In 1949, after learning the advertising trade from Raymond Rubicam at Young & Rubicam and following up with a turn in pharmaceuticals, Ivan Combe founded Combe, Inc. The first product of the company’s now robust line of personal care items was a laxative, but Ivan had an inventive streak and was soon hard at work developing the first over-the-counter ointment for acne.
The cream, which he called Clearasil, wasn’t an easy sell at first. But that changed when a young man from Philadelphia called and asked if Combe would advertise its product on a new music show geared toward teenagers. The caller was Dick Clark and the show was American Bandstand and the rest, for Clearasil and for Combe, is history.
“So I grew up with that legacy,” says Keech Combe Shetty ’06, Ivan’s granddaughter and co-CEO of Combe along with her husband, Akshay Shetty ’06.
Though Keech’s father, Chris, went into the family business (and subsequently ran the company until his retirement in 2014), what drove her to carve out a role at Combe was a personal zeal for skincare and stint at a different family business.
“We have an unwritten rule in my family that you have to have relevant work experience and an MBA before you can join [Combe] as a family member,” she explains. That’s how she ended up at Estée Lauder, specifically working at Clinique under the tutelage of Jane Lauder.
“That was a fantastic experience for me,” recalls Keech. “I really started from the bottom and worked up. Working with Jane was important because there was a lot to learn from her and the fact that she was a family member working in the business. Seeing how she balanced that really shaped how I viewed myself entering Combe.”
For her MBA, Keech landed at Kellogg alongside Akshay and found the confidence she needed to enter Combe. “Of course at Kellogg there’s the brilliant professors and the brilliant classmates, the stimulating conversations and the case studies. But I think the deeper level of that is the environment where you are encouraged and challenged to keep connecting the dots so nothing is siloed off,” she reflects. “It’s about connecting the dots and being confident in the tools you’ve been given.”
Her father suggested she begin her tenure at Combe in the London office, away from the microscope of the home office in New York. Luckily, her passion for skincare products hadn’t waned in the least. “I still nerd out about the products,” she laughs.
Nowadays, most retail companies are grappling with a new era where consumers hold more power than ever before, but Keech welcomes this sudden shift. “I think this day and age is actually what Combe was built for,” she explains. “When it comes to men’s hair color or women’s intimate health, these are very personal conversations and now we finally have the tools to really maximize those conversations. So for us it’s been exciting to evolve to where the puck has always been heading.”
Keech sees Combe’s current innovation in how the company approaches people — both consumers and employees. Currently, Combe’s management team enjoys a 50/50 split by gender with half hailing from outside the United States. Meanwhile, the overall company makeup is 60 percent women and 40 percent men.
“People ask us what are diversity policy is and I tell them our policy is to hire the best brains possible. This is what it ends up looking like,” she says.