South Carolina Female Business Person of the Year Denise Thigpen founded a brand that’s bigger than life
The brand of a successful fashion label isn’t just about the products and designs attached to it. It’s woven much deeper than that, down to the mind and heart beating beneath the life of that label.
That’s the success story of Wholesale Boutique’s Denise Thigpen. She had an eye for style and went with her gut and her wholesome upbringing to lead to her multi-million-dollar enterprise, which today runs strong with nearly 100 employees and supplies 6,000 retailers in the U.S., Caribbean and Canada.
Thigpen was also recognized by the state in early May as the 2016 South Carolina Female Business Person of the Year by the U.S. Small Business Administration (SBA). It’s a big honor that’s anything but small to Thigpen.
“It is so overwhelming—and I was so completely shocked, proud and humbled when I received the phone call,” she says. “I did not do this on my own, by any means. It’s certainly not a ‘me’ thing.”
The award-winners gathered, following a rigorous application and nomination process, at the state’s Small Business Week awards ceremony May 4 at the Columbia Metropolitan Convention Center.
Not bad for a country girl born and raised in the small town of Ashwood, S.C. “I didn’t come from a background of business,” admits Thigpen “I was raised in the country and my parents instilled a strong work ethic in me from a very early age, along with integrity. That’s been a huge part of this.”
Thigpen’s background is actually in the medical field. She graduated from Florence-Darlington Technical College with an associate’s in nursing and went on to work as an RN in the home health realm for Carolinas Hospital System out of Florence for about eight years. But then her creative calling was sparked by some girlfriends who were selling sterling silver jewelry at home parties—and she knew her family’s budget could stand a boost. “I saw that they were having a good time and thought, ‘I could do that!’” says Thigpen. “I’ve always had an eye for what people liked.”
Customers agreed, as they flocked to Thigpen’s home shows and to her booth at local festivals. What began as a $5,000 investment on her credit card to sell jewelry out of the trunk of her car as a side business soon flourished—so much so that she put her nursing career on hold and opened a retail store that specialized in personalized bags, accessories, apparel and travel must-haves in 1998. And not just one, but five locations opened over the next few years from Florence to Myrtle Beach, where the Thigpens often vacationed. “It was only supposed to be temporary through the holiday season,” she says.
That was only the first chapter, however, for Thigpen’s successful brand. Her stores were purchasing so much inventory that she could go wholesale. And she did.
“I was designing my own pieces and going to Mexico to import them directly,” she says.
When other retailers in the market asked her for business advice, Thigpen came to their aid rather than consider them competition, so she felt that was another reason to go wholesale: to support retailers as a wholesale partner.
In 2006, she moved to the Myrtle Beach area and opened Wholesale Boutique. Since then it has grown and evolved into a massive e-commerce giant, selling bags (handbags, bookbags, luggage, duffle bags), accessories, apparel (men, women and children) and home goods that are either personalized or designed to be personalized at any of its 6,000 retailers.
“It just kept growing and growing and I kept reinvesting in the company,” says Thigpen. “It started with just me working out of a bedroom in my house and then thought, I need to hire more people and more people, so we just kept going with it. I’ve had the best people working with me. … I can’t speak high enough of how much I’ve been blessed with that.”
Thigpen has also been blessed with a smart sense of strategy to stay ahead of the business curve. “One thing we noticed very early on is that we knew we had to have our infrastructure and a technology platform in place, so I spent a lot of time and money and resources on developing that,” she says. “I really felt that e-commerce was going to be in our favor, and that is the case.”
Wholesale Boutique’s Magento-based e-commerce platform is the foundation for the company’s personalized products on the WB brand and Viv&Loo, more of a lifestyle brand. Even though Thigpen is the CEO, her specialty is in the marketing and product development aspects of her brands. She says they can embroider 5,000 pieces a day on-site, plus engrave, cut vinyl and cut wood with a router. “When people come here to see what we do, they’re blown away,” she says.
Thigpen, however, isn’t one to let the size of her company take her away from its roots. “Our employees are like one big family,” she says. “My employees are very important to me. They are reason we are able to be successful, and we need to be successful for their well-being because their families are depending on this job, so we need to make sure we always head in the right direction for them.”
As for her own family, Thigpen, a mother of two children and two stepchildren, loves spending any of her spare time with them when she’s off the job, fishing off-shore from their coastal home of Murrells Inlet.