Judi Henderson-Town felt trapped. For years she was unhappy as an account executive at such industry giants as Johnson & Johnson and United Airlines. She found corporate life "soul-destroying."
"I wanted something more entrepreneurial," says 53-year-old Henderson-Town. "But I didn't know it was an option — no one I knew growing up owned their own business."
In the past decade she's carved out her own eco-friendly niche and launched a San Francisco Bay Area business that recycles and then resells old mannequins. Henderson-Town has become a clearinghouse for businesses looking to dump old displays that previously ended up in landfills. "The retailer saves on the disposal fee, and we gain inventory — it's a win-win," she says.
Her business, Mannequin Madness, is now certified green and earned special recognition from the Environmental Protection Agency for recycling 100,000 pounds of mannequins in one year. By collecting used mannequins, cleaning them up and renting or reselling them to businesses, artists or others looking for affordable displays, she's proving green business is good business.
The "a-ha" moment
Henderson-Town landed a job at a startup dot-com company in San Francisco in 2000. There, she saw firsthand how business owners make decisions and got a real itch to go off on her own.
While searching for a mannequin for an art project (she wanted to cover it with mosaic tiles and stick it in her garden), she came across mannequins for sale on Craigslist. When the seller casually mentioned there would no longer be a place for people to rent mannequins in town because he was moving away, she had an "a-ha" moment. So instead of buying just one mannequin, she bought 50 for $2,500.
"It wasn't rational," she says. "I had never touched a mannequin, never worked in the retail industry and had no idea that people actually rented mannequins."
With fiberglass dummies littering her house (she's thankful for a very understanding husband), Henderson-Town's first big break came in 2001 when she caught wind that Sears was eliminating its use of mannequins. She persuaded most of the area stores to sell her the used ones, rather than throwing them away. In about six months, her inventory skyrocketed to include more than 500 life-sized figures.
"We were still operating out of our home, so the mannequins were everywhere — in the basement, in tents in the backyard, in the garage, in boxes down the driveway. It was crazy," she says.
After 9/11, Henderson-Town was laid off from the dot-com. She did some soul searching and realized she wanted to make some serious life changes rather than looking for another full-time gig. She dove headfirst into Mannequin Madness. She broke out of the rental-only model and was soon selling her used stock to people all over the U.S. and Canada.
"Although the business was still fledging and not financially secure, it brought me joy and passion," she says. "I felt life was too short to not live with joy and passion."
As her Sears inventory dried up, Henderson-Town knew she needed an action plan. With her husband, Jay, now onboard, they noticed that more department stores were becoming environmentally conscious when remodeling or closing stores, and the couple reached out to major retailers. Leveraging Henderson-Town's online marketing savvy, Mannequin Madness was soon getting calls from the likes of Nordstrom, Talbots, Macy's, Kohl's and Ralph Lauren to recycle their mannequins.
Initially she was only equipped to handle mannequin liquidations locally in the Bay Area. But as Mannequin Madness established strategic partnerships with other used-store-fixture companies across the country, Henderson-Town became the point person for national mannequin liquidations for retailers such as Nike, bebe and The Gap.
"We love what we do," she says. "We love mannequins, we love our creative customers, we love the creative things they do with mannequins, and we love that we make a difference to the environment."