Subscribe to Entrepreneur for $5

Like Sinatra, She Did It Her Way

Being a bit of a maverick proves to be Tova Borgnine's route to success.


Tova Borgnine has never done what's easy. She finds her way around what might seem insurmountable obstacles with quiet determination and a can-do attitude, characteristics that served to build her enduring, multimillion-dollar Tova line of skin and fragrance products.

Her most notable success has been selling millions of dollars of her Tova Signature perfume on QVC for the past 19 years, without potential customers getting so much as a whiff of the fragrance.

Borgnine owned a successful skin-care company in the 1980s when she decided it was time to create a fragrance. She tracked a bath oil fragrance she admired to a small East Coast essential oils company and arranged a meeting with the president. "I want to make this as a fine, fine perfume," she told the owner. "We don't do perfume," he responded.

Borgnine didn't take no for an answer. She brought in her big guns--husband and famed actor Ernest Borgnine. Together, she says, "we convinced him." The result--Tova Signature--has endured for 26 years and been nominated for the Fragrance Hall of Fame.

Last month, Borgnine received the Retailer of the Year award from the Fragrance Foundation, both for her innovative use of direct marketing to sell her products and for her longevity in a fickle fragrance industry that is dominated by celebrity spokesmodels.

Advice for Aspiring Entrepreneurs
Tova offers the following six tips for those with an entrepreneurial spirit:

1. If you want something, and you want to do it, it's going to be hard work--that's why it has to be something you love.

2. Live your passion; live your dream. Don't let anyone step on it.

3. What you say you better mean. Strive for a perception of your product or services that exceeds expectations.

Don't let trends dictate your actions. Find a niche no one else is interested in and pursue that.

4. Don't lose the human touch.

5. Be exposed to as much as possible. If you didn't do it when you were young, do it now--whatever your age is.

Borgnine credits her mother for making her feel like an empowered woman at the tender age of 7 and a half. The pair emigrated to the U.S. from Norway "with a dream and $76," Borgnine says. As they arrived in New York harbor, Borgnine remembers her mother telling her, "Now that you are in America, you can do anything." That refrain became Borgnine's mantra--"It can be done"--and that attitude, she says, fueled her many successes over the years.

Borgnine Finds Her Passion

She discovered her passion while studying to become an actress. Learning to work with theatrical makeup, she was fascinated by the changes it made possible, transforming an individual from ingénue to character actress. "I was mesmerized by the possibilities," she says. Soon she was newly married and living in New Jersey, but determined to "keep my hand in," she opened a boutique in New York called Tova's Touch.

When the marriage failed, she went to the West Coast and settled in Las Vegas. Showgirls and dancers there had to get their makeup from Los Angeles or New York. Recognizing an opportunity, Borgnine opened makeup concessions at Caesar's Palace and what is now the Las Vegas Hilton.

"I lived it, breathed it, ate it, slept it," Borgnine says. She soon became a fixture in Las Vegas, earning a reputation with headliners and celebrities as well as showgirls and dancers. Comedian Marty Allen and his wife, Frenchie, took Borgnine under their wing. Eventually, that led to a blind date with actor Ernest Borgnine, who became Tova's second husband.

The skin-care business began after Borgnine obtained a sample of a facial mask from a friend of Merle Oberon, sourced from an Aztec Indian woman who lived in Mexico. After testing it in her salons, Borgnine decided to track the family down in Mexico and secure the distribution rights to the product. The compound, which the family mixed in vats in their kitchen, became her entrée into what would become a business empire.

Journalist Harry Scott turned out to be the catalyst for what became a textbook direct-sales campaign. During an interview with Scott, Ernest Borgnine made a point of touting his wife's skin cream. That led Scott to write an article about "Tova's facelift in a jar" that all the celebrities were using.

A few weeks later, Borgnine went to the couple's post office box to pick up her husband's fan mail. That stack of mail contained $56,000 worth of orders for what became a product called Tova-9. Scott's article had included a price for the cream--$60--and the address of the P.O. Box.

Tova-9 Makes Direct-Mail History

"We're now part of history in direct-response universities," Borgnine says. "If you take an ancient formula, celebrity, and you have a simple, effective product--you have a marketing plan."

But that unanticipated marketing plan left Borgnine with a dilemma. Under the law, she had six weeks to get mail-order products to purchasers or return the $56,000.

She flew to Mexico with a translator the following day, to speak with the family that made the compound. "I told the family I needed 2½ tons of product in four weeks," she says. "I believed in this, and I was concerned about those people who had sent in their money with trust. I had to be able to supply them.

"It's amazing how money talks," reflects Borgnine, who says family members began walking out on her until she started piling $100 bills on top of one another. "They put their whole family together and got it done," she says. Meanwhile, Borgnine found a company to do the packaging for her. And within six weeks, 2,163 UPS boxes were shipped to customers.

As newspapers across the country published Scott's story, transmitted by the wire services, more customers sent in their money. "All together, before that article sort of died and went to bed, it brought in over half a million dollars," Borgnine says.

The success of the direct-mail method wasn't lost on Borgnine, who began publishing full-page advertisements in newspapers nationwide, including the National Enquirer. And the mail orders kept coming.

Don't Follow the Crowd

When it came to creating the Tova Signature fragrance, Borgnine once again went against conventional wisdom. "The fragrance industry is like the entertainment industry," she says. "If one studio is doing something, someone else will do something similar." The clean, fresh fragrance Borgnine wanted to create was a departure from the norm in the early 1980s. "That was the height of Giorgio . . .You could walk in a room and smell it going and coming." Another difference was aging the perfume for three months, like a fine wine, before it's placed inside a bottle.

Tova Signature was also part of a direct-mail catalogue containing scent strips and a company that prided itself on customer service, including a toll-free number, beauty counselors who earned salaries as well as commission, and a comprehensive list of customers' birthdays and other personal information.

Still, by 1986, Borgnine was looking for new marketing routes for her skin-care and perfume products. At the time, TV had a few electronic retail channels: HSN and CVN, "and this small upstart called QVC," Borgnine recalls. That startup soon purchased CVN, and Borgnine decided she wanted to sell her products on QVC. She arranged a meeting in August 1990 with Darlene Daggett, the head of the channel's beauty and fashion division. By November, Borgnine was on the air with her skin care line. The line did well on QVC, so Borgnine persuaded then-Vice President Doug Briggs to let her sell her perfume on air. Tova Signature debuted in July 1999. "We sold out so fast, we had thousands of orders waiting," she says.

Borgnine says she doesn't have a set script for selling her perfume, but she makes a personal guarantee to customers: "You put it on in the morning and eight hours later--I promise you, personally--people will come up and say, 'What are you wearing?' " The first sale is always a matter of trust, she says. After that, the perfume has to live up to its promise.

It has done that, because Tova is now on its third generation of customers, with 10 million bottles sold. The QVC success has been repeated in London and Germany, where Borgnine also appears on TV regularly.

'I Love What I Do'

"I'm usually never anywhere longer than two weeks before I go on another trip," she says. "I love what I do, and I'm very blessed to have a lot of people that I may never meet or know in the sense of touch and feel, but they also believe in what I'm doing. You can't have better than that."

This month, Borgnine debuted her brand-new Tova Signature Platinum fragrance to celebrate what she calls "25 extraordinary years."

To be considered eau de perfume, a fragrance has to contain 15 percent to 20 percent of essential oils. Borgnine has always insisted on 28 percent. "It lasts longer. It's more luxurious on the skin," she explains. But Tova Signature Platinum is 32 ½ percent essential oils. "We also chill the fragrance and then filter it so, to me, it is like a liquid diamond because it's totally clear," she says.

Borgnine still loves what she does and is by no means ready to quit. But she is preparing to embark on a new stage in her evolution: "I've made a commitment now to tell the story and teach the story [via] seminars and so forth--to assist other people to find their niche or their calling or what they want to do in life."