Donald Gottheimer: The self made man
Donald Gottheimer ran so many businesses under one roof it was difficult to keep them all straight. Some were more secret than others. Some I only heard of in passing, and was not supposed to know about. While for the most part we did business as Cosmetics Plus and D&B Wholesale Cosmetics, early on I discovered that we also did business as Oakridge Scent Inc – but I wasn’t supposed to know that. We were also a medical supply company, and had an assortment of other names including things like Scents for Less. He would later get involved with companies in New York City such as Riverhead Scents and Finger Lake Scents, but those were after my time with him.
Barry Gottheimer was supposedly a partner in the wholesale business, but also ran a beauty supply wholesaler in Verona – through which Donald sometimes ordered merchandise and which is probably the cause of some of his legal troubles with Clairol.
Barry was a mysterious character, and for years I was never able to determine if he was also the same Barry Gottheimer who ran a monument company a block from Donald’s second warehouse on Daniel Drive in Fairfield, which was also the Barry Gottheimer later involved in some dubious dealings with some dubious people and some rather dicey movies – called smokies or blue movies in the old days.
Eventually, I was able to trach his dealings down, although Ironically he died at 59 years old a few months after my last meeting with John Telson, a former employee at Donald's warehouse. Along being the founding partner in Donald's wholesale business, and a supplier to beauty shops throughout Northern New Jersey, Barry would get into other aspects of the medical business, including owning Garden State Hospice in Cranford and Thymer Health Care in Fairfield -- a few blocks from where Donald would set up business on Kaplan Drive. He also owned Carrara Marble Co, at the same location, and had some association with organized crime -- at least according to those more knowledgeable on matters than me. I worked for him only one day, and it was among one of the hardest working days of my life, delivering product from his store front operation in Verona to beauty shops throughout the area.
Donald was literally a self-made man. Born on May 15, 1945, Donald was actually two years younger than Stanley. He and his brother started with about $400 in cash and began to broker cosmetics out of their father’s garage until they had earned enough to set up a real office. They actually put together the wholesale business first in 1963 and then branched out in 1968 into retail, opening their first Cosmetic Plus store in Kearny a year later, a store run by their mother and their sister. He would open three stores in this first round of retail experiments, but by the time I started in 1974, he had only two: Kearny and Rutherford, and he would soon close them.
I’m not certain just when they opened the rented warehouse in the Pia Costa industrial complex on Bloomfield Avenue, but it soon became the heart of Donald’s operations.
Although a proud Jew and a classic Democratic liberal – going on to support people like Frank Lautenberg and the Clintons – Donald was ambitious. He knew he wanted to be more than just a stereotypical Jewish businessman that the wasp elite tolerated but never considered an equal – lost under the business world’s glass ceiling to rise but only so far. Jews could make a lot of money, but not in this scenario gain a lot of power.
Donald was very conscious of class and seemed determined to elevate this rag-picking business he and his brother founded into something legitimate and influential enough so that even the non-Jewish elite would take notice and the cosmetic industry would come to respect.
He did business on multiple levels: wholesale, retail, close out and he even opened one of the first outlets in the state.
While Barry’s beauty supply and other activities seem to flourish largely independent of Donald’s, some of Donald’s efforts sputtered. In various interviews with industry publications, Donald put a positive spin on these early failures, by claiming that he was simply trying out different models until he found a model that worked.
In truth, it was his wholesale business that thrived, and this because he became a source for supplying elite cosmetic products to southern retailers the major manufactures would not sell to directly.
Don’t knew that these major cosmetic companies – especially those with a hot product – were reluctant to sell directly to these low brow retail establishments, most of which did business in the Deep South. The companies did not want to dilute the snob appeal of their products by having them sold in such places, preferring to deal only with posh places in big cities such as New York or LA. But these cosmetic companies often sold their products to posh places in the east and west at ludicrously deep discounts – sometimes as much as 70 percent off list.
The low brow retailers were so desperate to get their hands on these items in order to keep their own customer base happy that they were willing to purchase these goods often for as much as only 10 percent off retail.
With the help of sales-starved salesmen and posh retailers who saw a quick profit by letting orders simply pass through their establishments, Donald built a neat network of suppliers that he could draw on to resell items to the low brow stores. The posh stores would accept the shipments then wait for me or one of our drivers to pick up the boxes and bring them back to the Fairfield warehouse. So secret an operation was this that we – armed with box cutters – immediately stripped off the shipping labels so that no one could prove just where we got the stuff.
Just how much the cosmetic companies knew was impossible to tell – not a lot early on. But one of the salesmen who dealt with Donald during those earlier years later told me how nervous he felt during these dealings, and how careful he had to be to make sure not too much got shipped to any one place so as to fall beneath the radar and keep the cosmetic companies in the dark.
The sales had to look reasonable, and so he and other sales people scattered the purchases among dozens of stores in and outside of Manhattan, which required me or some other drive to rush around to collect them.
We had regular and irregular stores. The regular places included stores in Hackensack, Bogotá, Rutherford, Hoboken, and other parts of New Jersey, though most of my stops were at various places in Manhattan – some of these as regular as weekly.
Donald even redistributed goods ordered through his own retail establishments, which gave him an even bigger percentage profit and possible were the reason he even bothered opening them or keeping them open.
This smuggling of product may still underlie Donald’s retail empire, serving as a drop off point for posh products his wholesale business can redistribute to his host of low brow customers in the south.
The salesman, who I interviewed years later in another contest, told me many of the companies caught on eventually, but were so used to the profit, they did not crack down. Indeed, Donald seemed to have been an innovator to what has become a common practice in the industry.