Posted 3/29/2010 12:00 am
Updated 11 months ago
Along the way, Upton became an unofficial ambassador for Arkansas, representing her home state well nationally and abroad.
"My career was never meant to be one of influence," Upton said. "I never had to work a day in my life. I had my own money from inheritance. I modeled in Memphis, but that was just a fun thing. I never dreamed of this. Aromatique just happened, by accident. It's crazy."
The crazy accident nearly 28 years ago was the "Smell of Christmas," the seed for what became a multimillion-dollar enterprise called Aromatique Inc., which Upton leads as president and CEO. Based in Heber Springs, the company today employs 200 making elegant, smell-good products.
It all started with Upton agreeing to make something special for a friend's gift shop during a Christmas season open house. She had forgotten about the project until reminded two weeks before the event.
"I had no idea what I was going to do," Upton said.
She ended up snatching handfuls of pine cones, acorns, berries, sweet-gum balls and leaves and scenting the mixture with a home-brewed recipe of pharmacy oils.
Shoppers were so smitten with her effort, the first in a line of products was born, "Smell of Christmas," and Upton found herself as the creative force behind a corporate venture. Her marketing approach: high quality at an affordable price.
"I've never looked at it as a business," she said. "I've been told that's why it's so successful. It's never been about the money."
But profits did come, and the company's cottage industry success story combined with Upton's sparkling personality attracted a media buzz both domestic and international.
And who could resist a former beauty queen concocting aromatic potions in her kitchen like a fun-loving, glamorous "little witch?"
Upton laughs at her self-confessed image from those early days. She recalls how people in New York just couldn't believe her upscale retailing hit came from down-home Arkansas.
Aided by her fashion sense and eye for style, the Aromatique packaging completed a tasteful presentation that wowed Neiman Marcus and Saks Fifth Avenue denizens.
The awards and accolades piled up along with a fair share of Aromatique imitators. The company's success also drew her into the upper echelons of the business world.
In 1993, Upton was named to the board of directors at Southwestern Bell Corp. and now its successor, AT&T Inc.
"I bet I'm the only board member of a Fortune 500 company who didn't graduate from college," she said.
That's true as far as her attendance at the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville is concerned. Prior to that, the Jonesboro native did finish a two-year program at Stephens College in Columbia, Mo., one of the oldest all-girls schools in the nation.
Her design awards at Stephens recognized talent that would be put on full display after raising her family and starting Aromatique with the encouragement of her husband, Dick.
She is proud of the philanthropic legacy the company has built, supporting a variety of state and local charities that include Little Rock's University of
Arkansas for Medical Science and Heber Springs Relay for Life, which benefits the Arkansas Chapter of the American Cancer Society.
In 1993, Upton launched "The Natural State," a fragrance line she created that has raised more than $1.7 million for the Nature Conservancy.
"We try to be as generous as we can, and we have a reputation for that," she said. "We try to give something back. That's very important to me."
Upton has slowed her pace some at Aromatique, which she concedes was a hard thing to do. But she relishes a continued hands-on involvement with the creative side of the business.
Upton shared her thoughts on entrepreneurship in 1997 when she was inducted into The Society of Entrepreneurs in Memphis.
"At the onset, entrepreneur held a meaning to me of a highly successful person," she said. "I quickly learned that it meant only that you were the organizer of an undertaking ... no free lunches, no time off for success. Today's entrepreneurship is not just a part of the nation's economy; it is the driving force, the unbridled energy of creative endeavor. I am proud of the accomplishments of Aromatique and its worldwide acceptance. My Southern roots are deep, and so it is that I had an advantage not available to all ... my family and my friends."