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Home sweet biz women with corporate backgrounds go on their own

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Before her son was born, Kellie King was a corporate road warrior, burning up the pavement in between clients. After several years as a full-time mom, King pondered a return to the workforce but wanted no part of the traditional corporate world.

"I really didn't want to go to work for another company," said King, of Dacula, so she went to work for herself. A friend had introduced her to BeautiControl, a line of cosmetics that includes spa and skin-care products, and King decided to become a distributor.

"I started selling at a nail salon," she said, recalling her November 2003 debut. Because she'd spent so much time traveling during her years in corporate sales, King didn't have a big network of girlfriends to start selling to. After four hours at the salon, one woman agreed to host a spa party at her home, where King introduced lotions, hand scrubs and other luxury items that the attendees could order.

"The business took off," said King, now a senior director who says she's close to replacing the six-figure salary she earned in the corporate world. Her sales team sold the most lipstick in their region for the month of February, earning King the opportunity to create her own shade of BeautiControl lipstick. (She named the pinkish bronze Island Shimmer.) She'll be driving a new Mustang in December thanks to her success with BeautiControl, and she was recently awarded two rings --- one with diamonds and rubies, one with diamonds and sapphires --- for reaching certain sales goals.

"My passion is sharing the opportunity," said King, who has signed up more than 200 salespeople to work under her.

She's part of a new generation of merchants who have made the transition from jobs in the mainstream marketplace to sell makeup, gourmet food, children's and women's clothes, decorative platters, baskets and other specialty items from their homes.

They usually start out selling to friends from church, their children's school or their subdivisions, then branch out, often through forwarded e-mail invitations. Unlike the home-based saleswoman of yesteryear --- housewives looking to make a little pocket money --- these are often women with advanced degrees and corporate experience.

They choose home-based independent sales careers for the fun and flexibility they can offer. But let's be clear: Lots of them want to make serious money.

"It's a much more sophisticated model than 'Come on over, and we'll all buy lipstick together,' " said Sharon Hadary, executive director of the Washington, D.C.-based Center for Women's Business Research. "They're doing marketing. They're mailing out brochures. They're networking in the community to bring in other women to buy. They're much more sophisticated in how they are approaching running the business."

Martica Jenkins of Roswell, a senior sales director with Mary Kay, said that many of the 107 consultants working under her came from corporate environments, as did she.

"I was on maternity leave when my boss called me and told me he was changing my territory and increasing my travel," said Jenkins, whose children are now 10, 13 and 15. "My mother was in Mary Kay, and I had sworn I'd never do it. I decided I'd just pick up the phone and try it. I didn't have grand expectations."

She's now earning close to a six-figure salary --- but the flexibility of independent sales has had a priceless impact on her children. Not only has she been home with them after school, but they've also picked up on the goal-setting mentality she says Mary Kay has instilled in her.

"All three of them want to be entrepreneurs," Jenkins said.

A 2001 report by the Center for Women's Business Research, "Removing the Boundaries: The Continued Progress and Achievement of Women-Owned Enterprises," found that nearly 30 percent of businesses owned by women were home-based.

"Because of technology, women are running a variety of very sophisticated businesses from their homes," said Hadary. The study found that women were slightly more likely to own home-based businesses, but Hadary noted that while a woman who works from home enjoys greater flexibility, it's still work.

"What we saw in our study is that overall, being home-based is not a substitute for child care," she said.

As for home-based saleswomen of makeup, clothing or other items, Hadary said they differ from such businesses' early proprietors.

"For our mothers, earning money for them was, 'I want to earn a little extra money so I can have a little splurge.' The purpose of earning money was really to enable them to do some special things in the family," she said. The women who are starting home-based businesses now --- part of the reason you're running a business is to create wealth."

Venerable brands like Mary Kay or Avon are among the most recognizable products sold by home-based distributors, and their numbers illustrate the tremendous growth of the industry. In 1963, there were nine Mary Kay ladies; today, there are more than 1.5 million, according to the company.

Avon has 5 million representatives worldwide, and the company's growth in just the past few years has been significant. Since 1999, the number of Avon reps has jumped from 3 million to 4.9 million, while sales have increased from $5.3 billion to just over $7.7 billion, according to the company.

There's plenty of room for continued growth, though, and the home-based model is drawing plenty of entrepreneurial activity.

Jennifer Ritter of Toccoa and partner Nancy Lee of Atlanta formed a children's clothing company called Pollilops about five years ago. (The company's name comes from the way Ritter's son said "lollipop" when he was very young.) The company started out with seven home parties; now the line is sold at about 160 parties a year, and Ritter estimates the company makes about $500,000 a year.

"It started off by word-of-mouth," she said. "We get home-show applications online every day."

Online retailing has become an important component of home-based sales. Sales consultants often have their own Web pages on their company's main site and include the Web address on brochures mailed --- or e-mailed --- to potential customers.

Shade Clothing is a Utah-based company that sells camisoles and T-shirts that cover skin left bare by low-rise jeans or plunging necklines. The proprietors, Chelsea Rippy and Char Garn, organized the first home party in September 2004. Last month, they did $180,000 in sales. "Profits have increased about 30 percent month to month," Garn said. "We've been growing really fast."

While their representatives are in the Western part of the country, they hope Web exposure will help them expand. "We're working on getting sales reps in all 50 states," Garn said.

Although the home-based industry is becoming ever modernized, distributors' success still relies on the personal touch. Peggy Crew of Roswell has just started her career as an Avon representative.

"I really, truly appreciate you taking the time to come to my house," she told the group of a dozen ladies who came to her first party, held recently in her living room.

A former teacher and stay-at-home mother, Crew was having a fine time selling toys and maternity clothes on eBay until a conversation in the drive-through line pointed her in a new professional direction. She was out of moisturizer but just didn't have time to get to the mall, she told her friend Ashley Nelson as they waited for their children.

No problem, said Nelson, whipping out an Avon catalog. Crew soon became a regular customer, and when Nelson learned she and her husband were relocating to Texas, Crew signed on to take over Nelson's client list.

"This is the last thing I thought I would be doing," Crew said, "but I love it."

Copyright 2005 The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

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