By Jennifer Sicking
Cindy Monroe photos courtesy Thirty-One Gifts, others by Jennifer Sicking
In Cindy Monroe’s 600-square-foot Soddy Daisy, Tennessee, basement scented by candles awaiting sale alongside bags waiting to be monogrammed, she kept a statistic in the back of her head.
As she worked on her business plan in 2003, she remembered the stat. As she stayed up late running the monogram machine, she remembered. As she begged the UPS driver to wait 10 more minutes so she could load two more boxes, she was working to beat the statistic.
She knew most new businesses fail before they reach their fifth year. Even as her fledgling direct sales company eventually moved from her basement into the sunshine in a Chattanooga office, Monroe had set a mental benchmark. If she could keep going for five years, she could beat the odds.
One embroidered tote at time, she did just that.
“She sets about her work vigorously; her arms are strong for her tasks. She sees that her trading is profitable and her lamp does not go out at night.”
By 2015, Monroe’s company, Thirty-One Gifts, rose to become the 28th-largest direct selling organization in the world and 14th-largest in the United States. In 2013, the company hit a high of $750 million in total revenue. Along the way, Monroe started the monogram resurgence with the idea that the personal touch would make her company stand out. Now the company, with the name that alludes to Proverbs 31 in the Bible, owns the most single-head monogram machines in the country.
Monroe (Chattanooga ’95) acknowledges her education helped get her there. At 19, she married her husband, Scott. “My dad said the only way I could (get married) was to finish school, but I don’t think he thought I would,” Monroe says with a laugh. “I had to prove him wrong.” For her degree in marketing, she studied economics and business operations, among other topics. After getting a D in operations, a grade impacted by missing a few of the 8 a.m. class sessions, Monroe decided to take it again to try for a B.
“Those two classes I’m the most thankful for,” she says sitting in her corner office in Columbus, Ohio, where her UT diploma hangs on a wall near a table of amassed work accolades. “You take some classes and you think, ‘I will never use this.’”
Yet, those classes and others helped her understand business terminology when she began Thirty-One, an entrepreneurial journey she didn’t plan to undertake. An entrepreneurship course, however, in which she designed a business plan for custom-made jeans, remains her favorite UTC class.
“Learning is a life-long experience, but college gave me a thirst for more knowledge and taught me to research, read and reach out to others who are more experienced and knowledgeable,” she says.
An invitation from her sister during college further influenced Monroe’s future. The invitation was to a Pampered Chef party. Though Monroe had never heard of the brand, she became a consultant and in five months was promoted to leadership. She earned money and trips for her family as she built a team.
“We were living paycheck-to-paycheck, like most young newlyweds,” she says of her young family’s financial status. Through that experience, she learned the key to direct sales and how it can impact families.
“One of the most important lessons I learned as a sales consultant was that direct selling is about relationships more than anything else,” she says. “It’s a very personal business, where sales people can help customers find the right product solutions to meet their needs, where they work with party hostesses and learn to maintain relationships with people.”
But after she graduated from UTC, her focus turned to her full-time job with an insurance company and starting her family.
“Little did I know that I’d take all of those skills and learning from my own direct selling experience to Thirty-One,” she says.
“She is clothed with strength and dignity; She can laugh at the days to come. She speaks with wisdom and faithful instruction is on her tongue.”
It began when Monroe and a friend signed up for a bracelet-making class as something fun and creative to do together. Soon, they found themselves making and selling the jewelry. Unable to conceive of paying full price for beads, Monroe drove to the Atlanta AmericasMart to buy them wholesale. On one buying expedition, the market was having its gift sale. Upscale boutique owners from across the south placed orders for everything from baking mixes to tote bags and candles to resell in their resurging downtowns. Yet, those boutiques’ business hours were at the same time as when many employed women worked.
Monroe ordered some items and planned a party for 10 working mothers like herself.
“I didn’t want the company to be about Cindy Monroe. I wanted it to be about others—other women, specifically,” she says of the name. “The Proverbs woman, it wasn’t one thing she did. It was the collective, and at the end of the day, she was recognized and praised.” Monroe wanted that for the women who sign up as consultants. Too often in the home, the woman’s accomplishments of caring for the children, cooking meals and cleaning are overlooked, she says. “We love all the hats,” she says. “We don’t mind serving our community or serving our families, but we want to hear, ‘Great job. You’re making a difference.’”
And in hearing that and seeing the women reap the benefits from their sales, Monroe says she has seen women’s self-confidence blossom. Celebrate. Encourage. Reward. Those three words have become the touchstone of Thirty-One, a mantra worn on T-shirts, painted on entrance beams to the company headquarters and displayed as shadowy words on a wall when the afternoon sun shines through skylights. Today, more than 74,000 women have responded to that call and work as consultants.
Amy Winfrey (Knoxville, ’95) is one. She began selling in 2012 after buying so many items as gifts that her consultant suggested Winfrey sign up, at least to receive a discount. As a freelance payroll accountant in the movie industry, Winfrey uses Thirty-One’s products to organize her work space on movie sets. They help her, she says, to make sure everyone from the director and actors to the production assistant gets a paycheck. “People come into my office and say, ‘That’s neat,’ and I give them a catalog,” Winfrey says. “Most consultants do parties. I just use it around the office.”
After one movie wraps, Winfrey and her Thirty-One organizers and bags move to the next movie set. And the introduction to and selling of Thirty-One Gifts continues. “The products are practical,” she says. “The personalization is great, but it’s useful.”
An organizer inside Winfrey’s purple zip top utility tote keeps checks for a production assistant separate from cameramen as she divides payment by department. And the bag quickly distinguishes her on set. “Someone will ask, ‘Is payroll here?’ and they’re told, ‘She’s the one with the purple bag,’” Winfrey says.
Winfrey says she understands the company’s talk of supporting women can sound cliché to some. “But when you’re around Thirty-One women, it’s different,” she says. “Everyone wants you to succeed. It’s empowering.”
“Many women do noble things, but you surpass them all. Charm is deceptive and beauty is fleeting; But a woman who fears the Lord is to be praised. Honor her for all that her hands have done, And let her works bring her praise at the city gate.”
Empowerment is only part of Monroe’s successful plan. It also focuses on relationships. “Women want to get together and connect,” she says. “That’s why home parties are so successful.”
In 2008, Monroe blew through her five-year business goal with the company doubling and tripling in sales, and she knew the business would be a success. On a faith-based retreat that year, Monroe took time to reflect and meditate, to step out of the urgency of day-to-day business and look toward the future. And she had an epiphany.
“I thought, ‘Girl, you’ve got this. Keep going through those open doors,’ ” she recalls.
And she has.
Through hearing bankers say, “No.” Through times wondering if she could meet payroll and pay the consultants. Through the decision to leave her home in Chattanooga and move the business to Columbus, Ohio, in 2008.
During her first visit to China to check the small mountain of merchandise headed to Tennessee, Monroe knew she needed help to keep up with the rapid growth of her company. She found it in the country’s third-largest retail center, two states away and an eight-hour drive from Chattanooga. That’s where her research discovered the ready-made retail and design talent and logistical support her booming business needed.
Cindy Monroe’s Advice for Starting a Company
Know your strengths and weaknesses.
Know when to take risks.
Know how to embrace your success and use it to teach others.
Surround yourself with the right people, who will change as the company grows.
Read, because leaders are learners.
In Atlanta, Monroe found, talent for operating an individual retail store was plentiful. In Columbus, she found people with experience planning inventory and designing products for an entire company.
“The recession was really helpful for me to get some talent,” she says. “We were one of the only growing companies at that time. People were excited about being part of a growing company again.”
It proved a successful transition. The company outgrew its 98,000-square-foot building the same year it moved to Ohio and moved again to its current 800,000-square-foot home office.
“I never imagined that I would be here when I was working in the basement (of her Soddy Daisy home),” Monroe says, sitting in her sunlight-infused office in the Easton area of Columbus. She recalls working with a consultant and discussing growth cycles of other direct sales companies. She laughed about the possibility of her company ever seeing those high sales figures. “Little did I know we would surpass those numbers,” she says.
When banks turned down business loans, Monroe says it taught her to be frugal, to fund the business herself.
“Even today, we have very little debt because that’s how I grew the business,” she says. “Everything I was making I put back in the business. If you believe in what you’re doing, you
invest in it.”
Now she calls the bootstrap growth a blessing. “I never had to think about going bankrupt,” she says. “I’ve never been in that position because I did learn those skills early on.”
It’s those skills in leading the company that also landed Monroe on Forbes magazine’s 2015 list of Women to Watch, alongside actress Sandra Bullock and singer Taylor Swift. While she initially didn’t want to be included individually for what she sees as the entire company’s accomplishment, Monroe says it started her on a journey of owning her success.
“I don’t find my value in worldly things, how much is in my bank account or what the business world sees,” she says. “I just want to be seen as Cindy Monroe. It’s crazy to think that I’m a success. It’s not me; it’s everyone in the company. There’s no way I could reach success on my own.”