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Hints Powerhouse Heloise is Popular American Icon

By Donna J. Tuttle -
San Antonio Business Journal

San Antonio’s most well-known resident may not dribble a basketball or sell cars, but she can eradicate that salad dressing on your tie faster than you can reach for your napkin, and offer six ways to reuse lunch leftovers.

Her name, as it appears on her American Express card, is simply Heloise. And for those who automatically conjure up images of an apron-clad housewife who dabbles with vinegar and baking soda, consider this: Heloise’s photo and column “Hints From Heloise” appear in 500 newspapers seven days a week; her monthly feature in Good Housekeeping magazine reaches 28 million readers; and her e-mail tip dings more than 250,000 e-mail inboxes per day. There are 11 books, 20 to 30 speeches and appearances per year, a flurry of TV and radio stints (including Oprah, the Today Show and Late Night with David Letterman), two official Web sites, blogs, a thriving pamphlet business, and now, a podcast on iTunes.

Asked to break down the Heloise Inc. portfolio, the lifestyle maven quips with a hearty laugh: “We don’t have enough time.”

Indeed, Heloise — both the person and the corporation — is one of the nation’s most successful entrepreneurial stories. “Like Coke, Apple and IBM, Heloise is an American iconic brand for consumer information. It is a brand founded on integrity; people know they can trust her,” says Merry Clark, a New York City editorial director for Heloise. “Coffee-drenched keyboards and wine on the carpet may not seem significant, but the minor annoyances of everyday life can be pretty frustrating, and people want immediate solutions that work.”

“Heloise is an exceptionally savvy businesswoman,” says George B. Irish, president of Hearst Newspapers and senior vice president of the Hearst Corp., who first met Heloise when he was publisher of the now defunct San Antonio Light. “From the minute I first met her, I was taken by the breadth of her knowledge about the businessworld and the number of contacts she had. It became readily apparent that she was not someone sitting in her office in San Antonio doing hints, but rather was out marketing her product and analyzing her audience.”

Headquarters: River City
Command central of Heloise Inc. comes bustling alive every morning in a ranch house tucked in Northeast San Antonio and built by the columnist’s husband, David Evans. One wing of the house contains offices and a sound studio, where a regular staff of three to five assistants — affectionately called “my girls” by Heloise — direct the traffic of 1,000 to 2,000 snail mail requests and 2,000 to 3,000 e-mail requests per week and the myriad interview and appearance requests from the global media. The operation employs 10 full-time employees and about five to seven consulting professionals on retainer.

A self-described multi-tasker, Heloise scurries about her business with the help of a commercial phone system made up of 21 telephones and seven separate lines. “I have a phone with a 25-foot cord in my kitchen that allows me to walk around corners and get ice for my tea while I’m being interviewed,” Heloise says. “I put a pedometer on to measure how far I walk between the house and the office on a normal day, and I logged 7,000 steps.”

There is also a separate fulfillment center in San Antonio that takes orders for a dozen pamphlets ranging from Heloise’s “Fantabulous Vinegar Hints and More” to “Seasonings, Sauces and Substitutes.”

The anchor of her business is the nearly 50-year-old newspaper column, syndicated by King Features Syndicate, which includes both a regular and condensed version and a series of special columns about employment, auto care and garage sales published exclusively in classified sections.

Requests from readers (How do you get rid of mothball stink? Can you get ink off your leather handbag?) send Heloise and her staff first to a comprehensive computer database (based on a card catalog Heloise’s mother, the original columnist Heloise, kept and the daughter’s 30-plus years of research), then to chemists and engineers, and finally to test the cleaning tip or remedy firsthand. “Her house is like a living laboratory,” Clark says. “She’s got pantyhose on this over here, nail polish on keys over there. I remember breaking glass once with her so we could see how best to clean it up.”

Heloise is adamant about producing fresh copy for each medium, resulting in a labyrinthine set of daily deadlines that would put even the hardest working CEO to shame.

“On any given day, Heloise can be editing copy, negotiating a contract for her next book deal, testing a hint, recording a podcast, all while she oversees her office staff and outlines her upcoming speeches, which may be anywhere in the country,” says Kimberly C. Ford, Heloise’s accountant for more than 20 years with San Antonio’s Hill & Ford P.C. What’s more, Heloise has the business savvy to rely on a close knit group of loyal advisers. “I admire how Heloise utilizes her team of professionals to help her run her business. She knows to contact us to help her with difficult decisions before they become problems.”

Like Mother, Like Daughter
At the core of Heloise’s business integrity are the sound business practices passed on from her mother, the original Heloise. Born in Fort Worth in 1919, Heloise Bowles graduated from Felt and Tarrent Business College and Draughn’s Business college in 1939. In 1946, she met and married Marshal (Mike) Holman Cruse, a captain in the Army Air Forces. The couple gave birth to daughter Heloise in 1951 in Waco and the family eventually moved to Hawaii.

Mother Heloise Bowles decided she wanted to write a newspaper column to help housewives. “She marched to the office of the Honolulu Advertiser to see the editor .... The Readers’ Exchange column began in 1959,” according to the Heloise.com Web site. “Later, in 1961, King Features Syndicate convinced Heloise to syndicate her column with a new title, Hints from Heloise.”

In 1962, the family moved to Washington, D.C., for a few years, where little Heloise practically earned a childhood MBA by watching her independent and assertive businessmom at work. The family’s three-bedroom apartment served as both home and office. “Back then the phone company owned all the equipment and consumers rented, and consumers didn’t have separate lines,” Heloise reminisces. “My mother either paid the guy, or gave them a bottle of Scotch, knowing mother, and darned if she didn’t suddenly have a separate work line.”

Heloise’s mother was a pioneer who insisted on the efficiency of advanced technology, purchasing one of the first IBM Selectric typewriters (with a serial number of under 500) — which was the first typewriter to allow users to access different fonts and now is exhibited in the Texas Women’s Museum in Dallas — and using belted dictaphones. Dissatisfied with the formality of a radio studio and “stilted” scripts, Mother Heloise suggested the radio station come to her home office. “They took everything out of the walk-in closet, packed in moving blankets for soundproofing and ran all the sound stuff in there. There was no air conditioning, but my mother liked the natural, casual conversation that happened there. She taught me by example how to negotiate for what you want,” Heloise says.

The family moved to San Antonio in 1966, and the parents divorced in 1968. Heloise, the daughter, worked part-time in her mother’s office while attending college as a math and business major at Southwest Texas State University (now Texas State University). By then her mother was a regular celebrity on the television shows like the Mike Douglas Show. In 1977, the original Heloise died. “It wasn’t until recently that I realized that mother’s death was both dramatic and traumatic,” Heloise, the daughter, says. “One, I had lost my mother, and two, I had lost my employer. I had gone from being an employee to an employer and gone from being one of the girls in the office to the boss — and these women were all older than I.”

Surrounded by her dad (who died in 2006), her brother, the family attorney and the King Features management, 26-year-old Poncë had 24 hours to make a decision about taking the family mantle and moving forward as the new Heloise. “Basically, we had to get a press release out in about 24 hours, so I said I’d try it for a year,” she says. The contract for Heloise the daughter is dated Dec. 28, 1977, the day her mother died. “It’s bittersweet,” she sighs.

The Next Generation
The second generation Heloise never looked back. Her business partners say the key to the endurance of brand Heloise is her inexhaustible marketing prowess coupled with a down-home, no-nonsense Texas sense of humor. She calls one to two newspaper editors per week and consistently visits newspaper staffs and conducts hands-on presentations. She speaks at university commencement ceremonies and has acted as the grand marshal for the local Fiesta Pooch Parade. “She calls ahead to these newspapers, and the whole editorial staff stands out in the parking lot. Heloise roars in on her motorcycle and gives everyone rides,” says T.R. “Rocky” Shepard III, president of King Features, who says that Hints from Heloise is the company’s top text feature. “I mean that’s just amazing. We have 150 cartoonists and writers that we represent here, and no one works harder. She makes our job easy.”
“She is a marketer par excellence,” Hearst’s Irish says. “I think that marketing savvy coupled with, and I say this affectionately, her zaniness, really has caused her to stand apart from others.”

In addition, Heloise toils to stay current — both in the technology and with her audience. She was one of the first customers to own an ATARI home computer in the late 1970s ; one of the first to own a fax machine (New York Times, July 20, 1989) to accept hints, and one of the first to trade in her clunky brick cell phone for a 1996, 3.2 ounce Motorola StarTAC, the first clamshell-designed phone. She was prescient about the world-changing possibilities of the Internet. “Before anyone was really using the Internet, she secured the Heloise.com domain name because she knew it would be a great communication tool,” her accountant Ford says.

She applies that same forward-thinking strategy to her audience, making the tips relevant to new technology.

“People are always asking me if they can salvage a cell phone that dropped in the toilet,” Heloise says. (Pulling out the battery immediately and drying out the device with a hairdryer may work, and Heloise is also researching the drying effects of Minute rice, rubbing alcohol and WD-40 “which is actually a water displacer,” she notes.)

She also updates her mother’s old tips to make them accurate in modern times and to include high-tech products that weren’t available back in the 1960s. For example, while her mother suggested sharpening the blades of a garbage disposal by running ice cubes in it, Heloise reports that there is a “rotating cutter,” not blades, in disposals and that only a gush of hot water will do the trick.

She is also a role model and advocate for women. At speeches where her audience is primarily female, she asks management to convert the men’s restrooms to women’s. “The best hotel ever was the Westin downtown, which filled the urinals with ice and placed potted plants in there — it looked wonderful,” Heloise says.

Her intellectual curiosity and insatiable appetite for knowledge is continuing to fuel her future. Last week, when the repairman came to Heloise’s home to fix a gate, she postponed this interview to watch and learn “so maybe next time I can do it myself,” she says. “That’s what my mother taught me.”


Friday, October 31, 2008 | All contents of this story © American City Business Journals Inc. All rights reserved.

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