From Swimsuit Model to Mogul

Kathy Ireland on CBS Sunday Morning, Feb. 28, 2010. CBS

Swimsuit cover girl Kathy Ireland never did find a second career as an actress. She came up with another, far more successful business model, reports CBS News Sunday Morning Correspondent Tracy Smith:


Look at a picture of Kathy Ireland in a swimsuit and it's clear she has some obvious assets, but this former model can count more than she'd ever imagined.

"It's been incredible," says Ireland. "It's been a journey from the beach to the boardroom. And I'm loving it."

According to Forbes magazine, her company, Kathy Ireland World Wide, brings in $1.4 billion a year designing and selling a little bit of everything.

"Let's see," says Ireland. "Our team designs and markets area rugs, hard surfaces, broad loom carpeting, lighting, leather furniture, home office furniture, upholstery…"

The list continues:

"Window coverings, wall coverings, wall art, fine porcelain, skin care," she continues.

Ireland, a 46-year-old wife and mother of three, was practically born an entrepreneur. She grew up in Santa Barbara, and she started her first business when she was 4.

"I sold painted rocks from my wagon with my sister, Mary," she says. "My sister, being three years older, her designs were more sophisticated. She sold hers for a dime. I sold mine for a nickel. And I did really well."

Steady employment came at age eleven.

"My dad shows me this ad in the local paper. It read, 'Newspaper carrier wanted. Are you the boy for the job?' I wrote a letter to the editor: 'I'm not the boy for the job. I'm the girl for the job!'"

She adds, "I held onto that route until I was nearly 16."

A year later, Ireland landed a far more glamorous gig. A modeling scout offered her a job in New York.

"At that age, my world was as far as I could peddle my bicycle," Ireland says. "And suddenly being exposed to the globe, it was fascinating, a great experience."

It's on the beaches of that globe that Ireland's career sizzled. She appeared in Sports Illustrated's coveted swimsuit issue for 13 years, three of them on the cover. Great work for humble pay.

"We earned $250 a day," she says, "which is a lot more than I was earning at that paper route and some of the failed businesses I tried. And I was grateful for the opportunity."

Soon, Hollywood called.

"I share with people, 'I'm not an actress, and I've got the movies to prove it,'" Ireland says with a laugh. "It was fun. I enjoyed that experience. Certainly not one of my strengths."

Some critics agreed, but Ireland didn't mind.

"The criticism I love because that's how I learn and it's how I grow."

She continues, "A critic said I had a voice that could kill small animals. Not a real confidence builder! I don't agree with the way he conveyed that message, but there was some truth to it."

And she listened to a voice within.

"I always knew I belonged on the other side of the lens. And that's where I feel at home."

So Ireland took out a loan and started a business selling socks.

"Some people said I should've started with swimwear. That would've been too obvious, with my modeling career. I wanted to know if this could be the foundation of a solid brand. We hit the road, and started banging on the doors, presenting our socks to retailers."

And customers started buying, buying and buying. To date, she's sold more than 100 million pairs. She began working with manufacturers to make more Kathy Ireland branded products

"Today, our over 15,000 products that we design and market are sold in over 50,000 doors in 29 countries," Ireland says.

Ireland says her brand is not for everyone. "It's not cutting-edge trendy. It's not exclusive. It's finding solutions for families."

And while Ireland is careful to protect the brand's image, she's also willing to take risks. A devout Christian, she's outspoken about her opposition to abortion.

Regarding her views on abortion, Ireland says, "Our brand has had repercussions, but it's really irrelevant."

Forbes estimates she personally makes in the neighborhood of $15 million a year. While she's often counted among the most successful celebrity entrepreneurs, Ireland doesn't see herself that way.

"If any of us were dependent on any smidgeon of celebrity that maybe I had in the last century, we'd all be unemployed," says Ireland.

No worries there. To Ireland, the business possibilities seem endless. Her list of products goes on and on.

"Crafting projects, publishing," she says.

And don't forget socks.


For more info:
kathyireland.com
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