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needed was a plan. When a friend gave her a jar of Merle Norman skin cream, the light bulb came on, and she knew she wanted to run her own business.

It took $1,000 to start a Merle Norman franchise, and a training session in Cali- fornia was required. She was determined enough to convince Merle Norman’s son that she could buy the franchise for $300 and pay the balance later. So off to Cali- fornia she went.

“I bought a one-way bus ticket to Los Angeles for $15, a loaf of bread and some bologna, then made my way westward. While in training, I received my fi rst order for products. I literally went out on the streets of Los Angeles and sold my fi rst or- ders to folks I met. I was able to complete my obligation to pay my full franchise fee of $1,000 and order more products. When our training was completed, I got back on the bus and headed back home to open my fi rst studio. I was in business!” Edna wrote in her bio at By 1950, Edna had opened the Hennes- see Fam ily Center in downtown Lawton, Okla. The center, which later became the largest salon in the area, was not only Ed- na’s livelihood but was the livelihood of many folks in southwest Oklahoma. Even her children pitched in. Odus used to trea- sure the 25 cents his mother paid him for a day’s worth of work.

“We were beauty-shop rats,” Odus said. “We would go to work with Mom, and

how much stock to put into that—I just know the stuff works,” Edna wrote in her bio. Cosmetic Specialty Labs became a private- label, custom manufacturer of the highest- quality aloe vera–based cosmetic and health care products in the industry. In Edna’s words “We’re a turnkey manufacturer—which means if someone has an idea for a product, we can assist in nearly every area from the idea stage to the shelf.”

CSL offers product chemistry and formula- tion, package design and production, label- ing, mixing, fi lling, boxing, shipping, and even sales training and promotion. What began as amateur experiments in a small kitchen has now turned into an inter- national manufacturing company based in southwest Oklahoma with clients from 23 different countries and from every state in the United States.

Longtime Cotton Electric Co-op member Edna Hennessee is the founder of Cosmetic Specialty Labs in southwest Oklahoma. At age 91, Edna’s last full-time day at her job was Jan. 31, 2011. She passed away on March 22, two days shy of her 92nd birthday.

then go to school, and come back to the beauty shop after school. When I was six, my mother started to teach me how to make cosmetics, and I was in charge of mopping and sweeping the fl oors.”

Edna’s salon offered a variety of services, from haircuts to skin treatments, and cosmetics were also available for purchase. Because she wanted to offer more than Merle Norman cosmetics, she became a self-taught chemist, spending hours in the library and in the back of the Hennessee Family Center kitchen, blending, mixing, and making new cosmetic creations. Even at home, Odus recalls, he learned he had to fi rst check what was in the refrigerator before eating it. “The rule around our house was not to eat anything in the refrigerator before asking Momma fi rst,” he said. “One time my dad took a taste of what he thought were mashed potatoes, but it was actually hand cream.” Odus recounts how his mother shared her cosmetic creations with her custom- ers, letting them choose what they liked.

“Our center was very family-oriented, and my mother was customer-oriented. We would run specials every Tuesday, and offer haircuts for men, women and kids for $1,” Odus says. “My mother always wanted to help people, and she knew a lot of them could not afford haircuts.”

Edna’s compassion got the best of her most of the time. She would hire people and use their skills to the fullest, even if they just had one skill to share. She liked to say she wanted people to work with her, not for her. Her staff was diverse, with employees of all races and nationalities, Odus recalls. “She just didn’t like lazy people; she would fi re them if they were lazy,” he said. “She would get upset if someone did not reach his/her full potential.” Her appetite for helping more people led her to start experimenting on cos- metics with aloe-vera extract juice. And with her clients’ endorsement of her aloe products, she was off to build an Aloe empire.

Aloe Vera Reigns In 1973, Edna opened Cosmetic Specialty Labs (CSL) in Lawton. And, as a clever businesswoman, she also founded a greenhouse called Dream Valley Farm near Cache, Okla., to grow aloe vera and other varieties.

“Folks say I’m a pioneer in the cosmetics and aloe-vera industries. I don’t know

At age 91, Edna, a longtime Cotton Electric Co-op member, would still come to work from 8 am. until 5 p.m. In fact, it is known that she would go home at 5 p.m. only because her driver had to go home. Edna’s last full-time day at CSL was Jan. 31, 2011. She had decided to slow down and stay at home, and on the eve of March 22, she qui- etly passed away in the comfort of her home, just outside of Medicine Park, Okla. Her funeral took place at First Baptist Church in Lawton on March 24. Hundreds of people attended her funeral, many of whom had their own personal “Edna-story,” said Edna’s sister Sue.

In a statement released on March 23, Oklahoma Governor Mary Fallin referred to Edna as “a true icon of Oklahoma business. Her enthusiasm, dedication and strong work ethic led to her success as an entrepreneur and as the founder of Cosmetic Specialty Labs. I admired her spunk and civic leadership. She was a true role model for the young women of Oklahoma.”

Edna’s granddaughter, Jennifer Ellis, who had worked at CSL since her high-school years in the ’80s, had already been serving as the chief execu- tive officer of CSL before Edna’s passing. Jennifer says it’s been dif- fi cult for everyone at the company to deal with Edna’s absence, but she assures that CSL will press on and con- tinue serving its clients with the same excellence Edna bestowed. “I’m excited to have studied and learned from my grandmother’s experience. I’m proud to move the business she founded and nour- ished into the next generation,” said Ellis. CSL’s chief financial officer, Phil Ferrell, said that Edna impacted many lives, including his own. “Her philosophy was that you can learn from your mistakes and get on with life while doing the best you can,” Ferrell said. “Nobody worked harder than she worked. She was something. There just will not be another like her.”

CSL specializes in aloe vera– based cosmetics.

Continued on Page 18 JUNE 2011 15

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