Kathy Ireland doesn’t just lend her name to the 15,000 or so products she licenses. To each item in the Kathy Ireland Worldwide catalog, the former model and lifetime entrepreneur gives a little piece of herself. “Our business model is different from others,” said the face of the world’s 28th largest licensor on License Global’s 2009 top 100 list. “Some people would like for me to go back to our old job description of shut-up-and-pose, and that’s not going to happen. I’m really curious, and I ask a lot of questions.” 

Once the object of desire of many an adolescent male, Ireland now focuses her energy on meeting the needs of busy moms. Bigger in annual sales than Sunkist, the Peanuts gang, and Harley-Davidson, the Kathy Ireland brand can be found on everything from area rugs and ceiling fans to socks, earrings, exercise videos, and inspirational books. 

None of it, it would appear, is accidental. Ireland’s team carefully researches and selects each product, manufacturer, and retailer. 

Each product must meet the company’s commitment to four core standards: fashion, quality, value, and safety. Vendors must be willing to uphold those standards, Ireland said. “It’s a getting-to-know-you process,” she explained. “We look at their records in all of those areas. It can be involved, but none of us are looking to make a quick buck. We’re looking for a lasting relationship.”

Ireland knows the workings of those vendors firsthand, and she has the frequent-flyer miles to prove it. Recently, she popped in on a factory in Israel for a surprise inspection of her skin care line.

“Being there myself and seeing it is something I feel is really important,” she said. “You learn a lot when you show up unexpectedly. I like to talk to the people in the factory. I can look in their eyes, and I want to know how people are being treated at every level.”

The boss knows best

Ireland has displayed an entrepreneurial spirit nearly her whole life, starting at the age of four with a wagon-based retail business hawking painted rocks. That enterprise was followed by a paper route, which she held for four years in her hometown of Santa Barbara, Calif. But in the current company that bears her name, Ireland doesn’t consider herself 

the boss. That job title goes to the moms who are Kathy Ireland Worldwide’s target customers. 

“Our customer is the most critical part of our design time,” Ireland said.  “I don’t need a degree to know what I like, and neither does Mom. She’s tough, she’s my boss, and I honor her.”

A working mother herself, Ireland is tuned in to the wants and needs of women with young children. “I’m her, and so I get her,” she said. “And I talk to this woman every day—at school, at church, at the grocery store, on Twitter. I’m talking to her all the time.”

The Kathy Ireland home collection features eight style guides that enable the consumer to select coordinated items ranging from furniture to bedding to lighting. The Aloha style guide, for example, is heavy on natural fibers and tropical touches, while the Architectural style guide highlights sleeker lines and high-gloss finishes. Each guide works within a color palette for easy mix and match. 

“Our home happens to be an eclectic mix of all the style guides,” Ireland admitted, but that’s because she treats her home as a quality assurance lab. All products are designed for family wear and tear. 

“Life is messy, but rather than being afraid of those messes, let’s have products that support the way we live,” she said. 

Even the company’s retailers are carefully chosen to fit the company’s core philosophy. “We spend time researching to find the best retail partners,” Ireland said. It’s real work for a busy mom to make it into a store, what with diapers, strollers, fussy little ones, and busy schedules, she said. “Because it’s a big deal, that shopping experience had better be honored. And I hear it when it’s not.”

In the tradition of the early days of her first product line (women’s socks), when Ireland made personal calls on stores, the company still carefully researches potential partners and focuses on independent retailers. The company also has limited big-box distribution with companies like Macys.com, Neimanmarcus.com, and Walgreens. 

Ireland, whose company has partnered with Berkshire Hathaway’s Shaw Industries for more than a decade, cited the man himself in explaining the reason. “As Mr. Buffet says, the big boxes will never be able to compete with the independents when it comes to customer service.” 

The fit is not always as easy as that of a nicely made sock, she admitted. “If they say ‘no,’ I need to know why, so we can learn and so I can do better. If you don’t occasionally get rejected, you’re not trying hard enough.”

Always on the lookout for new product lines, the company recently added a crafting line, which includes ribbons and appliqués for scrapbookers. The line is not likely to include one classic Kathy Ireland signature item, however: the wagon-delivered painted rock. 

“I don’t know if we’re going to sell rocks,” Ireland laughed. “The kind of rocks she’s wanting right now are jewelry, so we’re giving them to her.”

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