Leonard Lauder, chief executive of the company his mother founded, says she always thought she “was growing a nice little business.” And that it is. A little business that controls 45% of the cosmetics market in U.S. department stores. A little business that sells in 118 countries and last year grew to be $3.6 billion big in sales. The Lauder family’s shares are worth more than $6 billion. But early on, there wasn’t a burgeoning business, there weren’t houses in New York, Palm Beach, Fla., or the south of France. It is said that at one point there was one person to answer the telephones who changed her voice to become the shipping or billing department as needed. You more or less know the Estee Lauder story because it’s a chapter from the book of American business folklore. In short, Josephine Esther Mentzer, daughter of immigrants, lived above her father’s hardware store in Corona, a section of Queens in New York City. She started her enterprise by selling skin creams concocted by her uncle, a chemist, in beauty shops, beach clubs and resorts. No doubt the potions were good–Estee Lauder was a quality fanatic–but the saleslady was better. Much better. And she simply outworked everyone else in the cosmetics industry. She stalked the bosses of New York City department stores until she got some counter space at Saks Fifth Avenue in 1948. And once in that space, she utilized a personal selling approach that proved as potent as the promise of her skin regimens and perfumes. “Ambition.” Ask Leonard for one defining word about his mother, and that’s his choice. Even after 40 years in business, Estee Lauder would attend every launch of a new cosmetics counter or shop, traveling to such places as Moscow and other East European cities. On Saturdays she might go to her grandson’s Origins store in Manhattan’s hip SoHo district and say, “Let me teach you how to sell.” Only declining health has halted those visits during the past few years. Did Lauder ever stop selling in her prime? She would give her famous friends and acquaintances small samples of her products for their handbags; she wanted her brand in the hands of people who were known for having “the best.” Early in my career at Vogue she invited me to lunch. Before the meal was finished, she made sure to give me three chicken recipes to help me interest the man I hoped to marry. She personified the mantra of “think globally, act locally.” You can’t get any more local than Estee Lauder’s turning up at Saks on a Saturday, showing the sales staff how to give customers personal attention and a free gift. The latter promotion, by the way, proved to be a work of utter genius. Now an army of young women and men, exquisitely turned out and properly trained, do the same in every department store that’s worthy of the brands.