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THE WAY I WORK

The Way I Work: Kathy Ireland

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.

FORM A LINE Kathy Ireland, seen here discussing color trends for fall 2010 with her creative team, often schedules back-to-back meetings.

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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.

My kids are usually up by 6:30, and that's when things get busy: There's breakfast, hairdos, and making lunch boxes. It's chaos. Chloe is in first grade, Lily in fifth, and Erik is in 10th. We try to all sit down to breakfast, but it's often impossible. Then I drive them to school -- sometimes I'm still in my jammies. When I get back home, I start working.

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 check Twitter a few times a day. I was a Twitter skeptic until I started doing it about 10 months ago. Now I have more than 26,000 followers, many of whom tweet me to say what products they like and don't like. I spend a lot of time each day responding to those messages, because they're the folks I learn from the most. I don't think of them as followers but people who walk with me. They are my virtual focus groups.

We do real focus groups, too. When we launched our swimwear line, I went to the beach with several colleagues to find women of all different shapes, sizes, and ages. We handed out swimsuits, saying, "Go! Wear them! Swim; surf; play volleyball! Lay out in the sun and then wash them and give us your feedback!" We still do that -- but lately, I've been more focused on social networking. With Twitter or Facebook, I get to hear instantaneously from people all over the world who have purchased our items. It's really helpful.

I think it's funny that people still remember me as a model. It's like a lifetime ago. I never liked the title supermodel. I much prefer the titles Mom and CEO.

I travel often, but I try to keep to no more than five days a month. I find design inspiration in every trip. We hosted some golf tournaments in Alabama and South Carolina, and a whole collection was born out of that. I'll see an old gate in England, and it becomes a headboard for a bed. We have styles inspired by the Ivory Coast, animal prints and all of that. I've probably taken about five trips to Africa, and I'm looking forward to more. It's gorgeous.

Sketches come to life

A lot of times I'm visiting retailers that carry our brand. Sometimes a retail partner will ask me to come to a store to cut a ribbon or sign autographs. But we've tried that, and it doesn't really work. My thinking is, How does me signing an autograph help the customer? Or help you make a sale? The store will just be cluttered with people who aren't necessarily there to shop. I'd rather meet with the sales team and explain the design inspiration behind the collection. There's a story behind every one of our products. If the sales team understands what they're selling, that translates to the customer, and that moves the product.

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."

We have family dinners most nights. During really busy weeks, I may miss a few, and it bums me out. When that happens, I make sure not to miss one the following week. We usually eat around 6 p.m. I screen my calls until the kids go to bed. We may take a walk together, go to the beach, ride bikes, play a game, or watch a little TV -- when I was on Dancing With the Stars, that was fun to watch with them. Then it's baths, stories, songs, and bedtime for the kids.

My husband has two jobs -- he's an emergency room doctor and a commercial fisherman. His schedule is as nuts as mine. The two of us have a deal: We make an effort to find an hour of alone time every week without the kids. And if it doesn't happen, then we both have to feel really bummed about it. If he's home at night, I want to spend quality time with him after the kids are in bed. But if he's working, then I am, too. I'll send e-mails to my team and do mom stuff, like signing permission slips and checking homework. If I am not too tired, I'll check in with my Twitter pals again before bed. I'm usually up late. Most people don't get enough sleep, and I'm one of them.

I believe that women should make time to pamper themselves, but to be honest, I'm not so good at that. The last time I tried to take a bath, I flooded the house because I got distracted and left the water running. In short, it does not happen often. By the end of the day, I'm too fried.

IMAGE: Emily Shur
Last updated: Dec 1, 2009




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