Tom Moroney (c) 2014, Bloomberg News. MCALLEN, Texas — Texas is big. Isabel Hernandez’s morning is bigger, not an inch of her day planner clear when the phone rings. A customer has run plumb out of bath oil. Hernandez pulls a U-turn on the highway and heads for the home of Velma Aguilar.
“Hola!” she chirps as she arrives at Aguilar’s ranch house in McAllen, the Rio Grande Valley city eight miles from the Mexican border. The two hug. Over the next 30 minutes, side by side on a leather couch, Hernandez steers the retired kindergarten teacher through a $102.83 order of bath oil and creams as a card-carrying member of the lipstick-and-makeup brigade that has been marching through America’s neighborhoods since 1886.
Hernandez, 39, is a newly minted Avon Lady. It is difficult to imagine a single American corporation and individual who need each more than these two.
The corporation is sinking: Its peripatetic sales force has shrunk to an estimated 300,000 from a peak of 600,000 in 2004. The market value in that same period has fallen by about three- quarters to $5 billion, and the stock is down 36 percent this year. Charges of mismanagement and a Chinese bribery probe that resulted in Avon agreeing to pay $135 million in civil and criminal claims only begin to explain the mess.
Avon’s best chances appear to lie in places like McAllen, a palm-tree-lined retail sprawl of a city in the news this summer as the destination for an unprecedented number of unaccompanied children crossing into the United States illegally. McAllen’s 137,000 legal residents are 85 percent Hispanic. The top 10 U.S. Avon districts are mostly Hispanic. Almost a third of high-level sales and recruiting reps are Hispanic. Hernandez is Hispanic.
If the company had focused more on its Hispanic customers sooner, it could have avoided some trouble, Pablo Munoz, president of Avon North America, said at a conference in February.
Cue Hernandez. She has three children — ages 16, 8 and 4 — and a husband, Cristino, 53, who drives a truck. They live in a modest three-bedroom house with an overgrown lawn. Family income is $35,000, only a few thousand of that coming from Hernandez right now. The sum total doesn’t go far even in the tip of the dusty Texas boot.
What’s more, Cristino has diabetes. He takes medication in pill form for his condition. Should doctors decide he needs to inject insulin, Hernandez says she worries Cristino could lose his driver’s license. A state medical board would need to review his case.
Never mind this scary what-if, Hernandez says her husband doesn’t know how they make ends meet now.
The plan is to have him join his wife one day as a partner in her budding Avon venture. With only a year under her belt, Hernandez makes about $100 every two weeks, so there’s plenty of work to be done before they call it a breadwinning enterprise.
“I just want to do what’s right for my family,” she says through a translator. Hernandez speaks no English — fellow Avon Ladies helped translate during interviews.
Possessed of a bright round face and warm brown eyes, she was born in Soto La Marina, Tamaulipas, Mexico in 1975. A single mom, she landed in the U.S. in 2002 with her oldest daughter, leaving a good job as a college-educated accountant after gunmen surrounded her car in what she believes was a kidnap-for-ransom attempt.
With a tourist visa she had used regularly to come shopping, she moved to McAllen. Her visa along with her daughter’s expired in 2012, making her one of an estimated 1.8 million undocumented Texas immigrants. She said she’s working with a lawyer for legal status.
That she was not afraid to have her name and circumstances published goes to her high comfort level in a Tex-Mex universe where English and Spanish are woven into most every conversation. Signs over pawn shops in McAllen read, “Buy Gold & Silver,” and, underneath, “Compro Oro Y Plata.” Higher-end retail zones with Mercedes dealers, Michael Kors and more draw wealthy Mexicans who have come up with an eponymous verb for their pricey sojourns: mcallenear or “to do McAllen.”
In the early days, Hernandez made tacos and tamales and sold them at her daughter’s school for a dollar. In 2005, she married Cristino, a Mexican with a permanent resident card, and they had two more children.
She first heard of Avon back in Mexico when she went to see “Edward Scissorhands,” the 1990 movie starring Johnny Depp. The woman who takes in Depp’s strange boy is an Avon Lady. Hernandez can still recall the key line from the subtitles.
“Ding dong, senora del Avon!” she says and laughs.
Last year, a teacher who is an Avon rep brought her to the office of Silvia Tamayo, McAllen’s Avon superstar.
Tamayo’s empire ranks 13th in the U.S. with an average $5 million in yearly sales from the 973 reps she’s recruited over 18 years. Most all are women and, like Hernandez, some are undocumented and working toward citizenship, according to Tamayo. Avon doesn’t get involved with the reps’ background because they are not employed by the company, said Jennifer Vargas, a spokeswoman.
They are independent distributors who buy products “like they’re shopping with Avon,” Tamayo said.
Tamayo’s success draws recruits with hopes of emulating her. Also a Mexican immigrant and now a U.S. citizen, Tamayo made $250,000 in her best year. She says she averages $200,000 and lives with her husband and two of three adult children. She counts among her vehicles two Mercedes and a Ford F150 pickup.
There are six levels to the sales-force hierarchy, from unit leader all the way up to Tamayo’s rank as national senior executive, she said. Avon gives them all a cut of what their first-, second- and third-generation recruits bring in. Tamayo says the system isn’t a pyramid scheme because reps under her make money, often good money.
Avon’s U.S. reps were able to pocket 20- to 50-percent in profits on orders totaling more than a $1 billion worth of products sold in 2013, said Vargas, the company spokeswoman.
Vargas also said Avon is committed to turning itself around.
“We have all the ingredients for success: a powerful and iconic brand that people love, great products, and terrific representatives,” she said.
Tamayo’s McAllen Avon recruits don’t knock on doors. Too dangerous. Instead, they carry sample eyeliner and perfume and approach people in stores, restaurants, churches, gyms, school parking lots. For 10 cards she passes out, Tamayo, who still works as a sales rep too, says she gets two calls.
“Gracias,” Hernandez says as she finishes with the retired kindergarten teacher and drives to the parking lot of a Target store. There, she hands shoppers pink “Say Yes to Avon” cards in English and Spanish. The sun’s so hot the ants dance and the sky fills with towering gray and white sponge clouds that refuse to be wrung out to ease the summer drought.
Hernandez never stops. Even a quick stop to gas up her Chevy Sonic gives her the chance to wander the pump area and mini-mart inside, passing out cards.
By early afternoon, Hernandez goes home to the town of Alamo for some paperwork and phone calls. Sitting at her desk in the small den, she points to a flat-screen television. She won that, an iPad, popcorn machine and juicer through various Avon recruitment promotions.
At 3 p.m. she heads out to pick up the children at school and then to McDonald’s, where Big Macs are discounted on Wednesdays.
Hernandez leaves Melissa, her oldest child, who is bilingual, to watch her younger siblings as they eat and tumble around the indoor playground.
“She has this drive to do better at everything,” Melissa says of her mother. “And Avon is the one thing I think she’s best at.”