Is a girdle by another name still a girdle? No, would be the response of Laurie Ann Goldman, CEO of Spanx, the fastest-growing shape-wear company in the country.

Shape-wear certainly tunes into women’s (and men’s) desires for a smooth line, just like a girdle, but the look and feel are totally different. As the Spanx website explains, Spanx’s founder and creative director, Sara Blakeley, invented Spanx as the perfect in-between solution — neither traditional underwear that does nothing for the figure nor the heavy-duty girdles of times past.

Story has it that Blakeley, looking for a smooth line for her cream-colored pants, put on a pair of pantyhose and cut off the feet so that she could wear sandals. Once the product was developed and patented, she personally demonstrated the before-and-after of Spanx’s footless body-shaping pantyhose under white pants to a Neiman Marcus buyer, who immediately put in an order for 3,000 pairs.

But to take an innovative company like Spanx to the next level required a seasoned businessperson who understood the bigger picture in synch with the creativity that would continue to drive the company’s growth. Luckily for Spanx, when Goldman was in the pantyhose department of Saks, Blakeley’s boyfriend happened to be there and recognized that Goldman was exactly the person Spanx needed.

Goldman will speak at The United Jewish Federation Princeton Mercer Bucks’ Women’s Campaign Annual Spring Luncheon on Thursday, May 13, at 11 a.m., at Greenacres Country Club, 2170 Lawrenceville Road. The event raises money for service programs locally and abroad. Cost: $90. For information, call 609-219-0555 or visit www.ujfpmb.org.

Goldman aims to balance originality and common sense, a legacy, she says, that comes from her parents. Her father, a New Orleans surgeon, also went to a police academy when she was 10; her mother is an artist who works mostly in acrylics. “My brother says I’m 80 percent my dad and 80 percent my mom,” Goldman says. “I have a strong dose of both. I credit my mother with my intuition and creativity but from my dad I got all that good logical thinking, math skills, and organization.”

When she met Blakeley at Saks, where she was looking for control top fishnet hose to wear with a black dress for a cocktail party, the department was sold out of all sizes and colors. “I started talking to the sales associate about supply chain management and vendor replenishment,” recalls Goldman. This was within the hearing of the boyfriend, who was also the COO of the tiny company and said to her, “I think you could help us.”

Although Goldman had no intention of working at that moment, with three children under the age of five, soon she was helping Spanx to write a business plan. Pleased with her work, Blakeley and her boyfriend convinced Goldman to sign on.

Goldman, the lone businessperson in a family of doctors, artists, and attorneys, graduated from the University of Texas in Austin with a focus on communications and marketing.

After both of her mother’s parents died unexpectedly during her last semester at college, Goldman was at her parents’ home in New Orleans when she grabbed the ringing telephone. The woman on the line identified herself as Mrs. Sternberg from Baton Rouge and asked to speak to her mother. When Goldman responded with “This is her daughter,” the woman asked what she was up these days. Goldman obliged with a detailed description of her education and activities.

Within a couple of days Goldman got a call from the human resources director of the Goudchaux department store in Baton Rouge, which turned out to be owned by the Sternberg family and is today part of the Dillard’s chain. The director said to her, “Mrs. Sternberg was so impressed with you on the phone,” to which Goldman responded, “I didn’t think I was being interviewed.” The director then invited her in for a real interview, and she was hired to do public relations, write columns, and market and run events in all the stores.

She then went to work for Macy’s in Atlanta, where she was responsible for running events focused on increasing sales and promoting charitable and community involvement — similar to what she had done for Goudchaux, but on a bigger scale.

For Goldman, the move away from Louisiana made personal sense, enabling her to get away from a relationship that was not going anywhere. It also was a chance to finally leave her home turf. “Atlanta was a great place for young people,” she says. “I had never planned on going back to New Orleans. It was my time to cut the apron strings.”

From Macy’s Goldman moved on to Coca Cola, where she spent 10 years in the company’s marketing licensing business and learned two critical lessons. The first was how to market one of the world’s most famous brands. The second was understanding that in such a big company, leadership skills have to be highly developed in order to get anything done.

“Working through so many different people and departments, you start to figure out how to influence people and achieve your goals,” she says.

Eventually, though, the worldwide traveling required by her Coca Cola position got complicated, with two small children and one more on the way. Also, her mentors left the company. So Goldman decided to move home for awhile, to spend time with her children and do some work on the big, old house she and her husband had bought, while doing a little consulting on the side.

After about a year and a half, just as she was getting bored, she connected with Spanx. “They had a lot of heart but not a lot of other working organs,” Goldman says. Retailers were telling the company that it needed to be run better, while at the same time kept asking what the next products would be.

Goldman offers a couple of things she learned in the course of her career that have stood her in good stead during her tenure at Spanx:

Create strong relationships with staff. When chief executive officer Doug Ivester and chief marketing officer Sergio Zyman left Coca Cola, Goldman soon followed, realizing that the emotional connection she felt with the company was due largely to how much she thought of them as leaders.

“That is something I realize in my own company, that people typically don’t leave jobs, they leave bosses,” says Goldman. “Trying to make myself the best leader, mentor, teacher, and motivator that I can possibly be is much on my mind, and I’m training my reports to do the same thing.”

In a testament to her success, some of her employees at Coca Cola have followed her to Spanx, and others still come to her for advice years later.

Make sure to have big, hairy, aggressive goals. Goldman maintains that having a big vision creates its own motivation. Coca Cola was a sponsor of the Olympic torch relay before the Olympics in Atlanta in 1996, and Goldman had the idea of selling memorabilia along the torch’s path. But she was told, “You can’t do that — the torch never stops. The relay goes for 90 days, running around country, and it is only in one place for a few hours.”

Undaunted, Goldman took a page from NASCAR. She turned huge tractor trailers into stores and had them leapfrogging from one location to the next, replenishing along the way. “When you think about big goals and believe them possible and they happen, you get addicted to the feeling of excitement from making that vision a reality,” says Goldman.

She came to Spanx with exactly that mentality. Early on she remembers telling retailers, “We might have only one little pocket in your department now, but we are going to be your biggest vendor.”

Even though the competition was huge, well capitalized, and had decades of experience, she planted those seeds, and today Spanx has about 100 employees and sells its products across the world, in Singapore, South Korea, Germany, UK, Switzerland, Philippines, Caribbean, Hong Kong, Mexico, Austria, Australia, and Canada. Among its slimming hosiery products are an all-hosiery bra, body suits, men’s compression undershirts, a maternity line, and swimsuits. In 2006 Spanx created a less expensive brand it called Assets. About 40 percent of its hundreds of products are made in North Carolina and the rest are produced worldwide.

In the United States Spanx sells to stores like Nieman Marcus, Sacks, Nordstrom and Lord and Taylor. It also sells in thousands of boutiques, through QVC, and at chains that sell different sizes, like Lane Bryant.

“We solve problems for women size 2 to 22,” says Goldman. Her customers reach across the lifecycle, she says — young women who wear Spanx’s Power Panties to their proms, women who have just had a baby, women in their 40s for whom “things aren’t looking the way they used to,” and grandmothers going on cruises to celebrate their 50th anniversaries.

Spanx transformed the original purpose of panty hose — created by men to make women’s legs look better — to one that better served women, helping them to get rid of panty lines while making them look thinner. “That was the concept that started the company,” says Goldman. “Since then, Spanx has been about slimming and solving problems.”

The company uses the latest technology to figure out how to do this and does lots of wear testing on real women. “They used to see if things fit by putting them on plastic forms,” says Goldman, “but how does a plastic form know if its waist is being pinched?” And, she adds, plastic forms don’t get depressed if they don’t look good in their clothes.

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