The Wide World of Kathy Ireland

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  “My customer needs a solution, needs it now, and I deliver it to her.”

While most profiles of Kathy Ireland begin by detailing the supermodel’s success (for this is how the world first got to know the bathing beauty-from her Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Edition covers and appearances), if you ask her about her modeling career today, the brilliant businesswoman, who runs an international multibillion-dollar corporation that bears her name, laughs it off like child’s play.

“I did okay as a model, but I wasn’t super. Some of the publications I worked for were certainly pretty super, so I did alright.” She isn’t trying to convey a faux sense of humility; rather she takes her current role in life and in business very seriously. “Growing up, [modeling] was never a part of my plan,” she explains. “I entered the modeling industry already as a businessperson….I’ve been an entrepreneur since I was four years old.”

Her entrepreneurial skills first emerged when she was selling rocks out of her wagon, and were further honed by her efforts in the “boy’s job” of running a paper route at 11 years old. It all led to the founding of Kathy Ireland Worldwide in 1993 with a single pair of socks. Time and again, Ireland has proven herself as an innovative capitalist and earned well-respected industry accolades for her efforts. She has been recognized by Forbes, Women’s Wear Daily, the Associated Press, London Times, and the National Association of Women Business Owners. Today Kathy Ireland Worldwide is a design and marketing firm producing more than 15,000 products sold in 28 countries.

As an aging model (at the ripe old age of 29), with no lucrative endorsement deals on the horizon, Ireland was approached by John and Marilyn Moretz from designer sock company, Moretz Sports. “I got offered an opportunity to model a pair of socks. Not quite as glamorous as it sounds,” she jokes. As it turns out, that small sock offer stoked her entrepreneurial fire.

At the time of the offer, she already had a small business and branding team in place, led by her Creative Director Jon Carrasco, who is still on the job today. “I did not want to do an endorsement,” she explains. “I wanted to start a real brand from the ground up. People said we were absolutely crazy, but we thought this could be a really great beginning. What better place to start a brand from the ground up than with socks?”

Though everyone advised the model to break into retail with a swimwear collection, she bucked the status quo, citing faith in the intelligence of the women who would become her loyal customers. “I thought, what would that be like if women embraced something as basic as a pair of socks?” Women did, and her unending gratitude is as palpable today as in 1993. “I really appreciate the fact that women turned down the noise of stereotyping and embraced our brand,” she says.

With their support, Ireland forged ahead into new markets with the gusto of hurricane force winds, all the while never losing sight of her company’s credo of finding solutions for families, especially busy moms. “We take [our mission] very seriously with everything we do. And our customer is very demanding. She wants the fashion, the quality, the value, and the safety. And so those four promises go into everything that we design and market.”

Kathy Ireland Worldwide has a hand in a wide variety of sectors, including furniture, flooring, lighting, window treatments, bedding, tabletop, decorative accessories, and apparel. In addition to the Kathy Ireland Home Collection, she also partners with industry experts like Nicholas Walker in designing products featuring garden inspirations, showcased on The Oprah Winfrey Show, and Chef André Carthen for the food, entertaining, and culture divisions of her brand.

From designing, marketing and sales, vendor relations, shipping and distribution, to quality control issues, Ireland is a hands-on leader, taking most of her directives directly from her customers. “If you could see the emails I get…my customer doesn’t want a beauty tip or an autograph. She is a smart busy mom who cuts right to the chase,” she says. When a customer told her that the edges on a cocktail table were too sharp and were a hazard to a three-year-old, she took her marching orders and designed dime radius corners. “My customer needs a solution, needs it now, and I deliver it to her,” she states.

But she is immediately aware of the “I” in that statement, and addresses the incredible support she receives from her team. “I never had a family business, but today I do have a business family. I really believe that when you treat the people you work with the way you would want your family members to be treated, there’s no limit to what you can accomplish together,” declares Ireland.

Amidst traveling the globe with her design team and collecting raw material that can be translated into product, she somehow found the time last year to pen a new book, Real Solutions for Busy Moms: Your Guide to Success & Sanity, (Howard Books, $23.99) slated to release in early April 2009. This is a comprehensive guide for women who don’t have a lot of time that addresses today’s real world issues, such as credit card debt, home foreclosures, planning for retirement and children’s education, caring for elderly parents, health issues, drug abuse, STDs, sexual predators, and the mental, physical, and spiritual well being of children. She explains, “It’s written in a way that [a woman] can pick it up and really address her immediate needs and find a solution for it.”

As a busy mom herself (she is the mother of three), Ireland cites her faith as the bedrock of her success and integrated her values into the Kathy Ireland Worldwide corporate philanthropic mandates, which are women’s health and children’s needs.

Though she already has accomplished a lifetime of achievements, Ireland admits there is always more on the horizon. “Our brand is in its infancy and we have such a long way to go. And one of the beauties of our mission is that there are always solutions that we’re going to need to find.”

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