Thirty-One: Driven by Passion, Fueled by Purpose

Thirty-One Gifts

Thirty-One Gifts is committed to empowering women—whether consultants, customers, or young girls struggling with confidence and other issues.

This passion to help women is driven by Founder and CEO Cindy Monroe, who began the company 15 years ago in her basement. Thirty-One specializes in personalized handbags, totes, duffle bags, lunch bags and other carryall products. Its mission: “Thirty-One is more than just a company. We are people who believe in celebrating, encouraging and rewarding women for who they are.”

Thirty-One Gifts
Founded: 2003
Headquarters: Columbus, Ohio
Top Executive: Founder and CEO Cindy Monroe
Products: Personalized handbags, jewelry and accessories

The organization recognizes the synergies that come from supporting its core constituencies—customers, consultants and communities. Continued communication and input from these groups inform ongoing strategies at the company and help the team stay on top of a changing business environment.

Revisiting Success

Since its founding in Monroe’s basement, Thirty-One had explosive success and then, she says, “we had a couple of years of decline.” That led to new considerations of how the company might be structured—and restructured—to see greater success.

Cindy Monroe

“I’m pretty proud of our team—we are healthy at the top line and the bottom line,” says Monroe. “We’re super excited to have had a growth year in 2017. I’m so proud of our team and our sales field for how they’ve rallied around momentum and growth.”

That success, she says, wasn’t due to any one silver bullet. It was, in fact, a lot of different factors, some short-term, some bigger ideas—but all driven by coming together in collaboration to turn the business around.

“We’re super excited to have had a growth year in 2017. I’m so proud of our team and our sales field for how they’ve rallied around momentum and growth.”
Cindy Monroe, Founder and CEO, Thirty-One Gifts

A Flatter Structure Drives Collaboration and Productivity

To get to a flatter structure at the top level of the company, Monroe removed the C-suite and had vice presidents of specific departments continue to drive their areas, but collaboratively. “I feel that they have exposure to other areas of the business that they didn’t previously always have,” says Monroe. In addition, the change has helped leaders understand what motivates the sales field in ways that they didn’t understand before. It’s also driven greater accountability, she says, “not just from me, but from their peers.” Today, she adds, “they’re accomplishing things together, they’re learning together and they’re celebrating together.”

Departments that have been most affected by the change, says Monroe, have been product, sales, marketing, finance and IT. The opportunity to understand the other areas and how they can best work together has “definitely helped them as they’re building out business cases” for initiatives, she says.

A Purposeful Focus on R&D and Design

One of the key differentiating factors for Thirty-One is its focus on personalization. “We’re a personalization company,” says Andrea Dowding, vice president of merchandising. “Customers can take a blank canvas—whether it’s a bag, a bin, or a tote—and make it their own.” Personalization, she says, is the No. 1 gift attribute, according to the Gift and Decorative Accessories Association.

After spending several years in direct sales, then taking a break to become an executive coach, Dowding was called back to the channel when Monroe reached out to her. “I’ve worked with a lot of women, and I love her,” says Dowding. “She’s very much focused on our consultants, their personal growth and development. That really got my attention.”

Monroe’s focus on consultants, says Dowding, extends to product. “It’s a joy to have a CEO that has the same love she has for consultants extend to the products. That makes my job quite delightful.”

Thirty-One uses a purposeful process to develop products, which means paying attention to not only trade shows, consultants, customers and social channels but also field focus groups and field testing. Thirty-One, Dowding says, is known for its whimsical prints and the uniqueness of its designs. In fact, she says, “people can look at our products and say, ‘oh, that’s a Thirty-One print.’ ”

While designers shop the market and research is done into consumer lifestyles and insights, consultants also play an important role. “Many times, we’ll have our top consultants rank our styles and prints,” says Dowding. Products are tested, usually once a year, through a process called “Promising Picks,” where consultants review, rank and test them with their customers to determine their sales potential.

Testing is done in other ways as well. Dowding tells of a recent new product introduction—the company’s $58 Close to Home Tray, a wood and wrought iron tray. The tray was initially introduced as part of the Promising Picks process and, despite its higher price point, it sold out in 28 days. Then it was tested online last March and became the No. 1 SKU in the company. Even though it wasn’t in the catalog for the season, it became Thirty-One’s No. 8 product.

“That let us know that this was a category we need to explore, so we did a ton of research on millennials, what they were buying in accessories and decided we’ve got a category we can expand,” says Dowding. “We built plans accordingly and introduced two new pieces this spring. They are our No. 1 and No. 2 products right now.”

Throughout the design process, Thirty-One also seeks to ensure that important support departments are involved—departments like IT, operations and the back office. “We have to work with operations to make sure the product will be profitable and will work with the machinery, the capabilities and capacities we have,” says Dowding. “We have to make sure we can support the ordering process.”

Thirty-One Gifts headquarters in Columbus, Ohio.

A Vision for 2018

As she was looking toward expansion and other new ideas for the business, in August 2017, Monroe appointed Jeffrey Dahl to serve as the company’s president. Dahl brings 13 years’ experience in direct selling to Thirty-One as well as time spent with Coca-Cola and Lufthansa. In addition to expansion, he is focused on supporting the team from a day-to-day standpoint as Monroe travels to meet with consultants.

Among Dahl’s areas of focus as the company’s relatively new president is brand recognition. “We’ve been sort of quiet about our brand, but we can’t afford to be if we want to grow,” he says. To that end, the company launched a celebration tour in January that is traveling to 69 cities in targeted areas of potential growth. The company already has consultants in those communities to serve as hosts and welcome customers. The celebration tour features a pop-up building to showcase products, videos and to welcome customers.

Thirty-One has a debt-free philosophy, which, says Dahl, is a healthy way to operate a business. “We have a line of credit and a great cash-positive position, but why overextend? That would make it very difficult to operate during a dip.”

But, adds Monroe, even though Thirty-One has a debt-free philosophy, “we never want funding to become an issue; we’re not totally against borrowing or debt if it makes sense, but as much as we can fund our growth and keep up with the execution of different ideas without it, that’s what we’d like to do.”

The approach the company takes with incentives also has a positive impact, Monroe explains. “We focus on incentives that drive specific behaviors such as sponsoring, retaining or selling. Also, we design incentives and programs to be flexible, so we don’t have to layer on top of each incentive as we evolve. We continue to invest in strategic areas that we want to grow, but we’re not always committed to year after year.”

Another exciting venture is an analysis of international expansion. Although the company has 65,000 consultants in the United States and Canada, Dahl says, he thinks opportunities await internationally. Yet, he adds: “I believe we still have a lot of growth opportunity in the U.S.”

Some of that growth will be fueled through a broader use of social platforms as a means of getting the word out to potential customers and consultants.

“I’ve worked with a lot of women, and I love her. She’s very much focused on our consultants, their personal growth and development. That really got my attention.”
Andrea Dowding, Vice President of Merchandising, Thirty-One Gifts

“It used to be that word-of-mouth was the No. 1 way to connect,” says Dowding. “But, now that we’ve got social platforms, we can introduce the products to new communities of customers and pull those new communities to our consultants for purchasing and sponsoring.”

Thirty-One recently developed a new baby product line, which has been rolled out to leaders and will launch on April 1. The bag is part of a strategy to capture the millennial market which, says Dowding, represents about 80 percent of the 75 million new moms in the country. “We really feel like Thirty-One should own the diaper bag,” she says.

Personalization and customization are hallmarks of the product lines and an area of continued investment, says Monroe. “We believe people come to us for the unique product, so we’re definitely trying to always look at that.” That personalization and customization also extends to consultants, she notes. “One of the areas we also are investing in is how consultants customize their businesses. We have a new order type that’s more traditional direct selling, that we’ve not done before,” she says. As of Feb. 1, consultants can order wholesale product to get discounts up front rather than wait for their commissions.

Working together, with a mission of empowering women and providing opportunities for personal expression, combined with a purposeful approach to new ideas and innovations, is positioning Thirty-One for continued success.

Charitable Giving at the Core of Thirty-One’s Mission

Thirty-One has taken the same purposeful approach to giving that it takes in its product development process. The company’s charitable giving strategy has three areas of focus: girls, women and families.

The pillars provide a litmus test for determining which projects or organizations to support. Consultants are part of the decision-making process as well, through a Care Council that is comprised of 15 members across Canada and the U.S.

Thirty-One donates to CHOICES domestic violence center.

Thirty-One takes giving very seriously. To date, the company has donated more than $100 million in product and cash to nonprofits in the United States and Canada. It also has invested in a team to support, coordinate and carry out these efforts, led by Wendy Bradshaw, executive director of community affairs, through the organization’s Thirty-One Gives program.

“Giving is part of who we are, it’s in our DNA,” says Bradshaw. Giving is incorporated into all aspects of the business, she says, whether it’s the parties themselves, leadership incentive trips, or unique platforms to support consultants in their own community efforts. Here is a list of recent initiatives:

World Vision

World Vision is a Christian humanitarian organization that works with children, families and communities to tackle the causes of poverty and injustice. Thirty-One has provided a product match for the organization’s Giving Tuesday for the past four years—contributing $4.7 million in product to date, $1 million in 2017 in the form of backpacks, apparel and bags.

Throughout the year sales consultants make Hope Kits—travel accessory bags filled with hygiene products for women escaping violence, abuse, poverty or natural disasters. They’ve made 32,000 Hope Kits, each including a hand-written note of encouragement from the person who assembled the kit.

Girls on the Run 5K

Kids in Need Foundation and Hurricane Relief

In 2017, hurricane relief was a major area of focus as hurricanes impacted both consultants and consumers across the country. Through the Kids in Need Foundation, an organization dedicated to ensuring that children have school supplies, Thirty-One was able to provide backpacks that were distributed through shops across the U.S. for teachers to get needed supplies for their students—20,000 backpacks (valued at more than $1 million total) were filled with supplies that were given to students in seven distribution centers in Florida.

The National Network to End Domestic Violence (NNEDV)

One of the challenges that female victims of violence often face is building credit scores to attain housing, food and jobs. In October 2017, Thirty-One helped NNEDV launch the Independent Project through $90,000 in seed funding to pilot the program. A micro-lending program, the initiative offered women a $100 loan and the opportunity to repay the loan, with no interest, over the next 10 months to help them establish credit. It was the first national program of its kind, and is now available in 42 states and Washington, D.C.

Thirty-One Gifts employees volunteer at Ronald McDonald House.

Girls on the Run

Knowing that statistics strongly indicate that girls’ self-esteem is formed by age 9, Thirty-One wanted to do something to reach these girls at a younger age. Girls on the Run meets twice a week in small teams to teach life skills through interactive lessons and games run by Girls on the Run coaches.

It’s an after-school program for girls with a strong curriculum tied to self-esteem. At each session’s conclusion, the girls and their running buddies complete a 5K running event. Through their partnership with Girls on the Run, Thirty-One has impacted 200,000 girls.