The Way I Work: Kathy Ireland

Inc.com | As told to Liz Welch | 12/1/2009

Former supermodel Kathy Ireland founded a little company to make products for “busy moms” like herself. Now, with revenue of $1.4 billion, she’s busier than ever.

When she was in her 20s and a model, Kathy Ireland says, her job description was “Shut up and pose.” So it irks her when anyone suggests that the 46-year-old CEO and chief designer of Kathy Ireland Worldwide is merely the face of her $1.4 billion business. Ireland, who launched the Los Angeles–based company in 1993 and is the majority shareholder, began by creating a line of socks and parlayed that into a large licensing deal with Kmart that lasted until 2003. Now she puts her stamp on more than 15,000 products — including scented candles, dining room sets, porcelain dishes, wood flooring, skin care products, and swimsuits.

The products are sold in some 50,000 stores in 28 countries. Ireland, who has 37 employees and works with more than two dozen manufacturers, personally oversees the design of almost every product. Although Ireland graced the cover of Sports Illustrated’s swimsuit issue three times, her fan base has switched from randy college boys to working mothers. Her business mission: “Finding solutions for families, especially busy moms.” A mother of three, Ireland schedules her hectic workday around school drop-offs, soccer games, and family dinners.

I usually wake up anytime between 4 and 6:30 a.m. My first meeting of the day is with God. I have my prayer time, my reading time. Sometimes I’ll go in the other room if my husband is still sleeping. I like to start out my day with the Lord, basically. It really sets my day off in a good place, so I can be more patient with people and better handle whatever comes up. […]

I try to work from home every other week, so I can spend more time with my family. Everybody on my team knows that my schedule is planned around my kids.

I always check in daily with Stephen Roseberry, our president and COO. We’ll discuss things like what’s going on with our retail partnerships or manufacturing issues that have cropped up. We have relationships with about 25 different manufacturers. For instance, Shaw, a company in Georgia, makes our rugs and flooring products, and then GoldToeMoretz manufactures our socks. Some of our manufacturers make products only for us, but others have partnerships with other companies as well. Our financial arrangement with each is different. Usually, we receive a royalty on every product that bears our brand.

My old job description was “Shut up and pose.” So I have an allergic reaction when someone just wants me to put my name on a product. I have dealt with manufacturers who didn’t want my input. As soon as I sense that, our relationship is over.

When I’m working at home, I usually like to focus on product design, which is my favorite part of my job. I have a table in my home office where I sketch and take notes based on stuff I collect when I’m out and about — a shell, a piece of fabric, a snapshot of a flower. I bring my sketchpad and a camera with me everywhere, because I never know when something will strike me. I was in my daughter’s music class last year and saw these drums, which became the inspiration for a leather ottoman I designed.

Sometimes I’ll designate a day to go out and look for inspiration — on the streets or at the mall. I might go to a museum or go on a hike. My best ideas come to me when I’m out in nature. I really do think God is the best designer. One morning while walking my dogs, I noticed that the grass was covered in dew and sparkled when the sunlight hit it. That inspired a broadloom carpet, which is bright green with silver threads throughout. One of my design philosophies is that I want to bring happiness into the home — I like bright colors instead of dreary blah beige.

I’m involved to varying degrees in the design of each product. Sometimes I’ll do a rough sketch, or I’ll just provide a specific design direction. I barely finished high school, but I have team members with master’s degrees in fine arts. They can take my rough sketches and turn them into something beautiful.

When I go into the office, I try to make the most of my time. I live in Santa Barbara, which is 90 minutes away, so sometimes I’ll have someone on staff drive me to and from the office so I can work in the car. I get a lot of e-mails and calls done. I’m the one who handles most of the tough phone calls — talking with the bank, negotiating leases, and dealing with personnel, distribution, or quality-control issues.

When I get to Los Angeles, I’ll go straight into back-to-back meetings with members of my team. Erik Sterling, our CFO, gives me weekly financial updates. Before we pursue a new design idea, I talk to our marketing team about what’s selling and what’s not.

We have so many different products, but our mission statement — finding solutions for busy moms — keeps us focused. I consider working moms my boss and spend several hours each day thinking about their needs — whether I am at home or at the office. Since I live the same life that our customer does, I interact with her everywhere — at the grocery store, school, church, soccer games. When somebody on my team has an idea for a product, my first question is, How does it make a busy mom’s day better? And then we see if it adheres to the other four brand promises: fashion, value, quality, and safety. Safety is No. 1. Our coffee tables have rounded edges because when my son was 3 years old, he almost gouged his eye out on a sharp corner.

Some days I go meet with retailers and manufacturers, and I’ll do conference calls in the car on the way. I spend a lot of my time talking with retailers, trying to get our products in their stores. A lot of times I just grab Taco Bell for lunch if I’m on the road between appointments. Or if I’m in the office, I’ll order in and work through lunch. I want to maximize every minute.

[…]

I also go to about five trade shows a year. The home furnishing ones are very important. We showcase our entire collections so retailers can see how everything works together, from rugs to lighting to the fine porcelain. That’s where I put on my sales hat. I walk retailers through everything.

Doing publicity stuff — interviews, photo shoots — is probably my least favorite part of my job. But I am the face of the company, so I understand why it is important. Some people think I have an entourage, which is hysterical. I tell them, “He’s not part of my entourage; he’s my head of marketing.”

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