The beauty industry has long been a bastion of alchemya magical universe filled with a kaleidoscope of lotions, potions, confection-colored palettes and other tools of transformation. Short of your morning coffee, nothing brightens the day more quickly than a cheerful pop of colorful lipstick or the feel of a luxurious skin-cream. While the mood-lifting effect remains, the concept and function of beauty products has changed in recent decades. Gone are the heavy paint-and-spackle camouflage agents of the past, replaced by cosmetics and skincare as self-affirming instruments of enhancement. And the industry that produces these offerings does so with a message of empowerment, encouraging women to celebrate and nurture themselves in a world that tugs at them with unceasing demands.

What makes you unique makes you beautiful' is part of the foundational philosophy at Laura Mercier, one of the most successful companies in the international luxury cosmetics and skincare arena. And at the forefront of company’s mission and message is Nancy Bernardini, general manager of Gurwitch Products LLC and CEO of Laura Mercier and RéVive, an innovative yet grounded leader who is a master at flourishing personally and professionally with balance and perspective.   

At the recent SRQ Hear Me Roar Leadership luncheon in Sarasota, Bernardini received the SRQ 2017 Trailblazer Award, recognizing a woman who is fearless, tenacious and virtuous in realizing her passion. Following the luncheon’s keynote presentation by renowned scientist and CEO, Ria Persad, Bernardini stepped to the podium to accept her award, looked intently at the audience and in a lighthearted incredulous whisper said, “I’m supposed to follow an astrophysicist? I sell lipstick!” It was a hilarious and illuminating moment revealing the humility and self-effacing humor that underscores Bernardini’s focus on the bigger picture. Selling lipstick is just a part of the story and her record speaks for itself. 

At the helm of a multi-million dollar corporation, Bernardini has brought groundbreaking innovation to Gurwitch and risen to the top of the global luxury cosmetics and skincare arena. Armed with financial savvy and a knack for spotting what’s fresh and on-trend, she has a track record of driving revenue while spurring innovation. Her strategic leadership has led her brands to deliver explosive profitability, international growth and consumer loyalty. And her success has come as a result of thinking outside the box. She has challenged conventional practices each step of the way, as evidenced by numerous trailblazing initiatives, such as increasing Laura Mercier’s organic product seeding and implementing a holistic influencer marketing program through which she signed Song of Style fashion blogger Aimee Song as the company’s first digital influencer and brand ambassador. Bernardini also established the “Iconics Artistry' Collection” in support of the Laura Mercier’s 20th Anniversary and signed celebrity makeup artists Patti Dubroff and Jen Streicher, along with famed fashion illustrator Garance Dore, as brand ambassadors, all while focusing her public relations efforts on winning the red carpet for the company’s support of thirteen award shows. Through these gamechanging initiatives, widely copied in the industry, she shared the magic of Mercier with a broad international market, adding to its loyal die-hard fan-base while capturing the attention of younger demographics and producing an incredible ROI. Since she took the helm, Bernardini's re-engineering of Gurwitch’s business model, delivered a whopping $36 million profit turnaround. Sales in 2016 were in excess of $200 million with 2017 projections on track for approximately $215 million. 

When asked how she has accomplished so much, Bernardini points to several things: the power of a strengths-based approach to leadership, the value of mentorship and, crucially, balance. But she says the keys to her success all started with her childhood. One of five children, Bernardini credits her parents with providing the tools and work ethic for her to be successful. “My parents were both great inspirations to me,” she says. “My father worked two full-time jobs in order to provide a wonderful home life and great educations for my four siblings and I. My mother returned to the work force after a 20-year hiatus. She defined a new path for herself as a paralegal, went back to school to obtain her certification and quickly progressed through the ranks in the mortgage bank where she was employed to become a vice president within two years of re-entering the workforce.”

As a young girl, Bernardini dreamed of being a fashion designer, but when she realized art was not her strength her father suggested she apply her creativity to business. She switched focus, graduating with a BA in quantitative analysis and an MBA from Saint John’s University. She took a job with Bristol-Myers Squibb, finding her way into the beauty arena at the company’s Clairol division. In her 15 years with the company, she held various financial positions including serving as the chief financial officer of Clairol's US division. Armed with a solid command of the business, she moved to Proctor & Gamble Company and, over the course of 11 years, rose through the ranks.  

“From the time I started working, I was driven to succeed,” says Bernardini, and in her first 18 years in the workforce, she held 11 different roles across two different companies, and worked in four different locations. “I worked hard, loved learning new things and was having fun but did not experience much balance,” she says. “I was all-in, all of the time.” Her career was on the fast track with no signs of slowing down, but with the ascent also came hard choices. As driven as Bernardini is, of utmost importance is her family and she is passionate about putting them first. “My definition of personal success is relatively simple: my number one priority is to work hard to provide for my family—giving them stability, security, a good education and opportunities to explore their interests so that they can grow up to be happy, healthy, confident, balanced and successful,” she says. To achieve her vision of success, she’s had to become an expert juggler to master the delicate art of personal and professional balance, and, while challenging, she believes she has it—noting that it is not always a 50/50 split and sometimes you have to make hard choices. And sometimes those choices lead you in unexpected directions with success beyond your wildest dreams.  

In 2002 Bernardini was asked to serve as the chief financial officer of Proctor & Gamble’s Global Fine Fragrance division in Geneva, Switzerland. At the time she took the job, her husband, Ray, was a graphic designer in New York and put his career on hold to become the children’s primary caregiver. Together with her family, she crafted a life that works for them. “It has been the best decision we made—both professionally and personally,” she recalls. “Since that time, Ray has been a stay-at-home dad (and excels at it) and I have developed tremendously professionally. This has allowed us to provide our girls with a stable, loving, nurturing environment while demonstrating to them that gender doesn't determine success in the business world. I totally believe that identifying and playing to your strengths is a key to success.”

The combination of a new country, new job and managing a family was a challenge that required Bernardini to employ new strategies to balance each area of her life.  She says she was “given a gift” when her boss, recognizing the stress she was under juggling the various demands on her time and energy, hired a professional coach to help her pause and contemplate what her strengths were, what success meant to her and how to establish boundaries facilitating success at work and home. “During that process, I learned that two of my core strengths—achievement orientation and nurturing orientation—made it very difficult for me to say 'no,’” she says. “In order for me to achieve personal success, I needed more balance; and I was successful at achieving that by adding the words 'no' and 'not now' to my vocabulary and by being better at establishing boundaries. You can make decisions to take care of your family when needed, and you set an example for those who work with you that they can and should do the same.” She adds: “My best tip is to be honest and say that I do not believe that anybody can have it all, all the time. Be ready to make the compromises that work for you and do not be shy in bringing in outside help to take care of the things that you can outsource.”

Bernardini’s star rose as the family moved back to the company’s executive headquarters in the US and once again opportunity placed her squarely in the position of having to prioritize what was right for her at the time. She was offered a role in Baltimore that would have provided her with a stronger path of career development within the organization. But after soul-searching, she declined the job late in the process because her husband was unhappy about the move. It was not an easy decision but it was, to use one of her catch phrases, ‘a hard-right choice.’ “I had to choose my husband over my career,” she says. Following that decision, Bernardini would not advance further within Proctor & Gamble for the next five years, though she feels she was capable and advocated for her cause. “While at the time this was a big regret for me,” she says, “I believe now that it was potentially one of the best decisions I ever had to make.”

Rather than sit around feeling stymied, Bernardini used the pause time to help others. “I was an active mentor within the woman's network at Proctor & Gamble,” she says. “What motivated me most was developing my team and women in finance. I have been actively mentoring a young woman who has aspirations and, I believe, the skills required to be a successful CFO someday. I am a believer in the transformative power of mentorship. I have had a strong mentor throughout my career and I actively mentor others.” Bernardini spent five years at headquarters honing her skills and contemplating her next move, until the right opportunity appeared and she was recruited for the CFO role at Gurwitch Products, a dream job personally and professionally that reflected her passion for empowering women. “When the call came in to be the CFO for Gurwitch Products I took it because I knew I wanted to contribute more,” says Bernardini. “The past four years have been an amazing experience, I have grown so much professionally and personally.”

But again it wasn’t an easy transition. Bernardini had moved to New York for the CFO role, and the CEO left soon after and she was tapped to fill that spot. It was an enormous job and huge responsibility and she embraced the challenge, diving right in to the task at hand. But right after she was getting her feet wet in the new position, her father passed away and her daughter was diagnosed with cancer. With little time between her increased workload and family responsibilities, Bernardini focused on moving through her grief and helping her child heal while performing in her company role. Instead of allowing the overwhelming feelings to consume her, she summoned her trademark fortitude and proactivity. “The adversity I had to deal with in a short period of time has made me stronger and more able to adapt,” she says. “I don’t spend a lot of time worrying—I spend a lot of time looking for solutions. When you have a lot on your plate you have to take it and run with it and believe that God only gives you what you can handle.”

Through all of the twists and turns, Bernardini’s openness to possibility has opened doors to opportunity. “The reason I am successful is that I always have said ‘yes’ anytime an opportunity came up,” she says. “I looked at it as a gift and sometimes I jumped in too far, but with each new role and experience I’ve grown.“ She fully understands the negative effect that competing demands can have on an individual and has taken what she has learned and applied it to actively growing the strength of her team members and enlisting them in collaborative partnerships to encourage success for the whole organization. Bernardini believes this type of collaboration is crucial for businesses and individuals to thrive, and that the keys to a company’s ability to transform and grow are directly tied to communication, teamwork and rallying colleagues around a collective goal. “By establishing a clear vision, engaging the entire organization so that they accept it as their own and energizing them along the way to deliver that vision, they can execute with excellence and celebrate success,” she says. 

Bernardini’s personal commitment to and investment in her team are hallmarks of her reputation as an engaged leader. The cornerstones of her leadership philosophy are integrity, trust and compassion. For the past 10 years she has provided each of her employees with a copy of her leadership philosophy that embraces the strengths-based organizational model and outlines exactly the kind of support each will receive from her to enable them to be successful. Passionate about encouraging growth in her staffers, she challenges them to develop creative solution-based approaches. “At work, one of my catch phrases is ‘What would need to be true to?’ I use it quite often to pressure test my team’s recommendations and drive them to think out of the box,” she says. “I am a strong leader and strong strategist. What sets me apart from other leaders is my ability to listen. I am genuinely interested in other peoples’ points of view and believe that we deliver the best results when we leverage the insights and efforts of the team. I accept and encourage honest and open dialogue from my employees/co-workers. That translates into me being real, approachable and an easy person to respect and learn from.” In her role at Gurwitch, with its focus on empowering women, Bernardini has developed great faith in the future for women leaders and believes the glass ceiling has been shattered. But she cautions that women have to be careful not to limit their own success. “I absolutely believe that the sky is the limit for young women today,” she says. “It is important to have a vision for who you want to be, to work hard and advocate for yourself along the way. It is particularly important to always be willing to take risks. Young women are generally happy to take risks early in their careers but become more risk-averse mid-career as children and family come into play. We want to secure a certain lifestyle at that point in time. Interestingly, it is at that point in time that our male counterparts take the most risks and sometimes these risks enable them to jump the curve. I always coach and mentor young woman that they can have both, a successful home and professional life. They need to have confidence, plan accordingly, set boundaries and always focus first on delivering results.” 

Bernardini lists confidence, perseverance, integrity, respect for others and a thirst for learning as some of the traits she believes empower women to be leaders, but the most important is passion. “We invest so much time at work, it would be a challenge to work in a business that I do not love and believe in,” she says. “I love working in the beauty industry—an industry that is 100 percent focused on making women look and feel beautiful. When women have confidence in themselves they can be pretty powerful.”

Bernardini has proven the power of confidence throughout her career and at press time had already embarked on a new path. Following the SRQ Leadership Luncheon, she was named President of Zotos International, Inc., a subsidiary of Shiseido Americas Corporation and leader in the professional hair care industry. Excited to begin her new adventure, she says that she is looking forward to applying her strategic skills in a new market and creating a powerful presence for the Zotos portfolio of brands. If the past is any indicator, Bernardini will steer Zotos to exponential success but always with her feet squarely on the ground, poised and balanced in her priorities and her vision of success. 

Just as her industry celebrates individuality and empowerment, Bernardini lives what she has learned.  She understands the delicate juggling act needed to flourish at home and at work and has turned her innate nurturing ability into growing her company’s bottom line while mentoring and advocating for her team and providing an excellent example of thriving through balance. She sums up her career and life thus far with a favorite quote from Maya Angelou: “My mission in life is not merely to survive, but to thrive; and to do so with some passion, some compassion, some humor and some style."

Bernardini has done so beautifully.