Judi Henderson-Townsend has a resolution for the New Year: Become a million-dollar business.

It won’t be easy. For nearly 15 years, the Oakland, Calif., resident has been selling, renting and recycling mannequins — a quirky line of work that she stumbled upon, quite accidentally, while looking for a garden sculpture on Craigslist in late 2000. Annual revenue for her company, Mannequin Madness, has fluctuated over the years, sometimes topping $500,000, but always staying shy of $800,000.

A big challenge with growing such a unique business, Henderson-Townsend says, is that there aren’t a lot of similar success stories to emulate. It’s also hard as a woman and an African-American. “When you see more inspirational role models, then you think it’s possible for you,” she says. “When I look at business publications, I don’t see anyone who looks like me, especially being out near Silicon Valley.”

Related: Why Women Need Role Models

Henderson-Townsend, now 56, had worked in sales for Corporate America — namely, Johnson & Johnson and United Airlines — when she decided to join a small dot-com 13 years ago. Right around that time, she happened to spot a guy selling mannequins on Craigslist. She decided to check out his entire collection, about 50 dummies in all, to pick one for her garden. “And he says, ‘now that I’m leaving the state there won’t be a place to rent a mannequin in the Bay area,” she recalls. “I had one of those Oprah ‘aha’ moments.”

Mostly on a whim, Henderson-Townsend bought the man’s entire inventory, spending about $2,500 in the process. She had long wanted to do something entrepreneurial, so she ran the rental business as a part-time venture — until her dot-com employer went belly-up a year later.

Since then, Henderson-Townsend has spent most of her waking hours peddling parts of all kinds — hands, heads, feet, legs and torsos — not to mention full-body forms of men, women and children.

Early on, she expanded into sales. The first challenge: Find more inventory. She asked department stores to give or sell her their used mannequins, which she could essentially “recycle” by selling to smaller retail stores, eBay vendors or anyone with an interest. It was a good deal for retailers, who often have to pay a big dumpster fee to dispose of the bulky, non-biodegradable forms.

The first to bite was Sears, who sent hundreds of used mannequins her way. “We had 500 mannequins in our basement, in our backyard, in our garage stalls,” she says. “It truly was mannequin madness.” Nordstrom, Ralph Lauren and Kohl’s followed. In 2003, she won an award from the Environmental Protection Agency for recycling more than 100,000 pounds of mannequins in one year.

About seven years ago, Henderson-Townsend expanded from her home to a 1,300-square-foot warehouse. “We came back from a long vacation and got a note from city officials because we had all this inventory coming out of our driveway,” she says. “Sometimes you need a push.”

The bigger space allowed Henderson-Townsend to step up her business. She decided to become the “FTD of mannequins,” creating a network of about 40 independent mannequin suppliers all over the country. Much like the floral chain, she serves as a broker, connecting retailers who wish to recycle or buy mannequins to small suppliers in a variety of major cities.

Still, sales have not grown as much as she’d like, and she’s had setbacks along the way, such as a failed expansion attempt in Las Vegas. And the recent recession took a toll. But 2014 may be the year that will change, Henderson-Townsend believes.

This year, she’s essentially committed to a three-step process to grow her business. It boils down to the following: Drill down on the numbers. Find another revenue stream. And last but not least, change the mindset.

Related: A Tip to Help Boost Your Business’s Bottom Line

To analyze Mannequin Madness’s financials, Henderson-Townsend, who doesn’t have employees, hired a controller as an independent contractor in October. “She is looking at the numbers and figuring out where to put revenues,” Henderson-Townsend says. The controller is also looking at each Mannequin Madness vendor to determine if the company is making enough profit. The controller has created spreadsheets with graphics that Henderson-Townsend finds easy to understand. “That is a huge step,” she says.

Next, to boost revenue, Henderson-Townsend is considering introducing a product line. “It is a protective cover for the mannequins, for when they are being stored or transported,” she says. Potential customers would be large retailers. She’s found a local manufacturer and is looking to introduce it in the third quarter, typically a slower time of year for her.

Lastly, Henderson-Townsend is working on embracing a “million-dollar mindset” — something she thinks is hard for women in general. Female entrepreneurs often “don’t think they are worthy,” she says. “When you walk into a place feeling powerful, people treat you differently than when you sort of slink in.” She’s taking classes on business leadership over the years, and is currently reading the book “How Rich People Think” by Steve Siebold to help conquer her perceived inabilities.

Related: 5 New Year’s Resolutions for Ambitious Women

If she’s successful at becoming a million-dollar business, Henderson-Townsend believes she’ll accomplish more than just a financial goal. “Most women businesses, and particularly most minority women business owners, don’t ever get to that target,” she says. “I want to show that it’s possible.”

Read Full Transcript

Judi Townsend – Owner, Mannequin Madness

Judi: We sell mannequins, new and used mannequins, we rent mannequins, we repair mannequins, we blog about mannequins… Did I say we recycle mannequins too?

CARD: Judi Henderson – Founder – Mannequin Madness, USA

SOT: Come on in, this is Mannequin Madness. So do you want a torso, do you want a full body…?

Judi: I could not have done this when I was younger because so many people look at me and think, “Mannequins? That’s an odd way to make a living?” Or, “You do what for a living?” And my self-esteem could not have handled that. Now I love the wacky, whimsical quality of being the mannequin lady, and people sometimes call me, “Oh, you’re the mannequin lady,” or, “Oh, you’re Ms. Madness.” You know, and I laugh about it.

SOT: These are considered a high-end mannequin because these were sculpted after a real person.

Judi: I was born in Brownsville, Tennessee, a very rural community. My grandparents were farmers. And my father was trained as an electrical engineer. At the time it was very difficult for an African-American man to get a job, period, let alone as an engineer. So we moved to California because at the time they had government contracts, it was just the beginning of equal opportunity… My whole life is different just because my dad was able to get a job in the aerospace industry in California.

CARD: Judi graduated from University of Southern California and went to work for Johnson & Johnson as an account executive.

Judi So I worked for Johnson & Johnson for almost ten years. I felt a little stifle. There was a part of me that was always much more creative than what corporate world allowed. You know, I liked wearing bright colors, I’m much more expressive. I always wanted to do something creative, I wasn’t quite sure what.

CARD: Judi left the company and started an agency representing commercial photographers. It lasted only two years.

Judi: It was the first time that I really had put my heart into something and didn’t do well. So it was not only, you know, traumatic on a financial level, but emotionally, too.

CARD: Judi returned to corporate America for another decade, then moved to an emerging dot.com.

Judi: There was only about 35 employees. I had never worked for a company that small. And that gave me a window to see what the key decision makers were doing. That’s when I realized, these people aren’t any smarter than I am but they just have a lot more confidence. They were all men, many of them had started businesses before and it failed, they burned through a lot of money and they started a business again. It gave me the confidence to get back on the saddle again.

CARD: In 2000, while surfing the web, Judi came across someone selling a mannequin.

Judi: I thought, ooh, I’ve always wanted a mannequin to put in my garden with some mosaic tiles. And I was overwhelmed. He had about 50 mannequins. and he says now that I’m leaving the state there won’t be a place to rent a mannequin in the Bay area. I had one of those Oprah A-ha moments. I thought, wow, the Bay area’s such a creative place. There ought to be some place to rent a mannequin. And fortunately I have a very supportive husband. He said, “Go for it.”

I immediately started online marketing. The very first week our website went live, we got an email from someone from Canada, who was coming to the Bay area for a trade show and wanted to rent a mannequin. So that’s when I realized “Maybe there is something here.” We started asking the stores: “if you had mannequins to get rid of, let us know.” And in six months period of time, our inventory went from 50 to 500 mannequins. We had mannequins in our basement, in our back yard, in our garage stalls. It truly was mannequin madness, hence the name.

CARD Judi now works from a spacious showroom. She partners with mannequin suppliers throughout North America and in Europe.

SOT Judi: Here is why I like this. First of all it has the metallic arms but more importantly, this one if you drop it, it doesn’t crack. And look at this nice expensive looking mod iron stand. And this can elevate.

Client: Oh, I like the stand.

Judi: It has been an established practice in the retail industry to just throw mannequins in the trash when they’re done with them. Mannequins are big, bulky and they’re made out of materials that do not biodegrade. We will come in and we’ll take everything regardless of what condition it’s in—old, new, broken, whatever—we’ll take truckloads of mannequins away. And then we recycle them. Not that we turn them into some other product, but we sell them as is.

SOT See it has a little discoloration there, it’s been out on the sun. I can go 50 on this.

CARD: Just two years after starting Mannequin Madness, the Environmental Protection Agency honored Judi’s work.

CARD: The company now recycles almost 100,000 pounds of mannequins a year.

Judi: My goal is to be a million dollar a year business primarily because most women businesses, and particularly most minority women business owners, don’t ever get to that target. Just need that just to show that it is possible as a woman, minority woman, to get to a million dollars—and above, ideally.

Judi: My husband and I are the only full time employees. I tried the employee route, it’s not my temperament. I like dummies so I can tell them what to do .. My mannequins they do whatever I tell them to do. They don’t argue, they don’t talk back to me. That’s my… that’s my business strategy. [LAUGHS]


Producers – Victoria Wang and Sue Williams
Director – Sue Williams
Editor – Merril Stern
Director of New Media and Outreach – Karin Kamp
Director of Photography – Sam Shinn
Production Assistant – Nusha Balyan and Erika Howard
Assistant Editor – David Scorca
Music – Killer Tracks

Photos Courtesy of:
Scott R. Kline
Peter Rukavina (reinvented)
Petr Kratochvil