When people tell Charlotte Jorst she can’t do something, she gallops right past them. When told she couldn’t sell beer in America, she did just that, and founded her own watch company to boot. When skin cancer threatened her equestrian career, she started a new line of UV-resistant ride-wear. Here’s how she got started and kept competing. As told to Dinah Eng
I always wanted to go into business. Growing up in Denmark, I dreamed of being wealthy, which probably came from being teased and bullied in school as a young girl.
After high school, I went to France to work as a hostess at a ski resort. I was tall, blonde, and big-chested, and people made inappropriate passes at me. I saw what the world was like without a college education and decided to return to Denmark to focus on school. I finished my degree in finance and business in three and a half years.
While going to college, I worked part-time at Carlsberg, where I met my husband, Henrik, in the brewery. He moved to the U.S. to help introduce Carlsberg there, and when I finished school in 1988, I followed him to New York.
Carlsberg sent a number of Danes to the U.S. to work with Anheuser-Busch, but when I applied for a sales job, Carlsberg told me women couldn’t sell beer. I thought, “I’ll show them!” So I left Denmark, and Anheuser-Busch hired me to be Miss Carlsberg. They needed someone to attract attention at festivals around the country. I’d put on a green sash, and people would take pictures with me.
Back then, it was fashionable to give watches to your employees for Christmas. So while I was traveling as Miss Carlsberg, I started representing a Danish company that sold premium watches that could be customized with a company’s logo. Absolut Vodka was my first customer.
When I wasn’t traveling, I’d walk the streets of New York, pick buildings with names of big corporations, and go looking for marketing managers to sell our watches to. Sometimes I got thrown out, but sometimes they saw me, and it would lead to an order.
I wanted to do a watch for the Guggenheim Museum and kept calling the marketing manager. He agreed to see me, but when I walked in, he was so irate. He got within a centimeter of my nose, saying, “You’re so pushy!”
Two days later, I called him back, and he ended up giving me an order. When he moved to the Whitney, he continued to buy from me. I built the business by continually calling people and being pushy.
My time as Miss Carlsberg ended when I became pregnant with our first daughter. Henrik continued working for Carlsberg for a while, then also quit, and we were left with very little money. We bought a car for $300 that didn’t always run, and we had no health insurance. We couldn’t even buy a crib for the baby. She slept in a drawer in our bedroom, and we ate bread and ketchup. But we were determined to make things work.
The watch business did well enough that I decided to take some samples to a trade show. There, the owner of a small retailer named Silver Square said the watches were so beautiful that if we took the company logos off, he could sell them. So Henrik and I decided to do just that. We named the company after Skagen—a fishing village in northern Denmark that gets more sunshine than anywhere else in the country. We took out a $10,000 loan on our Long Island house and ordered 200 watches with our own logo and design.
We took the money from that sale to make 400 watches, sold them, and used that money to make 800 watches, and so on. We reinvested everything.
Sharper Image became our first big retail customer in 1992. That year, annual revenue was $800,000.
Since Nevada had lower state taxes, we moved to Lake Tahoe in 1993, and we had a second daughter. It was still just the two of us doing everything. We’d sit down to dinner, and a truck would arrive with boxes of watches. We’d stop eating to unload them. At first the department stores didn’t want us, so we concentrated on small, local design stores and became a cult brand. But then Nordstrom, Neiman Marcus, Saks, and Macy’s became customers, and we attracted the attention of Fossil. It approached us every year for 10 years, wanting to buy us. In 2010, we were ready to spend more time with our family, and I wanted to compete in dressage at the Olympics, so we agreed. We were the last company that Fossil didn’t own in the watch bay at Macy’s. It took a year and a half to close the deal. We both cried when we told the employees.
After selling, I started training on my horses and got skin cancer. Doctors told me to stay indoors. But I started researching materials that would protect skin from the sun so that I could ride again. I began designing riding wear with UV-protective fabric that had a Danish, preppy point of view and started Kastel Denmark in 2012. Annual revenue was $1.5 million in the first year.
In 2016, I placed 10th in the World Cup Finals, and I aim to try out for the U.S. Olympic team. I’ve had one recurrence of skin cancer, but now I’m in the clear. At horse events, I do trunk shows and sell our line to tack stores. I’m not as aggressively ambitious as I was with Skagen, but I won’t ever give up selling. It’s too much fun.
Charlotte Jorst, cofounder of Skagen and founder of Kastel Denmark
Be careful whom you do business with. One of the biggest mistakes we made in the beginning was selling a lot of watches to a retailer who then declared bankruptcy. We didn’t think to check his credit and lost about $6,000, which was a year of salary for us back then. After that, we started checking people’s credit and literally didn’t eat for a while.
A version of this article appears in the January 2020 issue of Fortune with the headline “Success Through Being Pushy.”
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