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Continued: In the end, salesman is a man of the cloth

  • Article by: TODD NELSON , Special to the Star Tribune
  • Last update: April 26, 2009 - 10:08 PM

Dennis Murphy once studied for the priesthood but ended up selling lingerie.

Such adaptability has served him well, from his corporate days in the 1970s at Vassarette, then a division of Munsingwear, to various entrepreneurial ventures.

Murphy, tapping into his sleepwear expertise, founded Paddi Murphy Corp. in 2004 to produce high-end women's pajamas, bed jackets and spa robes. The distinguishing feature, Murphy said, is that sleepwear from the Edina-based Paddi Murphy is made from a patented, high-performance fabric that wicks away moisture and neutralizes odors.

His target customers are women ages 35 to 65 who may experience night sweats or hot flashes from such causes as menopause, chemotherapy or hormone therapy.

Thanks largely to Murphy's salesmanship, the sleepwear line has done well at specialty shops and through catalogs. Revenue was just short of $1 million in 2008, an increase of $200,000 from the year before and nearly double its $500,000 in sales in 2005, its first full year of operations, Murphy said.

So far, sales appear to be holding steady this year despite the economic gloom. That may be a sign that Murphy's flexibility is paying off again: A year ago, he finally gave in to his son's repeated requests to join the company. He also signed off on son Tim's plans to boost the company's marketing, launch a Paddi Murphy catalog, develop a new website and expand into online sales.

"I was doing this the old-fashioned way: Shake hands and sell it. I had a pretty good business, over 300 better specialty stores in the United States,'' the elder Murphy said. "Then Tim came in and said, 'Let's spend a [bunch] of money.'"

Said Tim: "You had this great line but no one really knew about it. ... They had to know you. To get a brand and an image and a solvent, existing, long-term company, it was important to build on that."

The father was convinced: "You take a risk to start your business," Dennis Murphy said. "You might as well go all the way."

Paddi Murphy has worked with Soulo Communications of Minneapolis on branding, Web development and other creative services. The company is one of the clients taking advantage of Soulo's interest-free, extended payment plans designed to help small companies grow or get started.

Underserved market

Paddi Murphy sleepwear has been a popular item -- both with customers and employees -- at the Vermont Country Store, senior buyer Susan Rawls said.

"This fits the bill for us and solves a problem so many women, including myself, have had to deal with," said Rawls, who shared sample gowns with women in the company. "Everybody who tested them came back with nothing but rave reviews. We have had many happy customers and a lot of repeat customers."

At the Blanc de Blanc shop in Wayzata, owner Heidi Jo Carisch said she liked the product and the fact that it's from a Twin Cities company. "The price is nice, the quality is good and they're local," she said. "The customers like it."

Paddi Murphy's rapid growth and the chance to build some sweat equity in the company were what made him want to work for his father, Tim Murphy said. Doing so meant leaving behind a sales manager position at Philip Morris, where he had worked for three years after getting a marketing degree from the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

Their goal in the next year or two, Tim Murphy said, is to hire a shipping manager so that he and his father can concentrate full time on sales. They also would like to find warehouse space for the inventory they now store in the family's garage.

The company has six sales representatives around the country and a designer who works as a contractor, Dennis Murphy said. Lace for the garments is made in this country and shipped to China for manufacturing.

Dennis Murphy said his goal for the company is to "make it really profitable but not so big that we lose sight of it." He hopes to grow sales organically to $5 million to $6 million a year.

A South Dakota native, Dennis Murphy took the name for his company from the nickname he received as a newspaper delivery boy. He later studied to be a priest but left after a couple of years. He graduated from the University of South Dakota during the Vietnam War, was drafted and spent two years in the Army.

When he got out, he came to the Twin Cities looking for work selling men's clothing, as he had during high school and college. He approached Munsingwear, but the only spot available was at its Vassarette lingerie division. "I studied to be a priest for a long time and they wanted me to sell bras and panties? It was like, 'OK, God, here we go.'"

Dennis Murphy spent 10 years with the company, eventually becoming regional vice president of sales. He left in the 1980s as Munsingwear's business declined, starting his own sales organization representing lingerie and apparel lines in the Upper Midwest.

He first tried manufacturing earlier in this decade, producing a line of junior sleepwear. He quickly got out as the department stores he was selling to began to disappear. That experience, though, prepared him to start Paddi Murphy.

"What's really fun is when you get up in the morning and you have a list of a bazillion things to do and one of them happens to be that you get to go out and sell something and you know it's a great product," Murphy said.

The expert says: David Deeds, Schulze Chair in Entrepreneurship at the University of St. Thomas Opus College of Business, said Paddi Murphy appears to have the ingredients for success -- a good product niche, serving customers that have been underserved -- but it will need to focus on execution as it grows.

"When you're investing in marketing, investing in brand building and expanding your sales, you also have to be making plans to support those sales," Deeds said. "If you get marketing and sales way out in front, without the infrastructure behind you, you've wasted those marketing dollars. It's a careful balancing act."

Overhead may be an evil word to some entrepreneurs, Deeds said, but "overhead is what you invest in to get things done," including maintaining a high level of service, product quality and timely deliveries.

Todd Nelson is a freelance writer in Woodbury. His e-mail address is todd_nelson@mac.com

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