As her son and work colleagues debate the merits of Prosecco versus Campari as an aperitif, Annemarie Lindner?s attention is focused elsewhere. Her bright brown eyes scrutinize a middle-aged woman at a nearby table.
Lindner smiles and gestures to get the woman?s attention. ?You have beautiful skin,? she says, raising her voice slightly to be heard over the raucous discussion at her table. The woman blushes in pleasure. She and her husband are celebrating their wedding anniversary, she tells Lindner, and are splurging on this five-star restaurant hidden in the Black Forest of Germany.
Lindner tells the woman that she makes skin care products and would like to send her some. As the woman writes down her address, an observer whispers in astonishment to Lindner, ?Does she know who you are?? The Estée Lauder of the natural skin care industry just smiles. The fact that she?s just offered the woman some of the best-known and most expensive personal care products in Germany is inconsequential. What does matter to Lindner is that her dining companion?s skin remains clear and smooth for many anniversaries to come.
For more than 70 years, beautiful skin has been Lindner?s credo. As founder of Annemarie Borlind, she?s striven to produce personal care products that not only contain natural and organic ingredients, but are also effective for everything from teenage acne to octogenarian wrinkles. Along the way, she has helped revolutionize the U.S. natural personal care industry, from product packaging to ingredient testing to in-store training.
?Before Borlind was introduced in the United States in the ?80s, [manufacturers] talked about natural personal care ingredients and how their products didn?t have all that nasty synthetic stuff, but they didn?t focus on the functionality. Borlind was a dramatic difference from what anyone else was doing. The products really changed the texture and condition of your skin,? says Robin Rogosin, who was a regional personal care and supplements buyer for Mrs. Gooch?s markets in the 1980s, and now does the same job for Whole Foods Market. Sandy Gooch, founder of Mrs. Gooch?s, recalls kitchen-concocted face creams that went rancid on store shelves, and ?creative packaging with rainbows and flowers and fonts that were unique, to say the least.?
When Borlind products first hit Mrs. Gooch?s and other natural foods stores? shelves in 1980, the quality was visible. The creams came in glass bottles, and the company offered clinical studies to back up its ingredients. ?It had that department-store professionalism, an esthetician feel to it. You could tell it wasn?t a kitchen sink kind of formula, that it was something much more profoundly thought out, from raw materials and emulsions to human testing,? Rogosin says.
?The creams were richer, the cleansers more functional, the toners really felt like they did something. It just reeked of a different level of quality. It was the kind of thing where you wanted to wear a white jacket to sell it.?
?Borlind was unique, but it was no pie-in-the-sky product,? adds Gooch, who still uses the company?s System Absolute day and night cream. ?They just went about their business and they did it right, with quality packaging, product demos and samples, impeccable manufacturing processes that were unique at that time, and superb ingredients that worked.
?That?s the legacy of Annemarie Lindner—that and her unique, wonderful story that was so typical of our industry in the ?80s: someone who believed in a concept, who stepped up to the plate and did the work. She?s a wonderful symbol of what can happen when you combine quality and good manufacturing processes.?
Acne and autocracy
Annemarie Lindner?s skin is an advertisement for her company. At age 84, her cheeks and forehead are so smooth and unlined, you can?t help but speculate if she?s had a facelift—or four. But Lindner smiles and shakes her head vigorously when asked about cosmetic surgery.
?People need to be able to age. I?m totally against all surgery,? she says through an interpreter. ?If you care for yourself, care for your appearance, you can grow old with dignity.?
Anne Andrist, wellness manager at New Seasons Market in Portland, Ore., says of Lindner: ?She told me that you?ll always have laugh lines, and those are lines of life, but wrinkles caused by the environment?we can do something about that. She was so gracious about the aging process and very empathetic with skin problems. It wasn?t just all about beauty.?
But Lindner?s skin wasn?t always worthy of a cosmetics ad. As a teenager in eastern Germany in the 1930s, Lindner had horrible acne. ?I had to go to many doctors, dermatologists and clinics but nobody could help,? she says. Even chemical peels were ineffective. Cosmetics weren?t an option, because Hitler had banned all cosmetics companies, believing German women should be naturally beautiful. So Lindner concocted her own acne formulas.
?I tried healing earth mixed with egg yolks. Later, my husband gave me very old herb books, and I tried recipes from those as well.?
During those years, Lindner was working in various shops as a salesperson. She says when she finished school at age 14, sales was the only career available to a young girl in a country where 7 million people were unemployed. But after spending only a few minutes in Lindner?s company, it?s clear to any observer that she was born to sell. Never pushy and always gracious, she nevertheless exudes a competence and command that makes even the most skeptical want to follow her lead.
?When you see her and the quality of her skin, all the way to her décolletage, you just feel you have to do everything she says,? Rogosin says. ?She?s just such a testament that what she says is real.?
But while the sales personality may be innate, the competence had to be learned. Realizing that her herbal skin care blends needed refining, Lindner spent her nights and weekends studying natural cosmetics with a local herbalist. Lindner?s devotion to plant-based skin care was so radical in those days, she became known as ?The Herbal Aunt.?
?It was a double meaning, like a witch doctor,? she says.
By day she was working with a different kind of plant—tobacco. ?It was so hard to find a job, I became a sales rep for cigarettes and alcohol products,? she says. Even in the 1940s, Lindner understood the harm caused by the products she was selling. It became the final impetus she needed to launch a healthy skincare line.
In 1947, at age 26, she and her husband Walter founded the Annemarie Lindner company in Leipzig, an East German town near Berlin. She hired a lab person and began concocting skin care products, focusing on herbal remedies for blemished and sensitive skin. She was atypical in that she used no animal-based products—?nothing from dead animals,? she says emphatically, waving her hands in the air—nor did she test on animals.
Not only did she put her herbal knowledge to use, she incorporated folk remedies as well.
?When I was a little girl, I?d watch my grandmother produce butter by separating the cream and milk,? Lindner says. ?She?d put it all in a large bowl and skim off the cream. What was left on her hand she put on her face. That?s where I learned cream from a cow could be used for sensitive skin.? She expanded her knowledge of skin types by testing her products on customers, and came up with the idea for a skin care system: cleansing milk, toner, day cream and night cream formulated specifically for different skin types.
?I?m the pioneer of the system [method of skin care] and I?m proud of that,? she says. But didn?t the famous Hungarian skin care specialist Erno Laszlo debut a similar system two decades previously at his institute in Budapest? ?I?ve never heard of Erno Laszlo,? she says. ?I?m usually not interested in what others are doing—I follow my own way.?
In keeping with German law that all cosmetics be tested, Lindner sent her formulas to Berlin, achieving an ?S? rating, the highest allowed. She says as the only German skin care line with that rating, Annemarie Lindner cosmetics quickly became popular. Lindner herself became so well known, she was asked to host a weekly radio show about cosmetics.
Soon, the East German government became interested in her business. In communist Germany, all manufacturing plants were state-owned. But because Lindner?s business was operated out of two adjoining houses, the government thought it was a shop rather than a factory. Lindner was left to develop and sell her formulas in peace. ?I?ve always been lucky,? she says.
It took more than luck, though, for Lindner?s business to thrive. She worked so hard that she had virtually no time for her son, Michael. ?My mother raised him,? she says matter-of-factly. ?My husband said there were three pillars of the company—me out there on the road, my mother in the house and him in the factory.?
Much of Annemarie?s time was spent in personal consultations with customers in health food shops, perfumeries and hairdressing salons throughout East Germany. ?That?s why I became so well known—people could see the effect of my products on myself,? she says. ?They could see I?m in cosmetics because I?m absolutely convinced of their effect.?
But the fame had an emotional toll. ?I would be away for three weeks a month while my husband managed the factory. I often felt sad because I was alone for so long. One day I was in Bonn and the flowers were blossoming and the lovers walking around, and I called my husband and told him, ?If you don?t come here right now, I?ll get in my car and drive into the Rhine.??
Still, Lindner was devoted to her demos. Even today, she?ll automatically scrutinize a stranger?s skin and match it to products in her line.
?She?s always on. We were in the middle of a meeting once and she said, ?Come on, I?ll show you how to do this [skin care system],?? says Polly Kulow, president of Borlind?s American division. ?So she took us into the powder room, took off her shirt and showed us how to apply the cream, pat down the skin and how to dry it.
?Even when she goes on cruises for vacation, they always have her do a training. She absolutely believes in the product, believes in the system of caring for your skin, and that enthusiasm shows in everything she does.?
Every year, two representatives from the East German finance authority came to check Lindner?s company books. ?In May 1958,? she recalls, ?they asked my husband, ?Well, Mr. Lindner, what do you think about state participation in your company?? The only thing he could say was he thought it was a positive. We did not predict what would come toward us.?
After the bank clerk said he had to close all the company?s accounts because they now belonged to the state, and the secret police visited the factory, Annemarie?s husband and mother decided to flee East Germany immediately. The Berlin Wall hadn?t been built yet, so they and 9-year-old Michael took a taxi across the border. To make it look as if they were simply making a short trip, they took only her mother?s retirement documents and some clothes jammed into suitcases.
Annemarie, who was on a three-month consultation trip near the Baltic Sea, woke up that day with no idea that she would never see her home and business again. Her husband came to get her, and with only the box of china, bed linens and cooking equipment she had packed for her trip, she got on a train headed west. ?The policeman and railway conductor checked my ticket—I told them I had to go back home because my mother needed an operation,? she says.
The Lindners made it to West Berlin and joined the rest of the family, staying above a friend?s restaurant. ?But I had to go back to East Berlin—I had a wholesaler there and open bills,? she says. ?My husband said no, don?t take the risk. But I had to.
?With the money to settle the accounts hidden close to my belly, I caught a train to East Berlin.? She was able to complete her business transactions and get on a train back to West Berlin. ?At the last stop in the GDR [East Germany], in came a lot of policeman who randomly picked people to follow them,? she says with a tremor in her voice. ?They didn?t pick me. I was so lucky. But I was so sick when I got off the train I had to hold onto something. When I got back to the restaurant, my husband said, ?What?s wrong? You look like white cheese.??
The Lindners had lost everything. Not only did the East German government take her business and formulas and give them to another state-run cosmetics company, she says, ?they stole my leaf??the linden leaf logo that had symbolized the Annemarie Lindner line. It still rankles Lindner today that the company, Gerdeen, uses her leaf design on its packaging.
The family that had been rich in East Germany now had nothing but a few clothes, some kitchen utensils and a set of bedroom furniture belonging to Walter?s adult son from a previous marriage. They lived in two small rooms in an attic of her stepson?s house in Braunschweig, West Germany. ?It was hard, very hard,? Lindner says with tears in her eyes, her voice breaking. ?We didn?t have any money and I still felt very much uneasy. I cried a lot and my husband tried to calm me down, saying, ?Don?t you worry. Every time one door closes a window will open.?
?One morning a postman rang our bell and told us he had four months? retirement benefits for my mother. So that was the window. I was so lucky.?
She decided to launch a new Annemarie Lindner skin care company in West Germany. She and her husband rented a former paint shop in Braunschweig, found a 20-pound mixer in Hanover and hooked up with a former supplier now operating in West Germany. But she had to cut corners—?I used to have 100 percent pure alcohol in my toners, but I couldn?t afford it in the West. I bought cheaper, less pure alcohol,? she says. She remembers with pride the day she finally produced all of her signature toners. ?I said, ?Look, Mom, I?ve got my four different toners again!? And then I went into the lab and the alcohol had made the toner cloudy. I was in tears.?
Lindner persevered, finally developing products to her standards. Then came the next test. ?My husband went around to the shops and tried to sell the products, but they were very hard to sell. One day he came home and told me he had made his first sale. ?I sold one-twelfth of a dozen of herbal masks to a pharmacist!? he said.
?He was always the positive one, the optimist,? she says with a faraway smile. ?I?m the cautious one.?
Soon, Lindner was doing her first customer consultation in a health foods store. After that, ?success was immediate in the West,? she says. ?People would line up at shops for my skin diagnosis."
At the end of 1958, the Lindners heard from a former East German customer about a man who wanted to start a cosmetics firm. ?We went to the Black Forest to meet him,? Lindner recalls. ?We weren?t interested in his company—we just wanted to see the Black Forest.?
But the meeting with Hermann Börner turned out to be propitious. He sold supplements and had a network of sales reps throughout the country. If the two companies merged, Annemarie Lindner could take advantage of that network. ?We signed an agreement that night, and my husband came up with the name Annemarie Borlind,? Lindner says.
The science of Borlind
The Lindners moved to Börner?s company headquarters in Altburg in the Black Forest, an area known for its soft, pure water. Annemarie formulated products in the basement of Börner?s house. By 1964, Annemarie Borlind products were being exported to Belgium, Luxembourg and the Netherlands. ?The way was always up,? she says.
As the business expanded, so did Lindner?s formulations. ?I had an idea to produce a new line for women over 30. I had a cream so soft, so smooth, so mild, I thought, ?Let?s call it Lady Lind, because lind is German for soft. But people thought that sounded strange. So I thought, ?Let?s just call it LL.??
Lindner makes it sound easy, but Borlind Product Manager Rainer Bartsich, who has been with the company 25 years, remembers it took 80,000 test batches and three years to develop the LL night cream. ?We?d put products inside cars parked outside or in the garage, in all different temperatures, to see if they were stable,? he says.
Even in the early days, when the company was strapped for cash, Lindner understood the importance of scientific research and product testing. The company has had a research lab for 35 years. ?We started with 70,000 deutsche marks? worth of equipment. That was a lot for that time,? says Borlind?s first formulator, Ursula Heinze. Today, Borlind?s $800,000 lab and testing facility employs nine people. Scientists in white coats and hairnets measure everything from the acid content of plant oil to the radioactivity of metal-based pigments.
?We believe in quality control, that only with good raw materials can you make good finished products,? says Dr. Gotz Ritzmann, Borlind?s director of research and development. ?German law requires we put a ?safe? product on the market, but how we determine that is up to us.?
Borlind?s commitment to quality earned it a certification in 1964 from Germany?s rigorous Neuform independent testing program for natural and organic products. Neuform-certified products are sold in Reformhauses, an association of about 2,400 natural foods retailers throughout Germany.
When raw ingredients are shipped to Borlind, they?re first tested to see if they meet the company criteria for identity, purity and microbiological organisms. Borlind has a bevy of chemical analysis machines that test 2,300 to 2,400 raw materials each year, many of which are organic.
Formulators then develop samples that are placed in petri dishes and tested daily for mold, yeast and bacteria; run through a centrifuge to see if the oil, water and cream separate; and chemically analyzed for peroxides, which develop if an oil is too hot.
?It could take six months to a year and a half, and 40 to 60 experiments, to make one formula,? Ritzmann says.
After the scientific testing, the formula then goes through human testing. Twenty-five Borlind employees, including Annemarie Lindner, try out new products, filling out questionnaires about how the product looks, how it?s applied, how it penetrates, how it feels on the skin and how it smells. If the product passes these tests, it?s sent to dermatologists and specialized institutes for clinical research.
?For instance, on our anti-aging creams, they test for skin firmness, elasticity and depths of wrinkles on 30 people, along with a prediction of stability,? Ritzmann says.
In the company?s manufacturing division, quality control is so tight that employees who mix the product batches must dress in sterilized uniforms. They work in a glass-enclosed room that is pressurized so no outside air can enter. The $4 million room, with its huge stainless vats, is oddly reminiscent of a brewery. Proprietary computers determine precisely how each batch is mixed and at what temperature.
The finished batches are then sent to the packing lines. Borlind?s packaging plant was automated in 1960, and the company now owns almost $1 million worth of equipment, ranging from bottle cappers to aluminum tube crimpers.
A head for finance
Even as her company grew, Lindner continued to participate in every aspect of the business. ?She?s very strict to herself, very disciplined, very strict on quality,? says Michael Lindner. ?But she had to prove by herself how well her products worked. She?s our testimonial. If you talk to her and see her, you accept that you should do what she says for your skin.?
Ritzmann adds, ?Nobody can do visits like she can. No one can possibly match her charm and commitment. She is so convincing as a salesperson, we get letters from customers who say, ?Annemarie recommended this product 20 years ago. May I change that now???
Lindner took an interest in her company not only from the quality aspect, but the financial as well. ?Remember, we were poor after leaving East Germany. I was carrying the last of my money taped to my belly. So when I started out in West Germany, I was very conscious of trying not to spend too much money,? she says.
Millions of dollars later, Lindner?s penchant for thrift remains. ?For example,? she says with a touch of annoyance in her voice, ?The employee [break] room lights were on all day, but the employees were only in there half an hour. I just couldn?t understand it. I?d go around putting up notes: ?Please switch off the lights.??
?Mrs. Lindner always knew everything about the bills, deliveries, customer cards, products, orders,? says Stefan Gebelt, who has been Borlind?s controller for 25 years. ?I can only say information technology methods can?t do it better today than she used to do it.
?Her system of diligence made for prosperity—that idea that you never throw things away.?
By 1978, Borlind?s yearly revenue was about $8 million, and sales were increasing 10 percent to 15 percent a year. But that was also the year Walter Lindner died. Their son Michael, who had been attending Neuform seminars since he was 13 years old, had completed his education in economics and an apprenticeship at a German pharmaceutical company. He joined Borlind the year his dad died, overseeing marketing and sales.
Michael Lindner?s goal was to bring structure to a company that was growing rapidly. ?My mom and I defined our philosophy: research, sales and exporting,? he says. To help accomplish this, they built a state-of-the art office, plant and laboratory in Calw-Altburg, near a spring that produces ?absolutely clean, very soft spring water,? Annemarie says. ?We don?t use distilled water. Distilled water is dead water.?
The Borlind building, completed in 1984, was an architectural expression of the company?s environmental philosophy. ?We decided nature should come into this building,? says Michael, who now co-owns the company with his mother, following Börner?s death 10 years ago.
The Lindners incorporated green environmental practices into all aspects of the building, included gluten-based glue for the wallpaper, carpet from natural materials, low-radiation computers, radiation-free marble and state-of-the-art recycling.
Visitors enter a soaring atrium with green spines that evoke tree branches while serving the practical function of anchoring the balconies and windows that bring solar heat into the facility. A stream of blue paint meanders across the white marble floor, leading the eye to a gold, linden leaf-shaped pond and a majestic linden tree. Thirty years after the East German government took it from her, Lindner got her leaf back.
Coming to America
Borlind was first introduced in the United States in 1980 by Fred and Polly Kulow. Fred Kulow had been importing Sanhelios herbal supplements from Börner, so it made sense to expand the business to include Borlind cosmetics.
?Stores like Mrs. Gooch?s, Bread & Circus, Nutrition World, Vitamin Cottage and Nature?s Fresh had well-educated customers who didn?t want to just put an avocado mix from their kitchen on their skin, but there was nothing in the U.S. [natural personal care] market that was really good quality for the skin,? Polly Kulow says. ?There were a lot of companies with natural ingredients, but they hadn?t done the testing to back them up. One thing Borlind always had was its Neuform certification. Borlind believed if you were going to make a statement, you better have backup for it.?
But Borlind products were pricey, necessitating a lot of demos and training to convince customers of their quality. ?Selling high-end products depends completely on the education of the sales force,? Kulow says. ?You don?t want an employee saying, ?Oh, that?s expensive—try this instead.??
The Kulows? daughter, Linda Upton, was in charge of training and product demos. ?It was all women in the beginning,? Upton says. ?We gave women jobs in the health food industry back when people assumed you needed a man to do a demonstration.
?All of our national and regional sales managers, except for one, have been women. People take that for granted now, but back in the ?80s, it was still a heavily male-dominated industry.?
Borlind?s demos stressed the science behind skin care and the company?s products. ?One of the biggest things the Borlind company did was insist on the integrity of generic information—in 15- to 20-minute one-on-one sessions, we explained how the skin works and how the product works. That was probably the most revolutionary thing in that day,? Upton says.
Even today, ?Borlind is the only personal care company we carry that says they will show us their scientific literature on request. Other companies don?t mention science that much,? says Miko Harris, vitamin and herb retailer at Elephant Pharmacy in Berkeley, Calif.
Jane Kennedy, who owns two Palmetto natural personal care stores in Los Angeles, remembers Borlind?s ?wonderful sample line. Most lines didn?t have samples 25 years ago, but Borlind not only had its own sample bottle-making machines, but its own personal representation instead of a distributor?s sales force.?
Kennedy is one of many store representatives who has visited the Borlind facility in Germany. Borlind sponsors and pays for the trips to better acquaint retailers with its products. ?That kind of expense is pretty unusual when you?re dealing with the health food industry,? Kennedy says.
?Annemarie was very open and showed us how she applied her own skin care. Most major cosmetic companies are very removed and don?t do things like that.?
Adds Anne Andrist of New Seasons Market, ?Just through the expression of Annemarie?s face and eyes and her love of life and people, you didn?t feel like you were a business prospect for her. It was more like you were her friend.?
84 years and counting
Ten years ago, Annemarie Lindner turned over day-to-day operations of her company to her son. But she?s still involved in policy and travels to the offices regularly from her modest house in nearby Calw, where she?s lived for 37 years.
?When you get old and you have [physical] problems, you have two choices. One is that you have self-pity. The other is that you may not feel so good in the morning, but the day is good, all is good, and you go to work,? Michael Lindner says.
Annemarie is solidly in the latter camp. Energetic and exuding joie de vivre, she still helps out on the assembly line when her staff is short-handed. Through her and Michael?s stewardship, the company has grown to 170 employees and about $37 million in yearly revenue. It exports to 30 countries and now has two sister labels: Tautofen, an inexpensive natural skin care line, and Dado Sens, a dermatological cosmetic line. Borlind also operates a spa in the nearby town of Bad Teinach. Borlind is likely to continue as a family company in the future: Michael?s wife, Daniela, works for the Tautofen line.
But for now, Annemarie Lindner will remain the face and soul of the Annemarie Borlind company. Her personality mirrors her products: elegant but unpretentious, practical yet sophisticated, hard-working but with a soft core.
?She?s been able to make a connection between modern technology and traditional herbs in such an elegant and profound way,? says Rogosin. ?She?s definitely the fountain this company flows from.?
Vicky Uhland is a freelance writer and editor in Denver.
Natural Foods Merchandiser volume XXVI/number 9/p. 38, 40, 42, 44, 46