How Kathy Ireland expanded her portfolio to include a $2 billion design and marketing empire

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John Ireland read the notice advertising for a newspaper carrier and just had to show it to his 11-year-old daughter, Kathy. He knew exactly what her reaction would be.

“He kind of gently shoved this newspaper ad under my nose,” says Kathy, flashing back to one of the defining moments of her childhood. “The ad read, ‘Newspaper carrier wanted. Are you the boy for the job?’ Dad knew the kind of reaction that was going to get from me. I wrote to the paper and said, ‘I’m not the boy for the job. I’m the girl. I can do it just as well as any boy.’ And 30-plus years later, I’m still the girl with the paper route.”

Fans know her for her appearances in Sports Illustrated’s annual swimsuit issue in the 1980s and 1990s. But as she says, she’s “still the girl with the paper route” and that girl, with an endless supply of determination and dedication, has built a $2 billion design and marketing empire.

“The modeling industry — that was not part of my path,” says Ireland, speaking in November at the EY Strategic Growth Forum® in Palm Springs, Calif. “But it was a wonderful opportunity. I believed it could be a chance for me to pay for college or to start a business. I’m a slow learner. The entire time I worked in the modeling industry, I tried and failed at many businesses. I look at failure as an education — in that respect, I’m very well-educated.”

When she started the business now known as kathy ireland Worldwide, Ireland says she was “an aging, pregnant model at my kitchen table.”

“I was 29,” Ireland says. “I never felt comfortable earning my paycheck based on how somebody else felt that I looked. I didn’t see the sustainability there. I was always more interested in designing for the red carpet than walking it. It just took me a while to get there. Had one of those earlier ventures taken off, the modeling never would have gone on as long as it did.”

Today, Ireland is the founder, chair, CEO and chief designer for a firm that offers designs in fashion, weddings, home office and other areas. The business bears her name, but that wasn’t done out of vanity.

“It was available to register and protect and it did open some doors of curiosity,” Ireland says. “They just weren’t the correct doors for us. There are some doors even today that are opened simply because of curiosity and my ideas as CEO are not necessarily taken as seriously as they would be had I not had that long ago modeling career.”

In an interview conducted on stage at the EY event by Forbes’ Moira Forbes, Ireland spoke about the obstacles she overcame, the ones she still faces today and the importance of treating people with love and respect.

 

Growing the right way

Some would look at the product Ireland used to launch her business and say it wasn’t very glamorous.

“I was an aging model and someone offered me an opportunity to model a pair of socks,” Ireland says. “It was a small budget and things were getting a little rough out there, but it was a job. It was a time when not a lot of job offers were coming my way. I thought it would be an interesting place to start our brand, something basic.

“What could our team bring as far as innovation in utilizing wonderful fabrics and textures? If women embrace socks, I might be on to something.”

Ireland says many accuse her of being a control freak, using the fact that the company is named after her as an example. But she reiterates it’s never been about her own personal glory.

“I wanted to bring something to the table and have our team be involved,” Ireland says. “I wasn’t interested in putting my name on a product. I get accused of being a control freak, but I prefer to think of it as passion. I’m very passionate about what I do. I want to make sure we do it with integrity and do it the right way.”

Ireland’s father worked in labor relations and was an inspiration to his daughter in terms of the proper way to treat people.

“How people are treated is much more important than the green stuff in the bank,” Ireland says. “I love listening to people. I believe in that so much. I have problems in my life, and I like to hear other peoples’ problems and how they reach solutions. That’s what our brand is about. We began with a mission to find solutions for families, especially busy moms. We expanded it to finding solutions for people in love and for people in business.”

The socks were a hit with consumers, but Ireland remained cautious as she plotted the future and her business began to grow. That wariness of growing too fast has always been part of the thoughtful mindset that guides every aspect of Ireland’s life.

“In the early days, I grew too slowly because I was so afraid of growing at a pace where we couldn’t control the integrity of what was going on,” Ireland says. “One of the reasons we remained a private company is because it gives us the privilege to make decisions that are not based on a 90-day Wall Street Journal chart. We don’t have those responsibilities and accountabilities to show on paper what we’re doing.

“We can make more long-term plans that many would say are going to kill your business, but for me, it feels like the right thing to do.”

There were plenty of people who thought Ireland was crazy when she made the decision to end her company’s relationship with Kmart and work through an independent channel.

“People said, ‘That’s crazy, you can’t start in mass retail and go to the independent channel. That’s never been done,’” Ireland says. “It’s never been done doesn’t mean that it can’t be done. We’ve got to turn down that noise and negativity.”

When financial performance sunk, there were moments when the decision looked like a mistake.

“We were in debt and starting all over,” Ireland says. “I found myself in that situation. When you’ve got payroll and the money is not coming in, you have a choice. You get inspired and you get innovative or you give up. There was never any quit, and I’m very blessed to work with an incredible team.”

 

Seeking balance

Ireland admits that balancing her work life with her three children and husband back home and the many philanthropic causes she has become involved with over the years is a huge challenge that she doesn’t always manage effectively.

“It’s something I struggle with daily,” Ireland says. “Oftentimes, I’m really out of balance. People often ask, ‘Can women have it all?’ I think we can, but not all at once. I really believe that our lives come in seasons, and in each season of life we have to prioritize our time. It’s important for individuals to figure out their own values and their own priorities. Put barriers in place to protect them because they will be challenged.”

One issue that is particularly close to Ireland’s heart is human rights and the fact that there are so many people, particularly women and children, being used as slaves around the world.

“It’s the fastest growing illegal business and human beings can be sold again and again,” Ireland says. “And that terrifies me. What I’ve learned, is that as we grow, we have more leverage. When we’re smaller, we bump into a funky situation when we call them out. ‘Hey, you broke our human rights contract.’ They say, ‘Well, don’t work with us.’ When you have some leverage, you have a much better chance.”

Something that has helped Ireland in all aspects of her life is the ability to take challenges or take criticism that comes her way and use it to get better.

“It’s the importance of asking powerful questions,” Ireland says. “When someone says no, I ask why. When someone says yes, my question is how. ‘How are you able to manufacture these socks at such a great value? What’s going on at every level? What’s going on in the factories?’ Asking those questions is powerful.”

But one of the most transformative moments of Ireland’s career was when she fell flat on her face in her driveway while fooling around on her son’s wagon.

“I was a mess,” Ireland says, referring to her broken nose, cracked teeth and other injuries she sustained in the fall. “One of my girlfriends, I didn’t ask her to do it, but she took it upon herself to put construction paper over every mirror so I wouldn’t see myself. Our son thought it was wonderful I could scare his friends.”

The transformative part of the injury was the fact that her business experienced its largest surge of growth during her recovery.

“No one could attribute it to my appearance because I was a mess,” Ireland says. “No one could attribute that growth to what I did for a living the last century. I still have a scar on my nose and makeup usually covers it. But it’s a wonderful reminder of the turn our company took.”

 

Takeaways:

  • Find your opportunity.
  • Believe in yourself.
  • Treat people with respect.

 

The Ireland File:

NAME: Kathy Ireland
TITLE: Founder, chair, CEO and chief designer
COMPANY: kathy ireland Worldwide

Ireland on Elizabeth Taylor: She mentored me before I met her through reading and learning about her. She caused me to look at life, philanthropy, business and jewelry with a whole new set of eyes. In the 1980s when the AIDS epidemic was just coming around, she was so frustrated that nothing was being done. She said, ‘Why isn’t anyone doing anything?’ She looked in the mirror one day and said, ‘Wait a minute. I’m somebody. I can do something.’

When she called her friends and asked for help, they hung up on her. Her business associates pleaded with her, ‘Just leave this thing alone. This is not going to be good for you.’ She was getting death threats. But what I love about Elizabeth is she did not let any of that stop her. She believed in what she was doing. You have to have that passion.

Ireland on entrepreneurialism:When I was younger and people got out of college, they had to find a job. Today, people have to invent one. Entrepreneurial skills are more important now than ever before. Whenever we face times of uncertainty or economic challenges, entrepreneurial skills are critical.

When I’m able to connect with entrepreneurs, I learn from them far more than I can teach them. Selfishly, it’s a blessing for me when I’m able to have those experiences. I look for them as often as possible. We help each other.