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Sweet success: Inside Neutrogena President Susan Sweet’s career

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Susan Sweet, 47, president and general manager of Neutrogena. Photo by Melanie Acevedo, More Magazine

Susan Sweet, 47, president and general manager of Neutrogena. Photo by Melanie Acevedo, More Magazine

Susan Sweet knew from college that she wanted to be a brand manager of a global product.

She wanted her parents to walk into a grocery store and be able to say, “My daughter did that.”

“I’ve been a workaholic since college,” said the 47-year-old Manhattan Beach resident, with both a BlackBerry and an iPhone face up in front of her. “I put my career, my work, my job as a top priority.”

Sweet is the president and general manager of Neutrogena, whose products are used by one in three women in the U.S. each year. The Los Angeles-based skin care company has 650 employees coast to coast and boasts $1.5 billion in annual sales.

“She is your consummate Fortune 500 career business woman,” said Bill Bloomfield, a 33rd Congressional District candidate, and Sweet’s significant other.

At the South Bay Conference for Women in April, at which Sweet was a keynote speaker, she pointed out to a crowd of 400 that while women constitute 47 percent of the U.S. labor force, they only make up 3.4 percent of Fortune 500 CEOs.

“She’s very concerned about equal treatment of women in the corporate world,” Bloomfield said. “She doesn’t believe the playing field is completely level for women, despite the fact of her success.”

Neutrogena, a subsidiary of Johnson and Johnson, is the multi-national manufacturer’s fastest growing consumer brand, Sweet said.

“I’m really proud,” Sweet said, knocking on the wooden table outside Coffee Bean one recent afternoon, wearing a black pencil skirt and leopard print pumps, her soft green eyes peering under side swept bangs. “A lot of other businesses have been affected, whether it’s the recession or other issues. They’re not growing like we are.”

A modest start

Sweet grew up on a large plot of land in Richville, Ohio, nearly an acre of which was a garden where her family grew corn, beans, tomatoes, squash, rhubarb and other vegetables. As kids, the sisters would help their mother weed the garden and mow the lawn every Saturday, said Sweet’s sister Cheryl Jennings.

The vegetables were mostly for the family’s own consumption, but their father’s entrepreneurial spirit often led him to set up a roadside vegetable stand.

Sweet’s mother was the valedictorian of her high school class and received a full-ride scholarship to college, but never went. “She wanted us to do more,” Jennings said. “She wanted us to be independent women. I think Susie took that to the furthest level.”

At Ohio State University, Sweet joined a sorority with her sister, who is now an attorney, and studied international business and marketing.

After college, Sweet took a job in pharmaceutical sales for Merrell Dow Pharmaceuticals in Virginia Beach. “That was probably what distinguishes her from my brother and me. We both stayed in Ohio, she went right away and moved,” Jennings said.

Sweet earned her MBA from Maryland’s Loyola College in 16 months, while working full time as a pharmaceutical representative for Ciba-Geigy, which is now Novartis. “I just went to school every night, every weekend and powered through it,” Sweet said.

In the fall of 1995, she took an entry-level position at Johnson and Johnson in New Jersey, after having moved up in pharmaceutical sales to become a hospital representative for Johns Hopkins. She wanted to pursue traditional brand management and marketing. “I basically started over,” she said.

Up through the ranks

Sweet started in Johnson and Johnson’s oral health department. One day, she found herself in a tough meeting. The chairman was questioning the team’s ability to market a mouthwash product against much larger companies and she was the most junior level employee in the room.

“Who the blank had the audacity to think that you could take this project and go up against the number one competitor in this category?” Sweet recalled her boss yelling. “We’re going to fail.”

The room was dead silent. Sweet raised her hand.

“You know, I’ve got to tell you, I thought we could do it,” Sweet said at the time. “Maybe I’m naïve but we worked through it, I think we have a good strategy, I know we have a good product.”

That moment was a turning point in her career.

Senior executives reached out to her that very night, as well as the following day, to let her know how impressed they were with her courage. Ten years later, those same company leaders are still among her greatest advocates.

In 2005, after a decade climbing the ranks, Sweet was named Vice President of Marketing for Johnson and Johnson. She was transferred to Montreal, where she managed all Johnson and Johnson brands. Shortly after, she was transferred to New Jersey to manage the company’s beauty ring.

Three years ago, the global head of human resources called Sweet into her office.

She asked Sweet to take over as general manager of Neutrogena in California.

Overwhelmed by the offer, Sweet scampered back to her office and closed the door to think. “I had quite a bit of trepidation because for me it was a fabulous job, career-wise, but personal – I don’t know a soul in California, it’s 3,000 miles away from all my friends and family,” Sweet said.

Despite her reluctance, she decided she couldn’t pass up the opportunity.

During her first three months on the job, she hated California. “I was in corporate housing and I was working non-stop,” she said.

She needed to move.

While hunting for a home that would be close enough to Neutrogena’s headquarters near LAX, she discovered Manhattan Beach. “All of a sudden, I fell in love with California,” she said. “I can’t imagine that I didn’t want to come here and I can’t imagine ever going back.”

A typical week for Sweet includes meetings where she and her team test new products that the company is planning to launch in anywhere from a year to three years. “I’ll try them, we’ll smell them, rub them on,” she said. “It’s a lot of fun.”

A personal experiment she did with one anti-aging product was particularly memorable. “I tend to be a little bit of a skeptic, especially on the anti-aging stuff, so I did what I call my half-face test,” she said.

For about two months, she used a plain moisturizer on one side of her face, and a new anti-aging product on the other half. “My boss said to me, ‘Okay, you should stop doing that,’” Sweet recalled. “You literally could tell a difference.”

Sixty percent of Neutrogena products are manufactured in Los Angeles. “It’s kind of cool to see how the sunscreen products are made. We have these massive kettles as big as a room in your house that stir up potions and formulas,” she said.

Sweet plays a major role in Neutrogena’s advertising, signing celebrities and critiquing advertising concepts.

“A lot of times people think marketing is all creative and fun and advertising,” Sweet said. “The majority of it is much more analytical…I spend a fair amount of time on the budget.”

Neutrogena President Susan Sweet addresses 400 people at the South Bay Conference for Women.

Neutrogena President Susan Sweet addresses 400 people at the South Bay Conference for Women. Photo by Alene Tchekmedyian

She cracks down on her staff when the numbers don’t look good – statistics are objective and not personal, she explained. But she’ll always make sure to visit her employees one on one later. “I know people are working hard,” she said. “It doesn’t help anybody if we’re all anxious and stressed.”

Analytics is Sweet’s forte, according to her sister. “But if you play Trivial Pursuit with her, you’ll beat her,” Jennings said. “She doesn’t have time for ridiculous facts to store in her head.”

‘Smelling the flowers’

A year ago, Bloomfield took Sweet to the movies. The two had met at a holiday party about eight months after she moved to Manhattan Beach in 2009. “It was, I think, the first or second movie she’d been to in 20 years,” he said. “The career path she’s chosen has not allowed for a lot of other interests and hobbies.”

In recent months, Sweet’s made an effort to integrate hobbies and traveling into her life. She often visits her sister and her two nieces in Ohio. “There’s the Susan I met, and the Susan that I know and have a relationship with. And the Susan now isn’t working quite so long,” Bloomfield said.

He took her to her first football game at the Rose Bowl Stadium, on her first trip to Napa Valley, and on her first scenic drive up the California coast to Big Sur. “I have yet to get her in the water,” Bloomfield said. “That is my goal, to teach her how to stand up paddleboard.”

For the New Year, Sweet, Bloomfield and his daughter took a 10-day trip to New Zealand. “This is going to sound pathetic,” Sweet said, with a sheepish grin. “That was the first vacation since I graduated college that I didn’t work.”

Also, under Bloomfield’s tutelage, she’s immersed herself in politics. “She looked at what I’m doing and she said, ‘Bill, this is simply building your brand,’” he said. “She reviews all of my mailers, writing, graphics…Nothing has gone out that hasn’t had her mark on it.”

Sweet serves on the board for Cosmetic Executive Women, where she mentors women starting out in the beauty industry through the MentorNet program. “I want young women starting into the business world to feel like they can be strong and not be labeled,” Sweet said.

She’s also avidly involved in Step Up Women’s Network, which offers mentoring to inner city, teenage girls.

‘Fiercely loyal’

With all her success, Sweet’s fiercely loyal, her sister said. When Jennings was recently diagnosed with breast cancer, Sweet jumped on a plane to Ohio. “The president of Neutrogena stops everything because her sister has breast cancer,” Jennings said, fighting back tears. “What’s important to her are the people in her life that she loves.”

In March, when Jennings was out of town, Sweet discovered that her sister’s dog sitter had lost her 11-pound miniature dachshund, Tootsie. In typical fashion, she got on the first plane to Ohio, canvassed the town, taping up missing dog posters around the neighborhood, Jennings said. “She flies in like a knight in shining armor, all without me knowing this was happening,” Jennings recalled.

Within 24 hours, Sweet had located Tootsie. “Anything she does is above and beyond,” Jennings said.

Colleagues have told Sweet that she has the right combination of toughness and tenderness in her leadership. “I think women still get labeled if they’re really strong,” Sweet said. “What I really love is that juxtaposition of you can be tough as nails and nurturing at the same time.”

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