Grand Slam Winner

This former tennis star serves aces in product sales

by Julia Lynam

hampton_lead_DSF0055Products created and sold by Steve Heroux’s Williston company, Hampton Direct, are familiar to millions through QVC appearances, retail stores, and infomercials.

After discovering that Steve Heroux’s company, Hampton Direct, has products selling in 60,000 stores nationwide and is headed for a probable tripling of sales in 2009, it was no surprise to learn that he’d played competitive sports in his youth. Running a successful company and playing high-level sports call for similar intense attention to detail, concentration, and extreme focus — for keeping an eye on the ball. Although his competitive tennis days are over — his company and family absorb his time nowadays — Heroux, 41, was, in his day, a nationally rated tennis player, ranking fifth in the under-18s in his native Canada.

Born in Montreal, in 1987 Heroux attended The Hotchkiss School in Lakeville, Conn., for his senior year of high school, positioning himself to play U.S. college tennis. At Columbia University, where he studied political science and economics before graduating in 1991, he made the singles and doubles teams in all four years.

Another important event for Heroux while in New York City was meeting Jennifer Peterson, then a student at Manhattan School of Music. After college, Heroux returned home to Montreal and Jennifer joined him the following year. They were married in 1993.

The newlyweds moved to southern Florida but, despite having enjoyed vacations there, found “it wasn’t a place we wanted to live.” After six months, they settled back in Connecticut, this time in East Hampton, where Heroux worked for a year as a sales rep for Sheffield Pharmaceuticals, a company whose founder in 1850 invented the first form of toothpaste.

Establishing his own company in 1995, Heroux used the name of the town where he lived. “I figured Hampton was easier than Heroux,” he quips. “I set up the company with my father, Jean-Claude, who had previously had a mail-order company.” The elder Heroux retired and sold his holding in Hampton Direct to his son in 2004.

“At first,” Heroux continues, “it was called Hampton Publications and it was going to be a greeting-card business. But we realized that American Greetings and Hallmark controlled the entire market and it was going to be really hard to make it a success. We made a decision in ’96 to sell catalog items. Some of the items we were buying — and still are — were made in factories in Montreal.

“At the beginning it was all from Canada,” he says, “but we outgrew that and now fewer than 5 percent of our products are Canadian.” Nowadays products are manufactured primarily in China, with some from Taiwan, Vietnam, India, Indonesia, and Europe.

As the company grew throughout its first decade, Heroux expanded first into selling to the TV shopping channel QVC in 2000, then hitting an ace when he entered the direct response “infomercial” field in 2006 with his own trademarked invention, the Twin Draft Guard, followed two years later with the similarly successful Wonder Hanger.

“It’s not very often that someone new to direct marketing has a back-to-back success as he’s had with the Twin Draft Guard and the Wonder Hanger, says Sonia Makurdsik, president and founder of marketing agency SRM Direct of West Brandywine, Pa. “That was a combination of strategic thinking and good luck!” Makurdsik met Heroux five years ago when she worked in marketing and direct response with QVC.

“Some businesses put products into the market and see if they will work,” she continues, “but Steve is strategic. He understands the product — how it works, its benefits — and he understands ‘offer’ — the ability to build on different products to attract the customer. He’s extremely savvy and analytical, initially cautious, but if he sees something that’s a winner he goes with it.”

About a third of Hampton Direct’s business is now direct-response sales from its own networked TV infomercials. Sales of the “as seen on TV” items to large retail outlets have taken off as Hampton Direct penetrates the mass retail market with the giants, from Wal-Mart and Staples to national grocery and drugstore chains.

Seeking to be closer to the Canadian border, Heroux moved the business to South Burlington in 1997, then to larger premises on Pioneer Drive in Williston in 2000, and to its current 65,000-square-foot office and warehouse complex on Hurricane Lane in Williston, right beside I-89 Exit 12, in July of this year.

He and his 50 employees are obviously delighted with the new premises, which they are still growing into. It gives Heroux space to pursue another piece of the puzzle. He is master of vertical integration. He not only invented and patented the Twin Draft Guard and the Wonder Hanger, but also masterminded their manufacture, brought them to market, had packaging designed in-house, and commissioned the infomercials. Now, he’s setting up a 12,000-squar-foot production studio to record his infomercials on site.

He and Jennifer live in South Burlington, where she volunteers at the school attended by their children, Helena, 7, and Steve Jr., 5. Heroux still plays a little tennis, some with an old Montreal friend, Alain Shedleur, who worked for Hampton Direct from 2000 to 2002 and has followed the company’s progress.

“Steve is a hands-on employer and the company is a well-oiled machine,” Shedleur says. “My experience working for him was that he knew the product exactly from the point of concept to delivery to the customer. Manufacturers and vendors really appreciated the partnerships and relationships with Hampton Direct. I don’t recall any loose ends. Payments and deliveries were always on time. Being able to adapt to various scenarios is one of his strengths.”

Heroux’s flair and attention to detail are evident in employee relations, too. Christmas 2008, instead of including the staff’s profit-sharing bonuses in their paychecks as usual, he handed them $20,000 in $10 bills to divide among themselves. It didn’t take them long to decide on equal shares for everyone, with the remainder to be donated to the local food shelf.

“We don’t always do it that way,” Heroux says with a chuckle, “but it was a great experience. We’ve recently changed from distributing profit shares annually to doing it quarterly, so that the bonus can be seen to relate to the quarter it was earned in.”

“One of the things we did for new employees last year,” adds Mary Wylde, human resources manager, “was to hold a series of lunches where Steve took out two or three new employees and spent time to get to know them. Part of that was asking what we were doing well and what could improve, and that generated a lot of good data.”

Since the company added 13 employees over the past year, those lunches represented a chunk of time for Heroux. “We expect to add about 10 more staff in the coming year,” Wylde says. She’s pretty new to the company herself. She joined Hampton Direct just over a year ago, having worked in HR for Ben & Jerry’s Homemade before launching her own consultancy six years ago.

“We also have a lunch for all staff every Friday,” she says, “and do a lot of fun things, such as organizing an inter-business boccie tournament and celebrating days like “World Kindness Day” with a fun half-hour event.”

The team spirit generated by this supportive atmosphere may be one of the factors in Hampton Direct’s success in times of economic stress, something Heroux attributes largely to judicious product choice. “We had the right product mix,” he says. “Good problem solvers, money savers, at the right price. That business hasn’t been affected as much — Wal-Mart still does well. It’s the gifty products that have gone down — things that would be nice to have but you don’t really need — that’s where sales have dropped.

“For us, this has been our most successful year by far, close to tripling last year, which was the best to date.”

Teamwork, energy, wise choices, and keeping an eye on the ball seem set to keep Hampton Direct in the center court as it moves forward to its next challenge, articulated by Makurdsik: “For every one item you sell on TV through an infomercial, you can sell 10 in the retail stores. Steve has a great team who have done a tremendous job facilitating the products to retail, and the vision now is to move beyond television.” •