How Lyn Kirby used a new vision to guide Ulta beyond cosmetic change

It could be said that the fate of Ulta Salon, Cosmetics & Fragrance Inc. was changed because Lyn P. Kirby is not a morning person.

A finalist for the beauty retailer’s top leadership role in late 1999, Kirby had to catch a 6 a.m. flight to Dallas to meet with the company’s chairman. She had plenty of ideas and materials to review on the flight, but again, it was early.

“And I had left all my materials at home,” says Kirby, Ulta’s president and CEO. “I was about to spend four hours with the chairman, so I needed to create on this plane something to speak to him about.”

Not giving full faith to the charm of her Australian accent, Kirby began to solidify ideas about completely overhauling the business by turning it into a retail experience superstore.

“So I actually penned what has ultimately become the mission and the vision for the company,” she says. “Which includes the four E’s, which is to provide an experience for women by providing them with entertainment, education, escape and then the last one was aesthetics, which I always used to joke was how the Australians spelled it, with an E — which they do not.”

Maybe it was that joke or maybe it was the fresh ideas for turning the company around, but the chairman stuck his hand out at day’s end and offered Kirby the job.

Of course, that was the easy part. When she accepted the position, her new charge was to convince corporate employees and people in Ulta’s roughly 70 stores that had been doing business as a discount beauty store for eight years that everybody could do an about-face and make a new company. And while she was doing that, she also had to make sure the vision she’d put so much stock in was working.