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Entrepreneur pries open doors to launch designer fragrance Business Scents

THE BALTIMORE SUN

To the people who told Cynthia Jerry that she would never make it -- and there were many -- get a whiff of what's happening now.

The steadfast, determined Ms. Jerry has managed to crack the highly competitive, big-name, major-bucks perfume business with a new fragrance line. It's called TIV. And Ms. Jerry convinced a major department store -- Hecht's -- to sell it.

So now this African-American woman from Olney is right up there next to the big boys. TIV is prominently displayed next to the likes of Calvin Klein, Chanel and Estee Lauder at 10 stores in Maryland, Washington and Virginia. And Hecht's plans to introduce it at another 20 stores by the end of April.

This is no overnight success story. Ms. Jerry banged on doors for 14 years before reaching this point.

"I was never able to get a bank loan. Never able to get a private investor," she says. "No one believed it could be done. No one really believed an African-American woman could do it."

But she wasn't about to be dismissed.

Though her line is new to the American market, Ms. Jerry is no neophyte when it comes to fragrances. She's been in the fashion and beauty business for about 20 years and held high-powered jobs with Essence magazine and Estee Lauder cosmetics. Along the way, she married, had a son, now 13, got divorced and married again.

Through it all, Ms. Jerry's goals didn't waver. She knew what she wanted: her own business.

"I can remember when I was a little girl and my mother would take me downtown," she recalls. "I would see business people rushing here and there and scurrying about. And I thought I wanted to be in business. And, I remember thinking that I wanted to have my own business."

Except for those memories, Ms. Jerry isn't quite sure how she developed the soul of an entrepreneur. She grew up in Pittsburgh, the daughter of a minister and a homemaker. But no one in her close circle of family and friends owned a business.

"I really didn't come from a family that was driven," Ms. Jerry says. "And you didn't dare talk to friends about starting your own business. They would look at you as if you were trying to reach too high."

Ms. Jerry didn't go the college route, though she later took classes at night. Tall and attractive, she enrolled in modeling school after graduating from high school and became a licensed instructor there.

It was the first rung on a long ladder Ms. Jerry would climb in the beauty and fashion industry. Soon, she was hired by Kaufmann's department store in Pittsburgh as a fashion training coordinator.

A few years later, Ms. Jerry was promoted and transferred to Cleveland to become fashion director for the May Company stores. In 1974, she became director of fashion and beauty marketing for Essence magazine.

After about three years at Essence, the Estee Lauder company tapped Ms. Jerry as marketing director for its fragrance division. It was there that she learned the inner workings of the perfume business.

By 1980, she'd learned enough to strike out on her own.

Her New York-based fragrance marketing and consulting company was called Cynthia Jerry International. CJI had a wide range of clients in the fashion and beauty industry, including fragrance manufacturers and a business that operated beauty salons in department stores.

Ms. Jerry got the money to start the business by literally selling the roof over her head.

"While I was an executive for Estee Lauder, I had bought an apartment," she explains. "I raised the money to start my own company by selling my apartment."

The same year she began developing TIV, which takes its name from a wood sculpture done by the TIV tribe in northern Nigeria.

"I knew the florals that I wanted," she says. "I knew what I thought could be combined. I knew I wanted all natural ingredients."

With this in mind, she went searching for a company that could create her fragrance. "There are companies that are essential oil companies," she says. "They have the equipment and the staff to literally put your fragrance together from a molecular structure."

The company came up with about six different versions. "I would test, try it, and then go back and say these three are close to what I want but I would like you to increase the dynamics of the jasmine or something else," she says.

Though Ms. Jerry is wary about giving away any trade secrets, she says the fragrance is a blend of jasmine, with a touch of rose Bulgarian, shades of myrrh and frankincense. It's a light, but long-lasting, flowery scent with just a whisper of musk.

Ms. Jerry won't divulge how much money she spent developing TIV. She will say that raising enough for the venture has always been a strain.

"Financially, it's been very, very tough," she says.

Better in the Bahamas

She knew she didn't have the funds to launch a new fragrance line in the United States. So Ms. Jerry took her products to the Bahamas in 1981.

"I thought that my money wouldn't go very far in New York. And I had traveled to the Caribbean many times," she says. "Two things I noticed that women buy a lot of in the Caribbean: jewelry and fragrances."

Ms. Jerry lived in the Bahamas from 1985 until 1991. TIV has been selling well to tourists in Nassau, Ms. Jerry says. "We are expanding to St. Thomas now," she says.

Though TIV had a good track record in the Bahamas, Ms. Jerry still found it difficult to get the products sold in this country.

"Although I had been in business since 1981, no bank would approve a loan," she says.

In 1994, she and her husband, Warren Bush, moved to the Washington suburbs. Mr. Bush, a financial and business consultant, decided to approach the District of Columbia for an economic development loan.

The plan comes together

"They were really excited about it," Ms. Jerry says. "We got approval within 30 days."

The District's Office of Economic Development provided about $200,000 in loans. The Neighborhood Economic Development Finance Corp. also kicked in financing, including a line of credit.

Even before they had lined up the financing, Ms. Jerry and her husband were looking for a major store to sell TIV.

About a year ago, the couple drove to St. Louis to pitch their perfume to executives at May Co., the parent company of Hecht's. Ms. Jerry's contacts in the industry helped open doors there.

"Everyone there felt that this was something we should consider," says Nancy Chistolini, a vice president for fashion and spokeswoman for Hecht's. "We felt that she had a good product. And she was experienced."

But selling one entrepreneur's product was not typical for Hecht's.

"To my knowledge, I don't think we have done this before," Ms. Chistolini says. "Our business is usually with the large companies and that goes for anything."

In November, Hecht's agreed to sell the TIV line. It was exactly one day after Ms. Jerry learned the D.C. government loan was approved.

"We were very excited," Ms. Jerry says. "Then they asked if we could be ready to ship in February! We got cracking and got it out. We were delivering it the day before we launched the product."

But Ms. Jerry knows it isn't enough to win a place for TIV at the crowded cosmetics counter. The perfume has to sell -- and without the benefit of a big television or print ad campaign to pump up sales.

"When major companies launch a new fragrance, they have a million dollars. We don't have a million dollars. I like to say we have to come up with million-dollar ideas," Ms. Jerry says.

Last week, she plugged the perfume herself at the Hecht's in Security Square Mall, where people seemed excited to meet the creator of a fragrance.

"That's her?" asked Dajuan Tucker, 25. "I know it must have been hard to break into this business." After testing the perfume, Ms. Tucker declared the scent was "wonderful."

Another shopper, Naomi Patterson, liked the subtle scent of the fragrance.

"It's a nice, pleasant product. It's not overwhelming like some perfumes. And in the workplace, that has to be a consideration," said Mrs. Patterson, who's in her early 40s.

TIV's prices, which range from $18.50 for the bath and shower gel to $40 for a 2.5-ounce parfum spray, are in line with competitors, says Annette Green, president of the New York-based Fragrance Foundation, a nonprofit educational association. But Ms. Green says it will be extremely difficult for any small company to succeed in the fragrance business.

Positive momentum

So far, TIV seems to be holding its own.

"It's doing better than we planned," says Ms. Chistolini who would not release precise sales figures. "We carry about 70 women's fragrances and TIV is ranking in the top 15."

Ms. Jerry realizes that some of the initial success is due to the newness of the line, But she believes the fragrance is appealing enough to draw repeat customers.

And it is the customers who will ultimately determine whether TIV will be a hit or a miss.

"We know we have momentum now," Ms. Jerry says, "and we want to keep it going."

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