September 01, 2011
Princess House: Cooking Up a Growing Opportunity
by Barbara Seale
Perfect partnerships can produce premier results. Just ask anyone at Princess House®, where the corporate staff and the company’s consultants are a record-breaking team.
Together the team has transformed the company. It will turn 50 in 2013, but its product-line evolution and passion for togetherness has generated the growth rate of a youngster. Since 2009—a difficult economic environment for most companies—its number of consultants has grown 44 percent.
For much of its life, Princess House was known for crystal—decorative figurines, beverageware and serveware. But as consumer tastes and needs changed, sales slowly shrank. In 2006, the Princess House team of corporate staff and field leaders analyzed sales and discussed what they heard from customers. The numbers and feedback showed the same trend: Family life was moving into the kitchen. So Princess House started an evolution that positioned it for growth when most companies were struggling to maintain.
Princess House President Tim Brown with Founder Charlie Collis.
Within the Princess House culture, the process wasn’t unusual. Ever since Charlie Collis founded the company in what was once a chicken coop, its focus has been on providing consultants with the products and support they need to be successful. His philosophy? “The only way to truly help yourself is to truly help others.” He made it his mission to help women feel like princesses in their own homes, while at the same time earning income and achieving their full personal and professional potential. In 1963, that was a visionary idea.
For insights on how to help his independent sales consultants achieve those lofty goals, Collis made it a habit to stay in close touch with them. That custom turned into culture at Princess House, and the partnership was born. Collis, who was inducted into the Direct Selling Association Hall of Fame in 1981, retired from Princess House years ago, but his influence continues.
Today’s Princess House President Tim Brown first joined the company in 1995, left in 2001, and returned in 2006. He says that when he first joined the company, he’d do anything just to be in the same room with Collis, and he still regularly visits the company’s inspirational 96-year-old founder.
“When we sit down and talk about Princess House, 15 years melt away,” Brown says. “He still gets so excited to talk about his baby. His values are so much like our current owner’s [Ray Chambers’] values. They’re both very caring people whose life’s work is helping others.”
Brown has equal admiration for the Princess House field leaders. He follows Collis’ example, staying in close touch with them not only to help them succeed in their Princess House businesses, but also because he has cultivated many close, trusting, personal relationships. His conversation is sprinkled with their stories and successes.
“We’ve had some dynamo leaders who, 30 or 40 years ago, recognized that Princess House was an opportunity for them,” he notes. “In the beginning, what we didn’t understand was the cultural opportunity that was presenting itself slowly but surely. As our Hispanic market has grown, we’ve been able to provide not just translation, but also important cultural understanding of how this market works and what they need for continued growth. Today we have a wealth of resources dedicated to helping Hispanic women grow their businesses. We are proud of our evolution in terms of cultural sensitivity, and we continue to learn every day about how we can help more women—all women—succeed and help themselves and their families.”
Some of those resources come from the evolving product line, beginning with stainless steel cookware. The evolution began in 2003 when the company introduced its stainless steel product line. Before that, bakeware and cookware were primarily glass. Since then, Princess House has more than tripled the number of units in its stainless steel line, ensuring consistent top quality through partnerships with the best manufacturers of stainless steel products.
As the stainless steel line grew, crystal diminished, and the kitchen became the heart of the Princess House product line simply because it was the heart of customer homes. Today’s product line includes bakeware, cooking accessories, cookware, entertaining products such as serveware, serving accessories, beverageware, dining accessories, and home accents, plus packaged food products, such as spice blends. More than 85 percent of sales are from kitchen-related items.
Princess House also tracks trends to determine what will sell. Through its Voice of the Customer program, its corporate team goes on the road, visiting the homes of customers to watch them cook and see the products they use. Those visits led to another recent product introduction.
“As we visited homes of customers, we would see not only our classic cookware, but someone else’s nonstick cookware,” Brown says. “That led to our adding a nonstick option to our stainless steel line. We’ve been able to see what people want and to provide it.”
Many direct sellers are working hard to appeal to the Hispanic market—the fastest-growing demographic in the country. However, it has long been a thriving market for Princess House. Through collaboration with its Hispanic field leaders, Princess House evolved to offer a product line that focuses on functionality while maintaining its beauty.
Vice President of Marketplace Initiatives Robin Ehrenzweig says that the company’s evolution has created products that provide more value to customers, and therefore more income to consultants.
“We spend a lot of time talking to hostesses and our field salesforce,” Ehrenzweig says. “We do a lot of focus groups and talk about their product needs. At the core of our products—cookware and others—are items relevant for everybody. About 80 percent of what we offer works for everybody because our products are functional and useful. They have daily value. Those have the greatest appeal.”
The appeal to consultants goes beyond great products though. Communications and events are also carefully thought out. For example, Princess House doesn’t simply translate English communications into Spanish.
“We customize communications to meet the needs of the marketplace. The writing, photography, verbiage, style and design are developed especially for each market,” Ehrenzweig explains. “We go to great lengths, and we have staff that is bilingual and culturally sensitive.”
Events are tailored similarly. Princess House eliminated its huge national convention years ago in favor of regional events. They find that they reach larger numbers of consultants.
Princess House consultants—17,000 strong—appreciate the teamwork that results in great products and programs. Some grow so attached to the company that they stay for decades. The bond is so strong that top consultants often refer to Princess House as my company. Those consultants also represent one of the highest productivity ratios in the industry, producing $94 million in revenue during 2010, and landing the No. 89 spot on DSN’s Global 100 list.
The top consultant at Princess House, Triple Diamond Field Organizer Lilliam M., started her Princess House business in 1974 and now heads the largest organization of Princess House business owners. She appreciates the access she has to top executives and the way they really listen to her suggestions.
“Before they start a new program, they speak to us and see how we think it will work,” she says. “It’s like a family. I’m very proud of my company—and it is my company. I’ve felt that for 37 years.”
Lilliam says she is always excited about Princess House products, incentives and hostess and customer programs.
“We’re always motivated,” she says. “Princess House always cares about the Hispanic community. We are different and they understand the difference, and they provide for us.”
Diamond Field Organizer LaVonne M. has been with Princess House for 40 years. She agrees that consultants and corporate staff are tightly connected.
“From the day I started, I always felt like we were a family,” she says. “It’s unusual for any business to be that way. I’ve known some of the people at the Home Office as long as I’ve been in Princess House. They really care about the field. They really know that without the field, you don’t have a company. If we didn’t like the products, programs or contests, we wouldn’t work.”
LaVonne’s organization began as an English-speaking group, but soon she began doing home shows with Hispanic women, and she had to learn to work with people who spoke only Spanish, which she didn’t speak. She says she could always find someone to translate at parties, but building her downline in the Hispanic community required Spanish-language materials. With her close connections to headquarters, she was able to make her needs known. Other consultants were voicing similar needs, so Princess House provided the field with its first Spanish-language materials.
Lilliam and LaVonne both feel free to speak their minds, whether on conference calls or in face-to-face meetings. They know that the corporate staff appreciates their candor and genuinely cares about them.
Decades of Devotion
The staff cares so much, in fact, that it works hard to retain every consultant. Ehrenzweig says three things are especially helpful to retention. First is to have relevant products and programs that motivate the field to sell and recruit so that they have a steady income stream; second, is to provide excellent service to consultants; and the final thing is the company’s field first attitude and culture.
Princess House headquarters in Taunton, Mass.
“We work tirelessly to provide that little extra support that will help someone,” Ehrenzweig says. “For example, one of our organizers was struggling with what to do for a meeting to motivate her team. My headquarters group got together and came up with a list of 20 ideas and sent them to her. She was able to implement them, and she was so excited. We didn’t just give her a pep talk; we took an extra step to help her.”
She notes that field first is both a culture and the name of a specific department. It reflects the company’s consistent mindset of respect and admiration for the consultants and its commitment to helping their businesses thrive.
The relationship between field and corporate staff may have started with the company’s founder, but it is grounded in the Princess House mission and values. Goodness, hard work, respect, accountability, results, fun/enjoyment and good earnings are the fuel for the company’s mission: to provide life-enhancing opportunities to people from all walks of life. People at Princess House try to live these concepts every day.
Working closely with the field has also allowed Princess House to provide something that consultants value as much as the money they make: personal development. Employees benefit from that focus, as well, and everyone rises together.
“We believe that the more we develop ourselves, the better we become and the better we can serve the field,” Brown says. “And as we better serve our field, they continue to develop personally, professionally and financially. This philosophy of continual development has served us well, not only in building relationships, but also in creating strategic and financial plans. It’s critical to everything we do.”
Brown has become known for the word he coined that summarizes the Princess House passion for continuous improvement: betterness.
“We talk a lot about how to do things better and how we can help people do their jobs better,” Brown explains. “At Princess House, every role is important. Regardless of what you’re doing, it has a huge impact on our mission and the people who come in contact with us—whether you’re a field member, an employee team member, a vendor who partners with us, or the UPS driver. Our No. 1 goal is to ensure that absolutely everyone who comes in contact with Princess House feels really good about their experience.”
Princess House puts processes in place to reach that goal, including development for every employee—through formalized quarterly training sessions, free online skill-building classes and an annual appraisal process that is less a report card about how an employee has performed and more about creating an action plan of how they’ll develop, personally and professionally, in the future.
“There are many managers who have implemented their own development plans with their teams—and it all contributes to a culture of continued learning, curiosity and idea generation,” Brown says. “Ultimately, I believe this creates a positive, creative, happier workplace.”
That just might be the reason why Princess House headquarters has earned a place on the list of The Boston Globe’s Top Places to Work for three years running.
That kind of management-by-respect and the corporate culture that has resulted have given Princess House something that every direct seller seeks: retention, both in employees and consultants. Brown says turnover among top leaders is rare. What’s more, nearly 30 percent of Princess House employees have been with the company for 20 years or more.
Seasoned staff and consultants—equipped with products that customers really want to own and use—produced a 2010 where results were up 25 percent. This year, sales are already up 39 percent. The company complemented those great results with a close eye on operating costs, margins and quality.
Such strong growth is inspiring Princess House to look at geographic expansion. Some 55 percent of its business is in the southwestern United States, so Brown asks, “How much opportunity is in the rest of the country?” He thinks it’s a lot. Market trends show that people—including Generation Y—are getting in touch with their inner chef. Cooking shows are proliferating on television, creating celebrity chefs who inspire more and more people to experiment with new flavors, foods, and yes, kitchen tools. Princess House is more than ready.
“We feel really good about what we’ve built as a solid foundation,” Brown says. “We have the right products and pricing strategy. We’re doing great things in our existing markets.”
With its numbers rising like a beautiful soufflé, Princess House is cooking up a bright future.
Philanthropy: Living Their Values
Just as Princess House improves lives for its consultants, it looks for the same opportunity in every charitable program it supports across the country.
Since 2006 the company has supported the American Heart Association’s Go Red for Women movement, raising more than half a million dollars. But it takes the partnership a step further. Princess House consultants incorporate information into their product demonstrations that raises awareness of healthy cooking options and healthy lifestyles. That’s especially important in the Hispanic market, because studies report lower awareness levels among Hispanics about heart disease risk factors and their impact on quality of life, according to the AHA. Every year in the United States, nearly 500,000 women die from cardiovascular disease—the country’s No. 1 killer of women.
“It’s a grassroots effort to share information about living healthier,” says Princess House Vice President of Marketplace Initiatives Robin Ehrenzweig. “We know that we can’t control what people cook and eat with the products they buy from us,” she says. “But we can explain how small changes can make a difference in their lives—things like using less salt or the ability to use less fat by using nonstick cookware.”
Princess House headquarters has achieved the American Heart Association’s designation as a Fit-Friendly Company by becoming a smoke-free facility and offering smoking cessation classes and weight-loss programs on-site. Employees also participate in the local AHA HeartWalk each year.
Beyond its AHA partnership, Princess House shares its cookware with deserving nonprofit organizations across the country. Last year it gave away 50 sets of Princess Heritage<sup>®</sup> Stainless Steel cookware, valued at more than $33,000, to places such as women’s shelters, soup kitchens and group homes. In 2010, the first year of the Cooking Toward A Better Future campaign, more than 160 nonprofits were nominated. True to its focus on consultants, Princess House field leaders in 25 states presented the cookware to the winning organizations.
The company has been a United Way participant for more than 15 years, raising more than $40,000 last year in employee contributions. But more than money is involved. Employees also give their time, participating in the nonprofit’s Day of Caring by working at a United Way organization to help with anything from landscaping to cleaning.
Princess House also looks for ways to help its neighbors through Toys for Tots as well as by providing disaster relief through the Red Cross. It’s all part of its mission to enhance lives and spread the goodness that’s an essential part of their culture and values.