When Anne Kelly returned from going to school in London in the early ’90s, she noticed a couple of trends: the plus-sized female demographic had increased, and more people were beginning to understand the importance of activity at every size. She also noticed there was no clothing to support either of these trends, so she started researching the apparel industry.

“I put my business plan together and took it out to the financial markets,” said Kelly, founder and chairman of Junonia Ltd. “They all laughed at me. They said, ‘If larger people would exercise, they’d be smaller.’”

Refusing to ignore the gaping hole in the industry, Kelly walked away from those meetings and opened Junonia’s first office in downtown St. Paul, Minn. Since starting the business on a shoestring in 1995, she has managed to increase the company’s annual revenue to $15 million.

Junonia’s inhouse staff of 14 handles design, product development, marketing, and the creation of the company’s catalogs and e-mails. The company outsources its customer service and fulfillment but considers those people part of the family as well. In fact, in the past year, the company’s CEO Sandra Crotteau made customer service an even bigger focus by spending time with the people in the customer care center to ensure the trust of Junonia’s customer base would stay in place for years to come.

“A small percentage of our customers come to the phone to place their orders, but 100% of our customers come to the phone if they have a problem,” said Crotteau. “We did a lot of training and empowering the customer service reps to make decisions, within guidelines, so they don’t have to go to their supervisor every time there’s a minor question to be answered or adjustment to be made.”

This attention to customer service differentiates Junonia in the world of e-com apparel by upping the trust factor between consumer and corporation. “Our customers know we’ll do the right thing,” said Kelly. “If something goes sideways, they know they can call us, and we’ll fix it. That’s an amazing place to be.”

Listen and learn

In the past 15 years, the mission of Junonia has remained the same, but the way in which it’s fulfilled has changed.

The company is focused on providing quality active wear for plus-sized women, but it now sells more than 50 products in non-specific active categories, meaning it has also integrated casual, work, and travel wear.

“Much of our progress in this respect came from listening to our customers,” said Kelly.

Perhaps the biggest change to the business platform has been the infiltration of commercial Internet, a concept that didn’t exist in 1995. So when Kelly founded the company, rather than building a Web site and sending out e-blasts, she instead broke down the company’s market potential and figured out the best way to reach its target audience.

“Roughly 9% to 10% of the plus-sized people in this country are possible customers for us, which is not enough to open a retail store,” she said. “We immediately explored catalog, and that supported our business through to 2004.”

At that point, the Internet became something more than a tool for men and geeks, in the words of Kelly. Junonia’s customer base, which includes women ages 35 to 65, tends to be well educated and comfortable shopping on the Web. Kelly said in the last five years, conversations with catalogers have surprised her, as few have found the synergistic possibilities between developing a strong online presence and not letting go of the catalog shoppers have come to love.

“We were always 10% to 15% ahead of everyone else because our customers are comfortable with the Web,” she said. “But she loves the catalog too; it’s inspirational and helpful to drive her to the Web.”

Junonia also connects with customers through e-media such as e-mail, Facebook, Twitter, and blogs. The company has made small improvements to its Web site, but in the face of a shaky economy, completely reworking the platform seems a bad business investment.

“As soon as things start to turn around, one of the things Sandra will tackle is how to re-platform the Web site to make sure it will work for the next generation, which is almost impossible to anticipate because things are changing so fast,” said Kelly.

Middle of the curve

Junonia’s designation as a private label manufacturer is an important piece of how it continues to meet the needs of its customer base. Plus-sized women have different issues than non-plus-sized women, and companies often don’t have the bandwidth to solve every problem, instead choosing to focus on the middle of what Kelly calls the customer bell curve.

“The middle of our bell curve is a still plus-sized women,” she said. “That means we can focus on her unique needs, design to her needs, and create a fit system that works for her.”

Kelly started her quest for perfect plus-size active wear options by comparing what her husband, a marathon runner, had in his closet. That’s followed through the years, and the company is always on the lookout for the best in lightweight, supportive, breathable clothing. Recently, a fabric called polypropelene has hit the active wear industry, and Junonia is working on incorporating it into new styles.

On the operational side of the business, the private label manufacturer platform made it possible for Crotteau to adjust processes such as the technical packs—information that goes from the designers to the production team. By making adjustments where necessary to fit the specific needs of Junonia’s customer base before moving into production, garments fit and function better, and the rate of returned items has plummeted.

“For our plus-sized customers, waist bands and bra bands fit differently,” said Crotteau. “Our customers have unique needs, and we need to ensure our apparel solutions are easy to wear and support them without having them feel they are back in the days when you needed a fainting chair to get dressed.”

The improvements in product development also reduced Junonia’s cycle time, which removes excess costs for the company and its partners. It has shortened the time it takes to get a product to market, which will help as Junonia considers looking at what Kelly calls the third leg of the stool.

“We’ve got flicks, the catalog; clicks, the Web site; but not bricks, the retail front,” she said. “We haven’t come up with the right model yet, but watch us over the next couple of years to see what we’ll do.”