Thirty-One ties growth to workers' happiness

Tim Feran, The Columbus Dispatch

Many companies say that it's important to foster a happy corporate culture, but few go to the extremes of Thirty-One, the thriving direct-sales company based in Columbus.

A few months ago, as the snow fell in buckets, founder Cindy Monroe issued an urgent bulletin to employees in the Easton headquarters: Put aside everything, go outside and make snowmen.

"Culture is pretty important here," Monroe said recently. "Not just so we get more work out of them, but so that our people learn how to be happier and find their own balance between work and family. To that end, we even had written on a board in our customer-rep center, 'What's your why?'??"

Keeping employees happy - and the company's army of sales representatives happy, too - is key to the company's growth. Thirty-One, which takes its name from chapter 31 of the Bible's Book of Proverbs, encourages its sales agents to find happiness not only in making money but also from holding sales parties, enlisting others and the good things that result.

In the company's Easton facility, a wall labeled "Circle of Honor" salutes sales leaders, many of whom have moving stories to tell, said Scott Monroe, who is Cindy's husband, Thirty-One's chief brand officer and a former pastor.

"Things that may seem small to us - that's success to them," he said. "So often someone will be in tears and tell us, 'My marriage is saved,'??" because the added cash has lifted the family's income or allowed a husband to quit his job and get into a new career.

"We say, 'When you walk through the doors, you can be yourself - and we want you to be better when you leave,'??" he said.

It has all come about by selling purses, totes, backpacks and similar items; monograms are a popular feature.

Although the company had been relatively low profile until recently, growth has been staggering since 2003, when the Monroes borrowed $10,000 and launched the company out of their basement.

Revenue in 2012 was $718 million, ranking the company 18th on the 2012 Direct Selling News Global 100. That's a jump of $600 million from 2010, when the company was 83rd.

Thirty-One has 1,142 employees at Easton and 425 at its other central Ohio locations, plus 218 in Springfield. Across the country, Thirty-One has a sales force of 115,000 independent consultants.

"All of our growth is organic," Cindy Monroe said, chiefly through word of mouth of salespeople. "We haven't even begun to add marketing. The only place I'm 100 percent positive I'll see (someone carrying) one of our bags is at Disney World. Our demographic loves Disney World. I travel quite a bit, and I don't even see the bags in any airport."

Last month, Thirty-One added a "little sister" to its family: Jewell, another direct-sales company that deals in a higher-end demographic than Thirty-One.

The move is indicative of the way in which Thirty-One will continue to grow, she said.

"We would love to expand to a new demographic," she said. "We know the Hispanic population is growing, for instance, and they're very open to direct selling and very family-oriented."

The company also branched out into Canada last year and intends to move into other countries.

"Others mature at $500 million or $1 billion, but we think there's no end to our growth."

Plus-size revitalized

It's been a few months since Ascena Retail Group brought in a new leader to revitalize its Lane Bryant chain.

So how does the top brass at Ascena think things are going at the Columbus-based plus-size fashion retailer?

"While it will take a little while to get things going, we think the prognosis is excellent," said David Jaffe, Ascena president and CEO.

During a recent investors conference, Jaffe spoke briefly about reports he has been getting from Linda Heasley, the new Lane Bryant CEO.

"Linda is learning," Jaffe said. Apparently there's a lot to absorb, because Jaffe added: "She says it's like drinking out of a fire hose."

Heasley, who led New Albany-based chain The Limited for six years, had done considerable research on the plus-size sector before moving to Lane Bryant. In October 2011, The Limited launched a plus-size clothing line called eloquii.

"As a result, she ... came in very knowledgeable," Jaffe said. "She had shopped Lane Bryant every week for years and came in with a lot of ideas to maybe make the product a little more fashionable. She would say, some of the product is a little old, a little dowdy, maybe a little bit too much repeat from prior years."

Jaffe said that Lane Bryant plans to add 45 stores this year to its 789, and the company sees potential for reaching 1,000.