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Mike Root

Kathy Ireland: A true American entrepreneurial success story

July 7, 2011

Recently the Anti-Defamation League honored Kathy Ireland of Kathy Ireland Worldwide at its annual awards dinner in New York. I have gone to that dinner a couple of times and it is quite an event and very definitely an honor for the recipients. Kathy Ireland was honored with the American Heritage Award. She is CEO and chief designer of Kathy Ireland Worldwide, a marketing and design firm she founded in 1993.

As many of you know Kathy Ireland Worldwide has created licensed products in an array of categories including furniture, top of bed, wall décor, and more. I have never represented any product lines that bear her name so until very recently I never paid too much attention to her inspiring story. At a recent marketing conference I attended, unrelated to the furniture business, Kathy Ireland was the keynote speaker. Afterwards, my wife, son and I had the opportunity to meet with her and get our picture with this consumer brands titan (see for Kathy Ireland post with all our smiling faces).

I came away from this encounter with several takeaways that I will briefly share here. The number one item though is what a genuinely nice, gracious person she is. If you did not know better when talking with her at a setting outside of the furniture industry where she is not in the spotlight for her products, you would think she was your very well mannered neighbor next door. Here are a few details that make her a true American entrepreneurial success story.

She is a remarkable businesswoman who is passionate about her brand. She launched her business in 1993 and today it is a $1.5 billion dollar company selling over 45,000 products.

Many may remember her as a swimsuit model, but as she tells it, that really did not help her business career. When she saw the end of that career coming, she had to figure out something to do and many doors got slammed in her face. She started by selling a pair of socks that she designed and was passionate about. In fact she started the brand with this pair of socks selling them out of the trunk of her car. Now she has sold over 100,000,000 pairs of socks.

She was able to parlay that relationship with buyers gradually over time into other categories until now she touches many consumer products. In all, she has stayed involved in product concept, development, marketing and sales. Quite a feat for one woman who also stays highly involved in her children's upbringing.

Her success stems from the intimate knowledge of her customer and what the customer wants. She said to keep those doors of communication open with those you serve. The customer will honestly tell you how you can do better and serve her. Listening to our customers is critical.

She also touched on the following points that are relevant on a personal as well as business level:

• We are our own brand. What kind of brand do we portray to the world? If we have to make a change in that brand, do it now.

• A well branded product (or person) will outperform a non-branded, lesser priced product.

• Men buy products but women are loyal to brands.

• Corporate America no longer controls brands. Social media like Facebook, Twitter and blogs, have changed the landscape of marketing. People want to be reached in their own terms and not corporate terms.

• Independent retailers can offer what big boxes can't - customer service.

She was an inspirational speaker who said her priorities were faith, family, and service to work. She indicated whenever she got the priorities mixed up, she always ended up in trouble.

Probably my major takeaway from her was her persistence in the face adversity. Anybody can see her now as a celebrated wife, mother and CEO of a $1.5 billion dollar brand. Some may remember her as a swim suit model. But throughout she faced lots of people who told her "no" and she still struggled on to build an empire. The difference between her and millions of others who want the fame and fortune is that she never quits.

Congratulations Kathy Ireland on an award well deserved.