In 1949, after learning the advertising trade from Raymond Rubicam at Young & Rubicam and following that up with a turn in pharmaceuticals, Ivan (NU '33 and NU School of Law '36) and Mary-Elizabeth Combe founded Combe Inc. They were truly an entrepreneurial couple, and soon after founding the company, they launched their first blockbuster product of the company’s now robust line of personal care products. The product was the first over-the-counter treatment for acne, which they called Clearasil. It wasn’t an easy sell at first. But that changed when a young man from Philadelphia called and asked if Combe would be the sponsor advertiser of 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 grand-daughter and co-CEO of Combe Inc. along with her husband, Akshay Shetty ‘06.
While Keech was inspired by the success of her father, Chris, who went into the family business and subsequently ran the company until his retirement in 2014, what truly drove her to carve out a role at Combe was a personal zeal for skincare and a 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, the granddaughter of Estée 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 given her business chops and also due to the fact that she was a family member working within the business. Seeing how she balanced those responsibilities really shaped how I viewed my role entering Combe.”
For her MBA, Keech landed at Kellogg alongside Akshay and found the confidence she needed to enter Combe. “Of course at Kellogg you learn from brilliant professors, work alongside accomplished classmates, have enlightening conversations all the time, and drink from a fire hose with all the course materials and case studies that are thrown at you every day. But at the deepest level, Kellogg is an environment where you are encouraged and challenged to always be connecting the dots, not learning in silos or compartments, and always looking for broader meaning to business and purpose,” she reflects. “Kellogg gave me tremendous tools to succeed!”
At Combe, Keech’s father suggested she begin her tenure in the London office, away from the microscope of the headquarters in New York. She spent three years in London, and then moved back to New York, eventually taking over as the co-CEO of the company in 2014.
Nowadays, most consumer and retail companies are grappling with a new era where consumers hold more power than ever before, and Keech welcomes the seismic shifts happening in the industry. “I think this day and age is actually what Combe was built for,” she explains. “When it comes to men’s hair color with Just For Men or women’s intimate health with Vagisil brands, 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 believes Combe’s major innovation revolves around its approach to diversity and inclusion at the company. Currently, Combe’s management team enjoys a 50/50 split by gender with half hailing from outside the United States. Further, the overall company makeup is 60 percent women and 40 percent men.
“People ask us what our diversity policy is and I tell them that our policy is to hire the best brains possible. And our company make-up is what it ends up looking like,” she says.