Keeping a family business afloat and thriving is always a reason for celebration. And when that business is in an industry as competitive as manufacturing, there’s even more to celebrate.
That’s what Cosmetics Specialty Labs will do Monday when it marks the 50th anniversary of its founding. The company, which makes private-label cosmetics, has weathered oil spikes and busts, recessions and even a pandemic, and the family is now in its fourth generation of operating the business.
The spirit of the company’s founder, Edna Hennessee, still presides over the factory in south Lawton where her granddaughter, Jennifer Ellis, is president and chief executive officer.
Edna Hennessee was accustomed to making history, often the hard way. She took in laundry to buy a Merle Norman cosmetics franchise and later opened a hair salon and an aloe vera farm, and she developed Big Rock Estates outside Medicine Park.
In a time when female entrepreneurs faced limits on what they might try, she rarely accepted “no” for an answer and became an economic force not only in Oklahoma, but internationally as she hunted and found new markets both in the United States and internationally.
Ellis said her grandmother wanted to make life better for those around her. She was bothered by acne when she was young and found products from Merle Norman that helped her, and she wanted to share what she’d found. She began making her own products in her salon on Sheridan Road, which led to creating a full-scale manufacturing center.
“That really was her passion, helping people with their skin problems,” Ellis said.
“I think she went into business to solve a problem, and I think that’s why anybody who’s an entrepreneur really starts out.”
Ellis grew up in Lawton but moved away and spent almost four years in the Army. She was trained as a chemist and returned to Lawton to help with a new product “and I never left.”
Over the years, she has beefed up CSL’s laboratories and expanded into over-the-counter drugs. In fact, a new consumer pain reliever is expected to be introduced later this year.
The lab was recently renovated with a grant from the state Department of Commerce, and “that’s really were everything starts in our facility.”
Despite the larger facilities and more high-tech gear, the basics of the business remain the same: Develop new products, find new customers and open new markets.
One market is close to home: CSL’s factory outlet store where customers can buy CSL products under the Body Pro label. In addition to letting Lawtonians purchase CSL goods, Ellis said its’ creation solved another problem: what to do with surplus product and containers that might otherwise have gone to the landfill. Even the shelving for the store came from repurposing materials that were on hand.
Ellis still takes a keen interest in the technical side of the business, but she finds more of her time is occupied with other things.
“I’m spending most of my time on our large accounts, helping support sales people,” she said. “That’s been a pretty good fit for me.”
“I’m settling into the role … after 12 years.”
Ellis said she’s able to devote time to those areas because of the hard work and expertise of the staff, many of whom are family. (She’s also taken on leadership roles in the community, including with the United Way and Chamber of Commerce and serving as mayor of Medicine Park.)
She said the managers work well together because they communicate so well and they’re in the business for the long term. That applies to many employees too, Ellis said, and workers who’ve spent decades with the business aren’t uncommon.
Mikel Hennessee Araujo, CSL’s executive vice president, said everyone pitches in and takes on responsibilities to help the business thrive.
“If we don’t know, we educate ourselves,” she said.
Like most businesses, the pandemic created different stresses than CSL had dealt with before. In addition to the lockdowns, raw materials were scarce. For a while, the company kept the doors open by producing hand sanitizer. In fact, Araujo said CSL hired 20 employees to meet demand.
“We could’ve operated 24 hours a day if we wanted to,” she said, but acquiring raw materials was difficult.
The company now has about 40 employees. As with management, the vast majority are women.
Ellis said one of her grandmother’s goals was to create jobs for women and to make work accessible for working mothers. Schedules can be flexible, and it’s not uncommon to see a play pen and toys in the open office area.
“I don’t think anybody walks in the building and says ‘That’s a bad idea,’” Araujo said.
Another thing hasn’t changed about the business. Edna Hennessee always turned down offers for her to move CSL to other states, preferring to stay in Southwest Oklahoma.
“That was a very big thing for her,” Ellis said. “We still get offers for relocation, but we don’t want to.”
“Our roots are here,” Araujo said. “This is home.”