Founder of Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia
"I think people who have a real entrepreneurial spirit, who can face difficulties and overcome them, should absolutely follow their desires. It makes for a much more interesting life."-Martha Stewart
Icing gingerbread houses, rolling green grapes in foie gras and boiling quail eggs in champagne vinegar for a living may not seem like the stuff financial empires are built on, but that's exactly how Martha Stewart turned her own good taste into a multimillion-dollar business. Her skill at making a fortune out of fantasy has made her "the Danielle Steel of food authors" and has given her near-cult status among her thousands of devoted followers. As a result, this "driven doyenne of domesticity" has taken homemaking and entertaining to a new level and taught her fans how to add a touch of elegance to their everyday lives.
Martha Kostyra displayed a love of all things domestic early in life. As a child growing up in the working-class neighborhood of Nutley, New Jersey, she would spend hours working in the garden, lending her father a hand "fixing up" around the house, and helping her mother and grandmother prepare exotic dishes. A natural-born hostess, to supplement her baby-sitting income, she organized birthday parties for neighborhood children as a grammar-school student.
But while the seeds of her future as a "domestic goddess" had already been sown, Stewart's first career was anything but domestic. In high school, her blond good looks won her modeling assignments in fashionable stores and on television. Yet she was still able to maintain a straight-A average through her senior year of high school and entered Barnard College in New York City. At first she toyed with the idea of becoming a chemist, but abandoned that course and concentrated instead on history.
In 1961, while still a sophomore, she married law student Andrew Stewart. To cover tuition and other expenses, she took a number of modeling jobs, appearing in commercials for Clairol, Lifebuoy soap and Tareyton cigarettes. She graduated from Barnard in 1963 and continued to model until she became pregnant.
Restless and seeking a new career, she contemplated becoming an architect, but decided stock brokerage intrigued her more. Shortly after the birth of her daughter in 1965, the 24-year-old Stewart joined the firm of Monness, Williams and Sidel, where she excelled-at one point earning $135,000 a year. But during the 1973 recession, she became "a nervous wreck" and the job lost most of its appeal. "I liked the sales part of it, the human contact," she explains. "But I wanted to sell things that were fun.and stocks weren't anymore." She and her husband left New York and moved to Westport, Connecticut, where they purchased and renovated an 1805 Federal-style farmhouse on Turkey Hill Road, "removing the unsightly and replacing it with the beautiful," as Stewart recalls. They also built a Shaker-style barn and planted orchards and vegetable gardens.
Once the renovation was complete, Stewart turned her seemingly boundless energy to another hobby-gourmet cooking. While on a modeling assignment in Europe during the 1960s, she had closely studied Italian, German and French cuisine. Later, as a stockbroker, she had entertained her clients at some of New York City's top restaurants, and would often ask chefs to share their secrets. Her efforts to broaden and hone her culinary talents paid off handsomely in 1973, when Stewart started a catering business. After placing an ad in the local newspaper, she almost immediately found herself, in her words, "prepraring blindly for a wedding for 300."
Working out of a kitchen (which she had designed) in the basement of her Turkey Hill home, Stewart and her staff cooked gourmet meals for as many as 1,500 people at a time, using many ingredients grown in her own garden. Within a decade, Stewart's enterprise had mushroomed into a $1 million business, and her clients included prestigious corporations, museums and celebrities. She also contributed articles to The New York Times and served as the newspaper's food and entertainment editor.
Then in 1980, an event happened that would establish Stewart as America's most closely watched hostess and arbiter of good taste. While attending a party she'd catered at the Cooper-Hewitt Museum, the president of Crown Publishers asked Stewart to write a book for the company's lifestyle imprint, Clarkson Potter. Oversized, beautifully photographed and packed with suggestions for 35 different parties as well as decorating and presentation tips, Martha Stewart's Entertaining was an immediate hit, selling more than 625,000 copies. It was followed with a series of equally successful sequels, including Martha Stewart's Quick Cook Menus, The Wedding Planner and Martha Stewart's Christmas. She also began marketing how-to videos and CDs.
But Stewart's success didn't come without a price. Regularly putting in 18- to 20-hour days took its toll on her marriage, and she and Andrew were divorced in 1990. Martha refocused on her business ventures and shifted her entrepreneurial skills into high gear. She signed a deal with Kmart to act as its national spokeswoman and promote a line of linens and tableware she designed for the chain. She also set her sites on another form of publishing. In 1991, with financing from Time-Warner, she introduced the bimonthly magazine Martha Stewart's Living, which had a circulation of 2.3 million by the time Stewart took over ownership of the magazine from Time Inc. in 1997. During that time, she also increased her TV presence, appearing on a variety of talk shows and producing several specials which eventually led Stewart to her own syndicated television show. Her most recent ventures have included a Web site tie-in to her TV show and an interactive online version of her popular "Ask Martha" newspaper column.
Stewart's success in her many different roles is a tribute to her unique entrepreneurial skills in marketing-not so much a product, but herself and her sense of taste. In essence, she turned her own life into a business empire and left an indelible mark on the way America views cooking, home decoration, gardening and entertaining. "My books are 'dream' books to look at, but they're very practical," Stewart says, summing up her influence on the American public. "People can take the recipes, the ideas, and use them every day, because what I'm giving them is not a fantasy, but a reality that looks like a fantasy."
Getting "The Dirt"
One of the reasons Martha Stewart's books have been so successful is that she spends a tremendous amount of time researching them, and then writes from personal experience. In preparation for writing Martha Stewart's Gardening, Month by Month, she frequently gardened 12 hours per day for weeks at a stretch.
A Slice Of The Pie
Gracious hostess that she is, Martha Stewart has a reputation for sharing her seemingly unlimited wealth of homemaking knowledge with her devoted followers. In October 1999, she decided to literally share the wealth, and Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia made its initial public offering (IPO). Opening at $18 per share, the stock quickly skyrocketed to more than $35 per share by the end of the first day of trading, making it one of the most successful non-Internet-related IPOs of the year.
For reprints and licensing questions, click here.