Thia Breen, Former Estée Lauder Exec, Dies at 73

Former Estée Lauder Cos. executive Thia Breen died at her home on Friday evening from complications due to cancer. She was 73.

A native of Minnesota, whose first job in retail was as the Bonne Bell buyer in her father’s drugstore when she was in the eighth grade, presaged a career in which Breen broke boundaries as both a brand and retail executive. As high up the ladder as she climbed, Breen never forgot those early days in the family business.

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“It’s been a great advantage,” Breen told Beauty Inc in 2013 of her beginnings in beauty. “I always think of the customer first. It’s how I grew up in the drugstore. I add a few more zeros to the business, but still, that whole idea of, ‘Do we have what the customer wants? Is she coming back?’ Although we’re involved with over 25 brands at Lauder,” she continued, “it still is one customer at a time.”

Breen joined the training squad of Dayton-Hudson department store after graduating from college, and was hired by Lauder in 1977 as a Clinique account executive. She returned to the retail side of the business in 2003 when she became senior vice president of cosmetics and fragrances for Federated stores, which included Macy’s and Bloomingdale’s, then rejoined Lauder in 2005 as president of the Estée Lauder brand. In 2009, Breen was named group president, North America, of the Estée Lauder Cos., and retired from that position in 2017.

“Thia Breen was among the greatest executives at the Estée Lauder Cos.,” said Leonard A. Lauder, chairman emeritus. “She always had her pulse on what was happening in the industry and especially in our home market. She was a wonderful person and will be sorely missed.”

William P. Lauder, executive chairman of the company who worked closely with Breen both when he launched Origins and when he oversaw Clinique, singled out the significant impact that she had on her coworkers personally and professionally. “This was a brilliant business leader, a wonderful colleague and a dear friend,” he said. “She made a tremendous mark not only on our company and the beauty industry, but also on me and everyone who knew her. She will be deeply missed.”

William Lauder and Thia Breen
William Lauder and Thia Breen

“Thia was an incredible leader, whose dedication and passion significantly shaped the Estée Lauder Cos. over her 40-year career,” agreed Fabrizio Freda, president and chief executive officer of the Estée Lauder Cos. “Thia will be remembered for her visionary approach, unwavering commitment to excellence, and fierce loyalty to her teams and the company. She made a profound impact on the beauty industry and will be greatly missed.”

During her career Breen was a key part of the team that built Clinique into the leading prestige brand in the U.S., rising to the role of senior vice president, general manager of the brand. She was a driving force behind many of the company’s brands, including Aramis and Origins, as well as Clinique and Lauder. In addition to breaking the glass ceiling at Aramis, Breen was the first national sales manager of Origins.

“Thia had very deep, important relationships with people across not only the Estée Lauder Cos. but the entire retail community,” said John Demsey, the former executive group president of the Estée Lauder Cos. who worked closely with Breen. “She was instrumental in the foundational building of the Clinique brand in North America, and when she served as president of Estée Lauder, it was her initiatives that started the acceleration of that business in China.

“She was never one to take credit for things, because she was so honest, so diligent, so hard working, and so focused on what was important in life and what wasn’t,” he continued. “She was a great friend, a great person and a great businesswoman.”

“Thia was a driven and caring leader,” said Tony Spring, chairman and CEO of Macy’s Inc. “During complex renovations, she helped partner with the Estée Lauder Corp. to create a new beauty experience at Bloomingdale’s. She was a tough, but always fair negotiator. She will be missed and we send our condolences to her loved ones.”

Whether working on the brand side or the store side, Breen was lauded as the consummate merchant.

“She was a terrific merchant and a great builder of teams,” said Michael Gould, the former chairman and CEO of Bloomingdale’s. “She built great partnerships with us, first at Robertson’s, then at Bloomingdale’s. But if I had to define her, I think she was just a classy lady,” Gould continued. “She was really honorable, always kept her word. She was an upright person who did right by her company and by her partners, the stores. She was a great builder of programs and partnerships. We will all miss her.”

“I knew Thia since she was a regional [manager] at Aramis and I was a DMM [divisional merchandise manager] at Saks Fifth Avenue in 1985,” said Muriel Gonzalez, who is today president of The Vitamin Shoppe. Gonzalez oversaw beauty at Macy’s when Breen ran North America at Lauder, and the two spoke daily for eight years. “The Estée Lauder/Macy’s partnership was very special and it was because of Thia,” said Gonzalez. “She understood what it was to be both a vendor and a retailer, as did I. She understood all the players at Macy’s and how together we could accomplish great things and have fun doing it. I appreciated her wicked sense of humor, her intelligence, and her integrity above all.”

Jane Hertzmark Hudis, executive group president of the Estée Lauder Cos., recalled that side of the executive. “Thia was one of a kind,” she said. “I met her in the early days when I joined the company. Thia was super smart, strategic and a business driver. She also had the best sense of humor and was a wonderful friend.”

Laurie Dowley, Thia Breen and Jane Hudis.
Laurie Dowley, Thia Breen and Jane Hudis.

“You could call her and she was one of the people who would always answer,” recalled Carlotta Jacobson, president of CEW. “We all know how hard it is to reach people like her, but she felt it was her responsibility to share things. She was a very different kind of leader in that she was a fabulous executive, but she really had a lot of heart.”

Breen was famous for a hard and fast rule that industry dinners had to end by 9 p.m. “She was very conscious of the fact that people had homes to go to and families to take of,” said Demsey, recalling that every Halloween, Breen would remind those on her team with children to leave by 2 p.m.

That combination of business acumen and human caring made Breen one of the most liked and respected executives in the industry. “I first met Thia when I was just starting out as a young buyer at Saks. Even then she had an impressive reputation that preceded her and I was slightly in awe just to be in her presence,” said Kate Oldham, senior vice president, general merchandise manager, beauty and jewelry, at Saks. “As I got to know her, that feeling of awe just deepened, not because of her reputation, but because of the incredible depth of knowledge, her compassion for others, her dedication to her work and her genuine desire to be a great partner.

“What struck me most about Thia was her fundamental decency as a human being,” Oldham continued. “She treated everyone — from senior executives to those just starting their careers — with equal respect, kindness and warmth. Thia had a way of making you feel valued and heard.”

Howard Kreitzman, who oversaw cosmetics and fragrances at Bloomingdale’s from 2003 to 2015, recalled first meeting Breen in the late ’80s. “Thia was the rare individual who was universally liked and admired for her knowledge of the industry and professional achievements,” he said. “Thia’s passing is a great loss to our industry, she will be missed.”

“Thia Breen was one of a kind and will always be a  legendary champion for all of us in the fragrance/beauty community,” said Linda Levy, president of the Fragrance Foundation. “Her intelligence, diplomacy, style and sharp wit made us all want to  achieve more by partnering with her on anything, anytime anywhere.

“While Thia was an extraordinary business leader, it was equally matched by her personal life,” Levy continued, “where she was a role model for a magnificent marriage filled with love and laughter with the love of her life, her wife Laurie.”

Breen is survived by her wife, Laurie Dowley, who is planning a celebration of Breen’s life for late September.

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