Me Inc.

Is Chris Madden the next Martha Stewart? (The pre-scandal Martha, that is.) Does she want to be?

By Julie Rose Additional reporting by Nicholas Ferrer
from FORTUNE — September 1, 2002

Fortune Small Business - Me Inc.

It’s a good thing,” style arbiter Chris Casson Madden says, smiling momentarily as she stops herself. “Oh, I can’t say that,” she adds, laughing. “That’s what Martha says.” The “Martha” here is domestic diva Martha Stewart, as in the Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia conglomerate, which churned out $296 million in revenues last year before America’s most vaunted home stylist became embroiled in a stock-trading scandal. And “it’s a good thing” may be Stewart’s signature phrase, but it also handily describes Madden’s current situation.

Chris Madden Inc., her home decor business, may soon turn into an even better thing. Suddenly Madden is on the threshold of mavenhood, as followers rush to dub her the inheritor of the Martha mantle. “Martha’s misbehavior opens the door for someone to come in and build their house,” says brand expert David Martin, president of New York City-based consultancy Interbrand.

Granted, Madden hasn’t got so much as a bungalow compared with Martha’s mansion. So far her seven-year-old empire consists of about 160 products that should pull in close to $2 million this year. Moreover, there’s no shortage of mini-Marthas, each eager to occupy that peculiar niche of instructing fiercely independent citizens on exactly how they should live their lives. There’s B. Smith, the restaurateur-turned-style czar who has a syndicated TV show, three restaurants, and a line of bedding at Bed Bath & Beyond. And, like, let’s not forget those perky billionaires, the Olsen twins, whose full house of products will soon include a line of home furnishings at Wal-Mart.

Still, as reluctant as Madden is to be seen as cashing in on her role model’s woes, she is all too aware of their effects on her own prospects. “The timing was right,” she says, scoffing at the idea that she’s an arriviste who’s been “eating bon-bons.” After 20 years of gradual metamorphoses from author to personality to full-fledged brand, she’s found herself with loads of opportunities to graft her name onto everything from shoes to sheets. With potential licensees flooding her cozy office in Rye, N.Y., Madden is suddenly facing hard questions about how to shape her brand and how fast she wants to drive it to market.

On one level, she’s making the same delicate calculation as any producer of consumer products: figuring out what consumers want and how much they’ll pay for it. But she’s also fashioning herself as the standard-bearer for a particular style, thereby positioning herself to become an icon. Any move that rings less than genuine to her followers can put her burgeoning empire into a tailspin. All in all, the business of being Me Inc. is a tricky proposition. For Madden to succeed on the level she aspires to, consumers must embrace her as a personality they can identify with, not as a business that is taking their money. Wary of moving too quickly, of signing on products that don’t fit her still-evolving vision, Madden is taking her time sorting through all the new offers. “It’s unfolding so rapidly,” she says. “That’s why we have to be so careful.”

I picked this sofa out of my neighbor’s garbage a few years ago,” Madden, 54, says, waving her hand at a small banquette couch tucked into a corner of her living room. The piece has, of course, been reupholstered, in a lush beige chenille fabric, but it is the kind of “curbside collectible,” as Madden calls them, that defines her easygoing yet elegant style. Madden has style but not pretense.

Her life is overrun with family–her husband, Kevin, 64, who is the CEO of Chris Madden Inc.; her two sons, who leave a semester’s worth of dirty clothes bulging out of the laundry room; and a pair of West Highland terriers that piddle on the living room rugs. “It’s b.s. of me to preach to women if I’m not living the life I’m writing about,” Madden says. On the other hand, her house is literally a showcase, filled with many pieces from the line of furniture she designed for Bassett Furniture Industries, and an elegantly appointed dining room table. A Vermont country house she owns, set on 11 acres, also serves as a model for the casual-living concept she purveys.

Despite Madden’s everyday persona, she has a clutch of powerful mentors and friends whose presence and patronage have helped enrich her brand. Today host Katie Couric, Nobel Prize-winning author Toni Morrison, and the Queen of All Media, Oprah Winfrey herself, have had “spaces created” for them by Madden. Madden shuns the word “decorate,” insisting instead on the term “creating spaces,” which hews to her central theme of women developing personal havens from their demanding lives. This theme of women’s sanctuaries or havens has become central to Madden’s brand. In her 1997 breakthrough book, A Room of Her Own: Women’s Personal Spaces (Clarkson Potter, $32.50), which is in its 11th printing, Madden gives voyeuristic glimpses of the private hideaways of 38 women, most of them rich and famous. Now when women tell her, ” ’I want what you’re doing for Oprah or Katie,’ I say you can have it,” Madden explains. And as Madden keeps extending her brand, they’ll be able to do it all with Chris Madden products, from chaises to sheets.

Celebrity, or its close kin–friend of celebrity–didn’t arrive overnight for Madden. She started as a publishing assistant, and authored a slew of design books, which led to speaking engagements and TV spots. By 1997 she had ascended to become Oprah’s design correspondent. Given her current workload–a weekly show on HGTV, a syndicated weekly newspaper column, 14 books to date–it’s hard to imagine that Madden can find much time for her own sanctuary, a small room wallpapered in toile where she does yoga every morning.

The transformation in Madden’s fortunes started in 1998 when she launched a furniture line with the Bassett Furniture Co. after it approached her about being its spokesperson. The partnership proved to be a model of what Madden now looks for in every licensing relationship. ” ’You’ve got to get it right,’ Rob Spilman, Bassett’s president, told me at the outset,” Madden says. ” ’It’s got your name on it.’ I’m sure he’s regretted those words.” Over 19 months Madden nixed one line of 30 pieces that Bassett proposed. She modified the next prototypes, traveling to the Philippines to work out the details. The 70-piece Chris Madden set finally appeared in 2000. Since then it has sold over $100 million, and the royalties represent about 60% of Chris Madden Inc.’s revenues, according to Kevin Madden. A line of throws, pillows, and rugs for Mohawk Home, including a “sanctuary” line sold in Bed Bath & Beyond, and a license with candlemaker Austin International followed the Bassett deal.

I’m exhausted,” Madden admits, plopping down in her desk chair. It’s the end of a long day of pitches by four prospects–a company that makes photo frames, a firm that produces shower curtains, a garden-glove and hat maker, and an eyewear designer. Madden has received 175 calls since her name began appearing in publications touting her as the next Martha. She’s winnowed that down to 35 offers that might meet her personal litmus test, a filter for products that fit into her professed style mantra of “affordable, durable, and stylish.”

Madden’s system? “Oprah taught me to first operate by gut,” she says. So the day’s supplicants are all front-runners in a way. But the real winner of the group is the photo-frame maker–Uniek Inc., based in Waunakee, Wis. Beyond the quality of its products and the fact that she uses a lot of photos in her “creation of personal spaces,” what really impressed Madden was that members of management used the company jet to come see her. “If these people are willing to go that far for me, that’s great,” says Madden.

Madden also wants to be able to recognize some part of herself in what she’s offering. The eyeglasses designer, Lawrence Eyewear, seems at first an unlikely fit, especially since its other licensees include the World Wrestling Entertainment frames collection for children. But as she tries on frames, she warms to the idea. “I do wear eyeglasses in a lot of pictures,” she muses. Why not have her own line? “It’s not because I’m going to make a fortune on it,” she explains. “It’s just because it’s appealing.”

The garden gloves follow the opposite trajectory. Madden started out liking the idea because she’s an avid gardener, so devoted to her half-acre backyard that she pulls weeds while talking on her cellphone. But as several pairs of neon-flowered gloves are waved in her direction, Madden seems to grow convinced that they aren’t her style; they’re simply too pedestrian.

Finally, there’s the representative for a tablecloth and shower-curtain firm, who spends most of his time trying to convince Madden not to sign with a large mill. “He was interesting but a little pompous,” she says afterward. Not to mention that his argument doesn’t hold water. “One thing I learned with Bassett and Random House [the parent of her publisher], is if you establish a good relationship with a big firm, you have good distribution,” she says shrewdly. So Pillowtex, a large North Carolina mill that represents Tommy Hilfiger and Fieldcrest, among others, remains atop Madden’s list for a license for sheets and all other domestics.

In the post-Martha meltdown, Madden will pick up only about eight new licenses, a collection that could yield additional royalties of at least $4 million by 2004, according to Kevin Madden. And who knows what else will come along by then? The Maddens also expect to start their own magazine.

Even as she wants to “keep the momentum going,” Madden has her limits. “We could have 40 licenses right now,” she says. But, she explains, “you have to be a control freak to do this, and I don’t think that’s a bad thing to say. If I have control, I can be creative.” To that end, she’s hired a design director, a brand consultant, and a public relations advisor to coordinate the boom. She’s also considering hiring a master licensee, who would oversee her deals. In the business of being in business as yourself, sometimes there’s just not enough of you to go around. Never mind picking the next product to add to your brand. Never mind the idea of 5,000 items with your name on them, as Martha Stewart has. “Who wants to lose your mind over it?” Madden asks. “Does it give me happiness? The biggest challenge is going ahead in the right way for us. Not in being Martha.” As a goal, that–as someone else might put it–is surely a good thing.