CEO Club Briefing

True Value

Excerpt from remarks to Boston College Chief Executives Club  

February 6, 2019


Well, I started writing a book—after I was on Wall Street and I decided—negotiated commissions—and I could have stayed on Wall Street. It probably would have been a very interesting career. But I was very interested in restoration of home, building, gardening. I was interested in what became the core content areas of Martha Stewart Living. We had seven core content areas. I wrote a book in 1982 called Entertaining, which again was an unusual book, because it was a photography book with beautiful pictures of food in color. My publisher wanted to do it in black and white, and I said, are you crazy? This has to be a beautiful book. It has recipes, and it had a story—a story about how to do things.  

So that book started my career, and I found a voice—and it was a good voice, because everybody responded to it nicely—and it gained the attention of people like Kmart Corporation, which at the time, Kmart was the largest retailer in the United States. They were way bigger than Walmart, and they were way bigger than Target, which was like a little blip. They owned a lot of companies—Builders Square and booksellers. It was an interesting company. So they asked me to design home products. And that business grew—at the time, my husband negotiated the contract. And we just did it, sort of like off the cuff. He was a lawyer, but he had his own company at the time. He was working—oh, actually, he was working for Abrams art books and being a publisher. So, we just did this contract.

And it turned out to be amazing, because at that time, it was still—they believed in advertising. There was no Internet, really. Nobody was buying online. Nobody was using a computer on a daily basis. This was in the ’80s. It seems like yesterday, yet it was so far long ago technologically. So we built a $1.6 billion business like overnight with Kmart. And the product that we made—I was so intent on making the best product for the home, because I wanted to use it. I still use all my towels from Kmart. I have a mansion in Maine—Edsel Ford’s fabulous house. Every bathroom has Martha Kmart towels in it, because they were fantastic, and they’re like 30 years old now.

They were all made in Brazil out of beautiful cotton, and they are amazing, and they’re in all the bedrooms and bathrooms—so many bedrooms and bathrooms in this place. And the sheets are the best cotton sheets, all from Kmart. People look at me and they say, oh, where’d you get these beautiful towels? You know, Kmart in 1986 or whatever it was—so crazy. But that’s what started me.  

And then I learned about zeroes. That was when I first learned about zeroes. You can sell $1,000 worth of stuff. You can sell $1 million worth of stuff. And you can go $100 million and $500 million and $1 billion. And it made sense, because the price—the more you could sell, the less you could charge. And you could keep that quality up there if you tried. That’s what we’ve done ever since. We’ve tried very, very hard to maintain a very high quality at a reasonable price, so that you can save money to make money to send your kids to college. It matters to me a lot—this kind of value.