Interview as part of the “Made in United States” project
By Ilya Galak
Leonid Markman – founder and CEO of the skin care company Nature Pure Labs, was born in 1960 in the former Soviet Union. In 1988 he graduated from the Belarusian State Technological University. He migrated to the U.S in 1991, and as of 1993 has established his respected reputation as a scientist and researcher in the development of products that improve skin condition, which all started from when he worked at Warner – Lambert (Pfizer). While working at the pharmaceutical giant he was involved in the creation of products which can be found in one of every four American households – a line of products for personal hygiene, remedial formulas, and the final formulas for products such as Lubriderm, Listerine, Benadryl, Neosporin, EPT and others.
IG: You came to America with $50 in your pocket; it probably wasn’t easy, was it?
LM: Well, first off, I was ten times richer; I had a whole $500 in my pocket. As for it being difficult, it was the same for everyone. It is not easy even for those born in the U.S., to say nothing of immigrants. I had to do loading/unloading work for an old furniture charity known as Metropolitan Council, where wealthy Jewish people donated their old, heavy furniture along with other things to the underprivileged. After that I worked several months at McDonalds. My next job, to my surprise, brought me to Jeri-Treks. The interview at Jeri-Treks was totally un-American. I poorly understood English and spoke it even worse. The owner, a chemist himself, asked me solely technical questions; I demonstrated for him on paper, as I wrote down and drew with a pencil all the formulas and chemical compositions. After about ten questions, Anthony Madayo hired me. The salary was, of course, ridiculous, but this was my first job in the U.S. where I had the opportunity to work in skin care industry.
IG: Why did you come to the U.S.?
LM: We decided to go to America for several reasons. The first part of the answer is simple and banal. It was clear to us that our kids would have a different life here in the U.S., a better one with wider perspectives. Secondly, we were young enough at a ripe age of 31 years old, and believed that we would have many more opportunities in America than in the Soviet Union. Thirdly, after the so-called Putsch and GKChP, there was a burdening feeling that Russia will never be different, and this belching from the socialist deadlock will always haunt the country. Lastly, the fourth reason, we always were and will be strangers to that land, and in the grander scheme, we were and always will be strangers everywhere, except for Israel, land of the Jewish people. Nonetheless, America has always been a symbol of human rights and unlimited opportunities, which is why when the chance came, we took it, and today my family and I are proud to be American.
IG: Were there problems adjusting to your new life?
LM: I have to this day. Having arrived to the U.S. with an established individuality, it will never be possible to speak English without an accent. The cultural nuances of the country, its customs, verbal hints, and subtleties of humor, can take decades to settle in, or they might not ever. People are followed by these problems onto their dying breaths. For a chemist in this situation, creating and marketing a new product can be unimaginably hard. If you’re a person who writes a lot, to be understood in English, it’s unavoidable that you reflect the local language’s protocols and traditions in order to be easily understood.
IG: Leonid, could you say a few words about the ethnic roots of your family?
LM: If you’re asking about my parent’s roots than it’s simple. My parents are among the almost extinct ethnic group of Soviet Jews. These people understood the Yiddish language, but were afraid to speak it. They knew that observing the Jewish traditions in the Soviet Union was not only without perspective, but dangerous; therefore, it practical to maximally assimilate so that their kids could lead a normal life.
IG: A few words about your company?
LM: Nature Pure – started out as a dream, and unexpectedly became reality. I think that for all of us, at one point in our American lives, we meet an American born in the U.S., a friend, who ends up greatly influencing our world view. When I was already working for Pfizer (my company division was called Warner – Lambert), fate had gifted me a very short friendship, lasting only 11 months, with a person named Sy Weinstein. I was a very low ranking scientist, and he was a department head. Clearly, I wouldn’t have had the guts to approach such a big executive, he did everything himself. I taught him to play chess, and he told me argumentatively and precisely what one must do in America to make their dreams come true. Then, he had a heart attack at the wheel; he got out of the car onto the grass, and died. I, step by step, made what he told me into reality. Sy promised that when I didn’t know what to do next, he’d help out, point me to the right people, not just anyone, but the industries most influential names. But he couldn’t, and I made it happen without him. He, if maybe today, could see what I’ve accomplished and invented, would be proud that, it was he who told me to go down this road, instead of going for the slow and unwelcoming ladder climbing in a large corporation.
IG: Why do you make your products in the U.S.?
LM: Because in America I can control what’s being done, first of all. Secondly, all the world’s best ingredients for skincare products are either made in the U.S. or shipped here in mass quantities. Thirdly, if it’s expensive to make products here, then that can be made up for by avoiding the high costs of shipping, whether it is components or finished products, from oversees. I arrived to the conclusion that my skincare products should be made at home after doing a bit of experimenting and deduction. Working with Russians is not comfortable; they always play games, and never keep their word. China is not as cheap as it used to be 10-15 years ago. Also, given the prices and the low qualities, and not being able to oversee production, why should I order from China? In Europe, as well as in Canada and Israel, labor is costly. Where else can I place an order to, Africa? Even for humanitarian reasons, I think neither we, nor the Africans, need this.
IG: What do we need to do, in your opinion, to bring jobs back to the U.S.?
LM: Our first problem is taxes. The higher the taxes, the more expensive it is to manufacture goods at home. Accordingly, businesses will look for ways to survive by reducing labor costs. The declining technological manufacturing, I believe, under today’s governing policies, will go straight to India. While the industries that will continue to do business with the well-to-do Chinese will be the ones who can’t afford to move their production elsewhere. India will be the second place, after China, where masses of American jobs will set sail to. The second problem – Healthcare. Our president not only has no understanding of private business; I believe that he doesn’t even see the difference between big and small business. Unfortunately, this is also the case for nearly all, yes nearly all, of the president’s team. Now medium and small businesses, to survive the expenses of taxes and health insurance, will simply lay off employees and put more responsibility on themselves and their remaining workers. Look around, thousands of businesses, even those that have been running for decades, are closing their doors. There can’t be any talk of big earnings, only of survival. And lastly, businesses need more freedom to choose their strategies, and less regulation. In New York, inspectors go around the most vulnerable small businesses where the owners themselves work with maybe one or two employees. They give out fines for about $500-$1000, because price labels aren’t stuck on all the goods, or the minimal price for credit card purchases is not clearly displayed, or there’s a piece of paper lying just outside the doorway, which could have come from anywhere. This disorder in the factories of Russia once led to the revolution. Oh, I don’t know if such a comparison would be valid.
IG: What are some key life choices that led to your success?
LM: At the very beginning, before the official founding of the company, we conducted a survey. All it had was one question: Would you be willing to give up your current skincare product, to try a new but promising product. About 80% answered in the negative. In spite of the survey results, I believed that if the people would see that the new product is better than the old, then they would make a level-headed choice. We had to swim against the current, which is always hard. Just like here, we achieved our biggest successes only through non-conformist decisions.
Another example, we spent a lot of time, effort, and money to put out products with soy isoflavones. Soy isoflavone, is a substance derived from soy beans, which has a chemical structure similar to female estrogen, and at the same time is full of natural plant extract. We put into the market a product that took the rest of the industry another 10 years to catch up to.
The same thing happened with my tomato lycopene concentrate and sea buckthorn in skin care products. We made the first product then in a few years the big guys started publishing articles on the topic and took all the credit. But we were still the first! The biggest achievements of the company happened when we made an unconventional choice that the rest of the market would eventually adapt too, if it was the right choice. This involved a lot of risk, sleepless nights, and uncertainty over potential monetary losses, yet there is no other way of competing with the giants of the skincare industry, whose budget for research and advertising has 6 more zeros than ours, the small businesses.
IG: Is your family also involved in the workings of Nature Pure?
LM: Naturally. We have founded a skin care company that does not resell someone else’s products, and creates hundreds of original formulas, according to a certain concept, with the introduction of super-active products and brand new ingredients. Firstly, this requires quite a bit of money, secondly a lot of work and responsibility was up to us, and all the days and nights of work were vital for the company’s growth. Thirdly, it’s not within the power of a single person to do all of that, so the entire family worked for Nature Pure, me, my wife, our two girls, and our parents. Moreover, our youngest, Victoria, is currently the president of our company. She is also the director of an educational program for the owners and managers of salons and spas; she has a master’s in business. In addition she’s a licensed beautician (esthetician) in several states. When Victoria was only a child, I would be making new products, and she would stand next to me, look on, and ask questions endlessly. Maybe that’s why when she was in college, she knew more and did better than all the other students.
IG: Besides your business and time spent with your family, what do you do for fun?
LM: I write. At first I was writing popular science articles in newspapers. Then, preparing for radio broadcasting, I wrote mini-novels, for which, if I were to have the time, I’d make a separate book. Then I took a swing at fiction. I really do not know how well I’m doing it. I think that in the near future, what I had written would be appreciated by readers.
IG: What is your vision of this country in five years?
LM: Optimism, sad to say, not much of it. The recent presidential elections have shown quite clearly that more than 50% of Americans are unhappy with the reluctance or inability of this administration to stop the insane growth of government and bureaucracy. Most of the country is not worried by the insane debt or the catastrophic affair which is unemployment. An overwhelming amount of Americans do not want to earn their money, but are not against just having it handed to them. Lastly, the President’s promise that taxes would not go up for 95% of the population was a lie, they went up for whoever pays them. More than half the population of this country was not embarrassed by our administration’s failures in international policy. In recent times I try not to watch anything at all on TV dealing with politics because I will have to hear again how the rich must share, I’ve heard this enough in my life.
I think that in five years we will see a growing socialist system in the European style. To me the chances of an administration change seem low, seeing as how the conservative party is led by talentless people with limited strategic options. For comparison, the people who led the current administration to victory, despite the flops of the past four years, the secretive biography of the candidate, the unprecedented decline in the prestige and respect for the United States in the international arena, have managed to come up with a winning strategy, managed to raise more money, and completely, and on all counts defeat the team of senseless blabbers – conservatives. In ideological terms, I have little common ground with the president’s team, mainly because they lack vision to the point that they can’t even see that the country is headed downwards under their administration. With regards to professionalism, Axelrod and his team are incredibly capable, I say this without any irony, they could bring to power a new Hitler or any other hideous figure.
In conclusion, I must say thank you to the magazine… for giving me the chance to talk about my company Nature Pure. I sincerely wish that none of my speculations and predictions of the future come true. I am involved very little with politics, and see my place as to continue creating ideas, formulas, and products that will make our women even more beautiful.