Geralyn Breig, W’84,
Founder and CEO of AnytownUSA
Contributing Writer, WCNY Magazine
We were excited when Geralyn Breig, W’84, expressed interest in “giving back” by writing for WCNY Magazine! As past President of Avon USA, Godiva Chocolatier International and Clarks Americas and a current Board Member of 1-800-Flowers.com, HanesBrands and Welch’s, she connects with the alumni executives she interviews.
Geralyn, who in her career managed international companies, chose a new direction in founding AnytownUSA.com LLC in 2018, which supports the rising maker movement of companies producing products across America.
Post graduation, you decided to enter marketing.
I went from Wharton to Procter & Gamble. I was there two years, learned much and then came back East because I was getting married. I spent 10 years at Kraft Foods where I worked on Birdseye and Jell-O, and then joined Pepperidge Farms as Head of Marketing. The one thing I was famous for there was turning Goldfish Crackers from an upscale adult brand to a kids’ snack food brand, which allowed us to double the business in five years.
How did you transform Goldfish Crackers?
By making it more approachable. It was repositioned away from being an occasional special treat to an everyday healthier snack because it is baked, not fried, and is made with real cheese. In fact, many of the products I launched still sell, and many of the packages and the taglines are things that, as my grown kids remind me, I did. They look at the decals as Pepperidge trucks go by and say, “Mom, you did those. Don’t you think they should change them? It’s been 20 years!”
How did you become President at Godiva International?
After years in marketing, I wanted to become an operating leader. A job at Godiva opened to head its international business. But the job qualifications were not easy. Godiva was looking for a man who was European, had a retail background and spoke Flemish! I was none of those. However, I had a mentor at the time — Doug Conant, Campbell Soup Company CEO. Doug knew me. He said to Archie van Buren, who was Godiva’s President, “You’ve got a mess of a business on your hands. You need someone smart to figure it out.” And they put me into that job!
Which countries were you in?
We were in all of Europe and most of the Middle East. We had a big business in Japan. We were in Hong Kong, China, Singapore, Taiwan, Korea and Russia. I spent one week a month in Belgium, one week a month in Tokyo, one week a month in greater Asia, and one week back home in the U.S., usually New York City.
Godiva was founded in Brussels as a Belgian specialty chocolate shop. If you ever visit the Grand Place in Belgium, there are many specialty chocolate shops around the square. The way the Belgians eat is to buy pieces of chocolate for dessert. But Godiva wanted to make it giftable for Americans. It created the golden gift box and a gift process for selling primarily during holidays. Between the Christmas season and Valentine’s Day, we did the bulk of our sales and made all our profits. And in Japan, Valentine’s Day demands that girls and women give chocolate to boys and men. It was always the craziest day for Godiva. It was all we could do to keep up. We sold chocolate at $17 per pound in Belgium, $30 per pound in the U.S. and $65 per pound in Japan!
What career advice can you offer to young alumni?
When I go back to Wharton to talk to students, I tell them, “In the beginning of your career, just show up, keep your head down, get your numbers right and work hard.” In the middle of your career, you get known for something. In my case, I got known for marketing that grew businesses profitably and transformatively. The next part of your career, you must be networking all the time because the pyramid narrows, and it becomes about who you know. Because there are only so many jobs at the next level, you need to have somebody who’s behind you. If people don’t admit that, they’re not being too truthful.
Regina, our Club President, is always encouraging people to seek mentors and to be mentors.
Yes, once you attain a position like president of a firm, reach back. If you shut the door behind you, then you’re not honoring the person who brought you up. I brought people from company to company with me. You want to be successful, so you bring people you know who do a good job. If you’re just out for yourself, it’s a lonely life.
Now, you are starting a company to sell goods made in America! How did that develop?
Data from Boston Consulting Group shows that 80% of Americans would prefer to buy American at an equal price for a comparable item. That drops to 70% if the costs are a 10% premium over international goods and so on. Three out of four say they would prefer to buy American because they believe that products are higher-quality, made in a safer environment, and are better for the environment and for labor.
This is a genuine retail white space. With apparel alone at under 5% made in the U.S., solving where to find goods made in America is a new retail opportunity. Our site will make it easy for people to dress from head to toe, furnish their homes from front door to back door, and even pamper their pets with U.S.-made goods.
Fun fact: In 1960, people bought 25 items of clothing per year, and it was 25% of their disposable income. Now, it’s closer to 75 items of clothing per year, consuming 10% of their income. As prices dropped, people bought more, until today, they rent storage sheds and give clothing away!
The maker economy is exciting.
On my podcast, The American Made Marketplace, I asked my sellers why they like manufacturing their products here. One woman who makes baby clothes said, “Look — when I have a flourishing business, I also have an accountant, a photographer, a writer to write my copy, a website developer — not to mention a shipper, a landlord and a banker.”
It’s a ripple effect. When you buy local, you are buying not just from the product maker, but also from an entire environment that supports the maker.
The other thing is that, while we certainly have sellers who are urban, a large portion of sellers are rural. We have sellers in 37 states from Maine to Hawaii. Furthermore, over 70% of our sellers are woman-owned businesses. In many cases, where large-scale industries have left or downsized, our sellers create maker industries to support themselves and revive those areas!
What do you sell?
We have apparel, shoes, accessories, beauty products, jewelry, kids’ clothing, pet supplies and greeting cards. We partner with over 30 national brands, such as New Balance, Yeti Coolers, Orvis, My Pillow and Patagonia. We link to these companies’ America-made collections. If you want to buy America-made products and don’t want to hunt everywhere, then come to my site. If you want to buy Orvis goods made in America, then my site brings you directly there.
How’s it going?
We had a good holiday season all the way through to the end of December. Things quieted down, and then our Valentine’s Day collections and Easter Day collections were shopped nicely. We offer a military discount, and that does well. And we started a resort collection for the travel season. We just finished May (Easter and Mother’s Day), and it was even bigger than Christmas for us, so we just keep growing!
You ran large companies or divisions with 10,000 employees. Yet starting your own business must be daunting!
It’s funny you say that. People who know I like to help, reach out to me with these questions: “How can they get on a board, and how did I start my business? What did I do? How do you write contracts?” I thought that was hilarious because I was so clueless. But I have learned so much this year. You can figure anything out if you want it badly enough.
The company is only 8 months old.
It’s very fresh, it’s exciting, and we’re having fun! Our sellers are wonderful. We really love all of them, and we want to make it work for them. In that sense, it’s a double bottom-line business. We don’t hold inventory, so our business model margins are very good. And second, we are doing good by helping a whole network of small and midsize businesspeople be successful.
What kind of people do you bring on at a starting e-tailer?
I have a great team. They are each very experienced. The first person I recruited was a technology guy as our CTO. He chose our platform, developed our site and continues to optimize it. You can’t just buy decent marketplace software off the shelf, so we custom-coded our seller portal.
The second person I recruited does all the merchandising and operates the site. Our customer service manager helps sellers to upload and manage their content online, and answers questions from consumers. My other partner is our chief operating officer, and she does finance and marketing, and is really our general manager.
What were your initial challenges?
First, I ran financial models to make sure this was doable, and created the name, AnytownUSA. Then my next challenge was to attract sellers before going live. We had to have them to launch the website, right? We had to get them to trust us that we were going to be a thing, before we were a thing. We had 100 sellers registered in the end before we even went live, which was great! I think we had 50% more sellers than Etsy had when it launched. Now, we have 215 sellers and well over 6,000 items.
My head of merchandising was my head merchant at Clarks shoes. Her team has built a recruiting machine and visits all the major tradeshows. We have great conversations with sellers. Many of them are excited to see us. Some apologize if they no longer make in the U.S. But then they take us by the hand and lead us over to somebody who still does, because it’s a great community at these shows.
Today, the challenge is all about building traffic and a customer base. We’re fighting for eyeballs like everyone else. Check us out: AnytownUSA.com!
Why should investors invest?
First, they’re investing in an exceptional team — a team of experienced people with amazing experience who can uniquely recruit sellers and merchandise a productive assortment. Second, local and made in the U.S.A. are having a big moment. The whole American thing is an evergreen concept, and supporting small businesses is an evergreen concepts. It’s in the news more than ever these days, and it spikes with every new discussion of tariffs. Third, it’s a double bottom-line business, right? Once you get the traffic, then marketplaces have a great bottom-line margin, and again, you’re doing a good thing.
What did you learn at Wharton that you apply to your work?
To figure out what people want and how to give it to them. And that’s what I love doing. People won’t come straight out and tell you exactly what they want. This is what I learned at Wharton — how to figure it out. And it’s the most fun puzzle you can play at. That’s what keeps me going.
Do you have a story of how you understood customers?
At Godiva, we had this conundrum where the business made all its money between November and February and lost money the rest of the year. People in Europe buy chocolate as a self-treat. But if they are not going to eat chocolate in the summer when it’s so hot in France, in Italy, in Belgium and in Tokyo, what can we do? The business question was about how to make more money. If we could even break even in the stores during the off season, it’d be great.
I was walking through the cobblestone streets of Brussels with my children in the summer of 2003. That summer was so hot that people were literally dying in France. Nobody was buying chocolate because it would melt by the time they got home. I noticed that people were buying and carrying around water and other beverages.
What I figured out was that Godiva should serve beverages to customers, and that those beverages could be a different kind of self-treat. We reconfigured the store to be a self-treat store most of the year that could flex to handle gifts during the winter months. After implementing this, we broke even during the off season, and gave customers a self-treat that they wanted. It was a win-win. And you can still go buy those drinks.