, what do you do shut out work for a little while? Other than running. I have this compulsion to look at my phone. I'm home with my kids, at home, they're playing, they want me to play with them. Of course, I want to play with them. I feel a drive and desire to play with them. But yet, I have this thing in my hand and it's calling my name and it's saying, "you're needed, you're wanted." It's like louring me in. Whether there is actually any news there or not. It's louring me in. How do you actually separate, actually stop working?
Ian GinsbergI'm a little screwed up. Personally, with my friends and stuff I don't really engage too much on the phone with friends on an ongoing basis. I'm not social media. I'm personally not on Facebook. I'm not a big texter with a big world of friends. I don't find it necessary to be on it for that. I do feel an obligation since I run a couple of businesses and I work with a family of people that we've worked with forever. I do feel an obligation to be on call so if they do need me, so I do look at it. But I can put it down for a long time and not be engaged. I do love content, so I love reading stuff. I'm reading newspapers and all kinds of nonsense, but I'm not socially engaged on it.

As far as shutting off, I'm a musician. I was a musician in my previous life. I play instruments, so I'll go down and we have a music studio, so I'll go down and play the drums, or I'll go play guitar. I do that and you can't be on your phone at that time. That shuts me off, that turns me off. I'm a very good vegetator. In the summer time you can find me crashed on a lounge chair in the backyard, sleeping. I can shut off then. It's funny because my work life is so social, because I'm on all the time, because I want to. When I turn off, I turn off, and I can just vegetate on the couch in front of a mindless TV show, and not look at the phone at all. I can put it down and not look at it. But I do peak only in case some of the people who work for me need me for something, have a question.
We also do business, for good and bad, one of the great things about my job is I get to travel around the world and I do business with people around the world. It's hard to understand but I wake up in the morning and I'm getting e-mails from Europe that I have to respond to and I only have a window of time to answer. At night when I get home, at 9 o'clock at night, and it's 9 o'clock in the morning in China and Japan and all of a sudden the e-mails start. If I don't answer them then, it's another 24 to 36 hours, before I can talk to them again. That's the only engagement I have. I just make sure that nothings happening, that anybody needs me for. Other than that I can toss it aside and not bother and just totally shut my brain off.
Jodi KatzThat's awesome. I'd love to shift gears a little and talk about Bigelow and beauty. You told me that a core value of the business is that that C.O. Bigelow is a place that people want to go to and not have to go to. How do you keep that value alive in your business? Like you said, it's an old school business in a really modern world. Tell me about how that value comes through?
Ian GinsbergI'm like a maniac when I go to stores. I don't like going to stores, but I think about the places I like to go and why I like to go there. It's a lot about the experience. We talk about it internally, "where are your favorite places to go, why do you go there?" It's not necessarily about what they sell, it's about how they feel when they're there. I have a razor focus on how people are treated when they come in to the store. It has to be a place people want to go to. I want someone to say on the pharmacy side, "hey, you know what, I don't feel well, I got to go to Bigelow's." Or, if someone needs a gift on the weekend, "I'm going to this party," "I'm going to someones house," "I'm going to a bridal shower," whatever, "the only place to go is Bigelow's." Or, now that we're older and we're all taking drugs for all kinds of ailments at my age. People sit around at a dinner table with their friends, and they're like, "I'm on this drug" or that drug, I want someone to say, "where do you get it?" "Oh, I go to Bigelow's." "Why do you go there?" "Are you kidding? Let me tell you?"

I'm crazy about giving our customers being our greatest asset, telling people the reasons why. Everybody says we give great service, but I can define that. I'm constantly wanting to better it. Especially now, when everybody's brain is so digitized. It's nice to be able to walk into some place that's really comfortable, where people know your name, and they say, "hey, how you doin'? How you feelin'?" "Yeah, I don't feel well." Or, "I'm going out tonight," on the beauty side, "can you help me with my hair?" Or, "I know I'm not doing the right thing, I need to take care of my skin. I need to make these wrinkles go away tomorrow. What can we do?"
Our creed is genuine, honest, and trustworthy. From a genuine place. I want somebody to be emotionally attached to us here. I can define that for you and I can give you things that we do, but it's a constant. I'm constantly trying to up the game to make it personal.
Jodi KatzFrom the perspective of curating beauty, what I've noticed through the years, long before I met you, is that everything really seems so intentional. You can feel intention when you walk through the doors. I would imagine that you have tons and tons of brands coming to you wanting you to carry them. That really is a feather in the cap for brands. How do you make decisions on what makes sense for Bigelow? Being as you have one store and a certain number of shelves-
Ian GinsbergIn the grand scheme of things it's not a large space. We are small, but we are mighty. I would imagine we're probably the largest independent beauty retailer as far as volume. We focus on fewer things, and we look at things from lots of different perspectives. I love nurturing little brands, small brands, and I love traveling around the world discovering things. It's just so much great stuff out there, and we try to be nice to everybody, but we just have very limited space. We look at everything. We look at every category very specifically. Over-assortment just confuses everybody. If my sales people can't navigate the difference between things, then the customer is never going to understand it. We get very granular when we look at each category. If we look at color, we go "okay, where are we in the make-up artist's space?" There are 35 make-up artists, who have make-up brands that are very similar. I don't need to be in 35 make-up artists brands to be in the make-up artist business. We look at that very specifically.

That's how we do it in hair and color and skin care. Things of that sort. Where is our natural position? Where's our carbolic acid position? We look at specific spaces, which we know people are talking about. For us, it's all about great stories. We love products that have great heritage, great stories, great tradition, great science behind them. Things that are really meaningful. It's gotta do what it says it's going to do, because people trust us. Different from any other retailer. People come here and they ask our opinion, they trust our opinion. If we're going to recommend something, we want the experience for them when they get home. First of all, we want them to run out the door and they won't even go to another store. They can't wait to get home, because they want to try it, because they're so convinced it's the right thing. Then I want them to tell all their friends about it.
We take that responsibility very seriously. We also want to enrich people's lives, so we focus a lot on daily activities like we're known for European toothpaste and shaving products. Things were you can, mundane tasks and making them interesting. We focus on a lot of things that people don't know they need, but when they see it they're like, "oh my God, I can't believe I never had that." Sometimes it doesn't make some brands happy, because they just don't have the room. We find we do larger volume when we do less things. The other important piece of that is that we don't fall in and out of love very quickly. If we're passionate about something, we're passionate about something.
If you came in today and you said, "hey, what's your favorite cleanser?" And I said this one is my favorite cleanser. If you came in next month and I go, "ha, that used to be my favorite one, now this is my favorite one." That happens. You would lose a lot of faith in us. The world doesn't change that quickly.
Jodi KatzThe idea of honesty is part of your retail value. It's so interesting. I could imagine that some companies want that, would want to aspire to that, but that would be really hard for them to be truly honest and genuine, because they have monthly goals to hit and X, Y, Z. I think it's really beautiful that when your customer walks through the door they know that it's going to be real.
Ian GinsbergOur sales people have been with us for a long, long time. A lot of them. I have people here 20, 30 years. Lots. They're really passionate. They're not commissioned. They're not scripted. They're all very different. It's not one person. If you look at even on the beauty side, they're very, very different. They're not one personality. We want that, because we want them to speak from the heart. You might talk to one sales person and you have curly hair and you say, "hey, I have curly hair. What do you love for curly hair?" And she says, "listen, I don't, but let's ask her." Everybody is talking from the heart. We work really hard to find really good people. We work really hard to keep them happy. We try. When the sales people are happy, when the employees are happy, the customers are really happy. When the sales people are miserable, the customers are miserable. Honesty is really important, because you're only known by your reputation. I'm like a lunatic when I go to stores. I'm the worst customer, because I sift through BS like a mad man.
Jodi KatzWell Ian this has been so incredible. We so appreciate you sharing your wisdom with us.
Ian GinsbergIt's been great.
Jodi KatzWe've really enjoyed having you on our show.
Ian GinsbergListen, I'm honored that anybody cares what I have to say. So this is awesome.
Jodi KatzI think more retailers should listen to what you have to say, quite frankly.
Ian GinsbergWe hope to be, when it all shakes out in the next 10 to 20, 30 years, we hope to be the last man standing. We're trying. It's harder and harder in 2017. We hope to be the last one standing.
Jodi KatzRight. Now that's on your son's shoulders.
Ian GinsbergYeah. We're going to help him get there.
Jodi KatzSounds good. Thank you, Ian.
Ian GinsbergThanks so much, I really appreciate it, this is awesome.
AnnouncerThanks for listening to Where Brains Meet Beauty with Jodi Katz. Tune in again for more authentic conversations with beauty leaders.

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