As a little girl growing up in Hixson in the 1980s, Cindy Monroe would buy candy at a neighborhood gas station and sell it at a profit to her older sister, Christie. Even back then, Cindy had an instinct for marketing, buying only candies that she knew her sister would be unable to resist, even after a mark-up.
"She was my best customer," says Monroe.
For her part, sister Christie Woodfin remembers Monroe as a child filled with curiosity who enjoyed learning and reveled in the outdoors.
Years later, when Monroe was attending business classes at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga and hosting Pampered Chef parties as a side job, she never imagined that she would one day head a company that is bigger, by multiples, than the university's staff and student body combined. Monroe is co-founder and CEO of Thirty-One Gifts, a Columbus, Ohio, direct sales company with about 1,000 full-time employees and nearly 70,000 independent sales consultants spread across all 50 states and Canada.
The company, which Monroe started in the basement of her Chattanooga home in 2003, has yearly sales of about $400 million with a product line featuring monogrammed tote bags, jewelry and other "gift-ables" aimed primarily at the women's market.
It turns out that Monroe still has a super-power for picking products that her customers find irresistible. "Thirty-One" in the company name is a reference to an Old Testament passage, Proverbs 31, that exalts industrious women. The chapter contains the words: "She sets about work vigorously; her arms are strong for her tasks."
Last month, Monroe was inducted into the UTC Gary W. Rollins College of Business Entrepreneurship Hall of Fame. By any measure, she is one of the most successful entrepreneurs in Chattanooga history.
Birth of a company
Monroe married her husband Scott Monroe when she was just 19 years old. Studying business at UTC, she was, by her own description, less than a straight-A student. But the imperatives of earning money on the side made her good at direct sales.
Later, after she graduated from UTC in 1998 with a degree in marketing, Monroe went to work at Unum, first working on disability claims and later in the product development department.
"I give Unum tons of credit for my professional skills and learning how to collaborate," she says.
While she was still at Unum, Monroe and a friend, Julie Sutton, began making bracelets and selling them to friends and co-workers. Business was so brisk that they started shopping for materials at the Atlanta Gift Market. Monroe and Sutton sometime daydreamed about starting their own company. Along the way, Monroe and her husband, Scott, had two children, and he switch careers from the ministry to an executive position inside Thirty-One Gifts.
In the early 2000s, Cindy Monroe saw that gift boutiques were becoming trendy, but retailing seemed an inefficient — maybe even boring — way to sell.
"I didn't want to sit at a gift boutique waiting for the bell to ring on the (front) door," Monroe says. "I knew that I could actually schedule a party at a specific time and I could have 10 women come and shop."
At first, the company's goals were modest. If they could just help a few families augment their income it would be worth it, Monroe thought.
About a year and a half after starting the business, Monroe said she realized it was a pivotal moment for the company. After working nights and weekends, she was ready to take the plunge and quit her day job. She knew from experience that direct sales worked on many levels. It gave women a chance to make supplemental income for their households to pay for things like orthodontics for the kids, college tuition and credit card debt; while allowing moms to set their own schedules. The guiding light for the company has always been to help women through earnings empowerment.
Thirty-One Gifts established a niche using personalization, often in the form of monogramming. This differentiated the company from other companies in the direct sales space. Anyone could go to a big box store and buy a lunch box for their child, Monroe said, but few retailers offered to stitch the child's initials into the fabric.
"Every product we develop, we try to make sure it has a lot of functionality, and good price point and that we can personalize it," she said.
Experiencing the ups and down
The first Thirty-One Gifts party was held in October 2003 and guests were treated to a line of candles, ceramic decor, cookie jars and custom handmade bags, according to the company's website. In 2005, the company held its first sales Conference in Ft. Oglethorpe, Georgia, with 30 people on hand.
By 2006, the company had 500 consultants, and in 2008, it relocated from Chattanooga to Johnstown, Ohio, and later to an eastern part of Columbus. The move to Ohio was due to the state's strategic location and business infrastructure, company leaders have said.
By 2010, the company was filling its millionth order. In 2014, Thirty-One Gifts was named the "No. 1 fastest-growing woman-owned company in the world" by the Women Presidents Organization.
At points the company grew so fast that everyone in management was sprinting to keep up. During one stretch the company grew 1,900 percent in three years, Monroe says. It was all the company's leaders could do to raise cash and keep up with inventory demands.
"Growing fast requires a ton of cash," Monroe says. "For so many years we put everything we made right back into the business."
When the growth eventually tapered, tapping the brakes was a new experience. "When that slows down it's like, 'Whoa, hello, what just happened."
Becoming a mature company
Monroe says the shift from hyper-growth to a stable, mature company has been a learning experience. She finds herself thinking back to the business fundamentals she learned at UTC, she says. She has also built a trusted staff so she can mostly concentrate on new initiatives, while avoiding micromanaging day-to-day operations.
"My strength is strategy and vision, coming up with new ideas," she says. "I feel like I know the business, you know, like you know your kids better than anybody else."
Last year, the company had a 15-year celebration back here in Chattanooga. Many of the original customers, employees and sales consultants were part of the festivities at the Hunter Museum of American Art.
"We had a perfect night," Monroe says. "I was beaming the whole time, just like a kid. The whole idea was to honor the friends and family that helped me get started and (who) continue to have my back every day. Chattanooga has been good to us."
Sometimes Monroe thinks back on her days as a young woman at UTC, a time when today's reality would have been beyond her imagining.
If she had a time machine, she says would have a message for her younger self.
"I would tell her to keep chasing her dreams," Monroe says. " ... Stay the course."