CINCINNATI - About 4,000 high-energy sales consultants took over downtown Cincinnati earlier this month, zipping from Duke Energy Center seminars to a Fountain Square rally to celebrate the success of their company, the $100 million “relationship products” company Pure Romance.
They were the “pink collar” believers, a diverse throng of women who sell products for America’s largest direct retailer of intimacy products. They listened attentively as Pure Romance founder Patty Brisben opened the conference. But suddenly, surprisingly, the women raise the room’s excitement level sky high when Pure Romance president and CEO Chris Cicchinelli, Brisben’s son and the company’s leader since 2003, stepped to the front of the stage.
“Today you’re working more and making less,” Cicchinelli tells the crowd. “That’s corporate America. But knowledge is power if you know what you need to do.”
It takes a certain man to wear pink to work day after day and lead the fastest-growing direct seller of -- as even the company’s website calls them -- “sex toys.”
They may not know it, but the Pure Romance faithful are witnessing a “Lean In” story like few others. His mom Patty remains the key “brand image” behind Pure Romance and the leader behind the company’s education partnerships and philanthropy, but he’s responsible for taking the company to the next level of sales success.
Cicchinelli, who brands himself the “Pink Collar CEO,” strikes an empathic bond with Pure Romance’s global community of women entrepreneurs and female customers. He wades through the crowds, posing for countless photos with the consultants he considers to be family. More importantly, he’s a staunch advocate for equal pay and women’s workplace rights.
When it comes to giving women a shot at being financially independent, he’s every bit as strong as Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg or Yahoo President and CEO Marissa Mayer. Add a dollop of Pure Romance Whipped Lubricant to the argument and Cicchinelli comes off even stronger.
It’s been a big year for Pure Romance. It moved its headquarters from Loveland to downtown Cincinnati. It made investments and acquired a competitor, Slumber Parties, and its 3,000 sales consultants. Thanks in part to the acquisition, it’s estimated that more than 4.8 million women will attend a Pure Romance party in 2014.
“We have the white collar,” Cicchinelli tells us during the conference luncheon. “We have the blue collar; but who’s really going to get this country back on track are the women business owners. I really want to focus on them and I don’t care if they’re women owners in direct sales or women who own a nail salon. That’s my audience and that’s who I’m trying to educate.”
The meaning behind “Pink Collar CEO” is simple. Cicchinelli wants to help erase the reality of women who are working full time in low-wage jobs and barely making ends meet. He wants Pure Romance to give them financial independence and the courage to take risks and start their own business.
He also embraces the company’s overarching goal to help women strengthen their feelings of intimacy.
“If communication breaks down in the bedroom, baby, you’re S.O.L.,” he says. “Bills and sex are the only two things you have to worry about in life.”
The following afternoon at Morton’s steak house, Cicchinelli sits with key staff members for a working meal. It’s not long before he gets up from the banquet and crisscrosses the floor to greet the consultants gathered for a special lunch.
Cicchinelli understands that Pure Romance consultants are the first wave of customers who have to be impressed by all that the company has to offer. He also believes they’re key to rebuilding the American economy.
At a workshop titled “Road Map to Success,” Cicchinelli rolls up his shirtsleeves and shares the spotlight with national director Janna Vukelich to teach consultants ways to build a strong network of peer consultants and how to make a strong team.
“It all goes back to the same thing,” Cicchinelli tells the consultants. “It’s about the parties, man. First you book. Then you sell. Later you share and then repeat it all over again.”
Cicchinelli talks about “words of affirmation” and refers to a relationship guide popular with his consultants “The Five Love Languages.”
By the end of the workshop, he stands before the capacity crowd of consultants and basks in the cheers and shouts.
Like the women in the audience, Cicchinelli is an admirer of his mother and her decades of hard work and deep dedication that resulted in Pure Romance growing into a Fortune 1000 company.
There’s a whiff of Horatio Alger to the story as Cicchinelli refers to the early years when Pure Romance was a “no name” and how the company has grown.
“I grew up on Domino’s pizza and Dunkin’ Donuts as the child of a busy consultant,” Cicchinelli says frequently.
Consider Cicchinelli’s leadership stance on women’s sexual health and it’s hard to identify another male CEO as dedicated to bettering women’s lives.
“When I started this business 20 years ago, I did so because I wanted every woman to have the opportunity to be financially independent and to work part-time hours for full-time pay,” Brisben told an audience at the start of the conference. “I wanted to ensure that women weren’t forced to choose between a career and a family.”
Cicchinelli knows from the tough years his mother spent building the company that the only guarantee is that sustainable growth requires more hard work.
“One of the traits I most admire about Chris is that he surrounds himself with people who challenge him,” says Janna Marie Vukelich, a Pure Romance National Director and Cicchinelli’s workshop co-presenter. “It takes a strong leader to welcome different opinions and not just surround himself with “yes” people.”
He explains his vision for keeping Pure Romance ahead of its competitors. He also believes that the Pure Romance model of onsite parties and home demonstrations supported by online shopping can thrive in the Amazon era of complete e-commerce.
There’s a new website, plans for increased advertising and technology upgrades like mobile apps to help grow key domestic markets like New York, Atlanta and Las Vegas as well international markets like South Africa and Australia.
They are a mother and son taking risks together for a chance at grasping the largest brass ring imaginable.
Perhaps the secret to a love that lasts is similar to the secrets to a sustainable direct retail company.
Asked if there is one core message that drives Pure Romance, one that also connects mother and son, Cicchinelli responds without missing a beat.
“You have to stay a student in everything that you do,” Cicchinelli continues. “That’s the soul of Pure Romance and the key lesson from Patty. Stay a student in everything you do.”