Patty Brisben and the Evolution of Pure Romance
By John Erardi, Contributing Writer
Photos and video by Madison Schmidt
Nothing says Valentine’s Day quite like “Pure Romance.”
Literally. I mean, it’s right there on the building--you know the one, the white one, at 655 Plum on the western edge of downtown, just down the street from Cincinnati City Hall. There it is in black block letters about seven stories up: “Pure” and “Romance” with the pink heart in between.
The story that percolates under that roof is made all the more Valentine-y because Pure Romance, which basically began in a small box delivered to Patty Brisben’s house in 1983 and is now a $200 million-a-year international business -- moved its corporate headquarters downtown three years ago from, of all places, Loveland, where its 25,000-square-foot warehouse is still located.
“People,” says founder and owner Patty Brisben, “ tell me that they think the town changed its name to ‘Loveland’ because of our business being there.”
And what does Brisben say to that?
“Why of course, it did!”
You might say that Brisben’s arrow always finds the sweet spot.
Why it’s enough to make you quiver.
For all the attention that the street car and craft breweries and overall resurgence of Over-the-Rhine has gotten in recent years, don’t you think it’s fair play that Pure Romance finally get some real love, what with Valentine’s Day just around the corner?
One cannot tell the story of Pure Romance without telling the story of Patty Brisben, a dynamo of a woman if ever there were one.
She built her business on, above all things, being a good listener.
One at a time, in one-to-one conversations, women reveal to her “their deepest and darkest secrets.”
But I found Brisben to be a good talker as well, especially when it comes to the use of symbolism, metaphor and anecdote -- an invaluable triad for anybody trying to write a profile of somebody else.
For instance, when she tells me the story about the “little box” arriving at her home in 1983, she personalizes the story by bringing the UPS man into it.
“I’d been getting the house ready, like any hostess would,” she begins. “I happened to be looking out the window, and saw the UPS driver carrying ‘the box’ toward the house. I started panicking. ‘Ohmigosh. We’d always had such a good relationship! Is he going to think differently of me now?’ When the doorbell rang, I couldn’t even look him in the eye! I just grabbed the box out of his hands and closed the door!”
I laughed good at that one. Brisben is nothing if not an evocateur. The backstory to the box’s arrival is even better. Its genesis was in Brisben’s having watched the Phil Donahue Show a few days earlier. She was at home on maternity leave, having just delivered her fourth child.
“I was barely making ends meet,” she recalls, “even though I was working for four pediatricians."
When I watched those women (on TV), I could see that their lives had changed -- drastically -- and they were changing the lives of others. That’s what I wanted to do. At the time, I really didn’t know what all of that meant, but I knew I wanted to have more quality time with my children. I loved my work, but I wanted to be with my children even more.
“I didn’t think about wanting to be an ‘entrepreneur,’ or owning and operating my own business. What clicked for me that day were those women finding happiness, those women having quality time with their families; their lives changing. That was everything I wanted for myself and my family. I wanted to stop living paycheck to paycheck.”
What the women were selling that day is what Pure Romance’s own web site refers to today as “sex toys and relationship-enhancing products.”
For Brisben, a conversation later that day led her down the path to the present day. She was talking to a friend in her children's car-pool.
“The Donahue Show hadn’t left my mind that entire day,’” she recalls. “I kept thinking, I wonder if that could be me; maybe that could be me. So, when my friend called me, all I could talk about was the Donahue Show. My friend got really, really quiet. I thought I had offended her."
“Remember now, this was 1983 – ‘Sex and the City’ hadn’t been born yet. We (women) did not talk about intimacy; we just didn’t. There was no permission to have that conversation. So, when my friend was quiet, I changed the conversation to, I’m sorry; I’ll drive, thinking that was going to solve everything.
“And she said, ‘I went to a party.’“
Patty’s jaw dropped.
“Where?” she asked.
“In Milford. One of my neighbor’s relatives who lives in Dayton came in to do a party. The house was packed. People waited in line to make purchases. Do you want the 800 number?”
Patty called the number, and spoke to a “well-versed” Consultant who said the same thing the women on Donahue had said. That her life had changed, and that she was changing the lives of others.
“I wanted that for myself,” Patty remembers. “Right then and there, I took the last bit of money I had ($5,000) and decided to become a Consultant for what was known at the time as Fun Parties Inc.“
What were the odds that one of the first people Patty would talk to after that fateful Donahue Show would herself have just been to a party? And that she’d be willing to divulge it? How many times do people miss that moment of listening to their inner voice, failing to ask that one additional question that might lead somewhere?
Here I allow Brisben go stream-of-consciousness because I had the feeling that this stream was going to lead somewhere.
Plus I wanted to hear about that first party. What in the world was it like?
Patty takes it from there; call it the Full Patty.
“I was so afraid I wouldn’t move forward with the party,” she remembers.
“So I called all my friends on the phone. I had 15 girlfriends who all said pretty much the same thing: ‘Are you crazy? But I’ll be there!’ … And that day, when the UPS man brought the box to the house, I went upstairs, opened up the box and looked inside. I had a total meltdown!”
Call it the Patty Melt.
“I had never used any of those products! Nor had I even ever seen any of those types of products! I just said, ‘I don’t think I can do this.’ Within minutes the doorbell was ringing. All I kept thinking was, ‘What am I going to do now?’ So I thought, ‘I’ll just let ‘em drink and eat and send ‘em home. They’ll never know there wasn’t a ‘party.’ ”
But it worked out.
That $5,000 and that first box – a “kit,” it was called and still is, a $49 kit, the least expensive one that Fun Parties Inc. sold to its Consultants – is what Brisben turned into a $200 million a year business.
“What I learned very quickly is that it wasn’t about what was inside that box,” Patty says. “It was about a safe environment to talk with other women. That was the beginning of the permission. It was our own version of ‘Sex and the City.’ I was determined to allow these women to open up and communicate, even vent on their relationships. I asked myself, ‘how can I make it better; what can I do?’ ”
What started out as a search for personal and family fulfillment turned out to be fueled by the conversations and the expressed needs of her friends and their friends.
“After that first night, I could see that it was the women who were going to keep me doing this,” not the more abstract notion of personal happiness, Patty remembers.
She was being filled up by the women she was seeking to help.
“They needed a place to get giddy and laugh and ask questions and not feel ashamed,” Patty says. “That’s when I knew: ‘This is what I’m supposed to be doing. I’m going to get them some answers. I said to myself: ‘C’mon Patty, you can do this. You worked in the medical field. You can pick the brains of your medical friends.’ And that is how I grew it into a business. Working in the medical field, I’ve never been uncomfortable talking about the human body – ever.”
Years earlier, one of the pediatricians she had worked for – “Dr. Sanders,” since passed – told her, “Patty, you need to go back to school. You know why? Because you would be a great teacher. You should be a teacher. You should go back and get your license and then teach nursing.”
She recalls him as a “tough doctor; he would challenge me every day.”
“I wish he were alive,” Patty says. “I wish he could see this.”
Patty turned out to be a great teacher, only not in the way Dr. Sanders imagined.
Patty seems able to free not only individuals to tell her things one-on-one, she seems able to empower some to tell their stories and ask their questions in front of a like-minded audience.
A considerable part of her work is through the Patty Brisben Foundation, the leader in sexual health research across America. Patty recalls attending a gathering of the Young Survival Coalition, in which the audience was comprised almost entirely of under-45 women who were either undergoing or had recently undergone cancer treatment.
On the manifest of guest speakers was a sex therapist, whose advice to the cancer victims was that “if you want to feel sexy, put on one of your husband’s nice white dress shirts and a pair of stiletto heels.”
Says Brisben, practically bristling: “I wanted to remove her from the room. I’ve never gone through cancer treatment. But I knew those women were tired, exhausted; dealing with body image; trying to find balance in their everyday with their significant other; looking to regain intimacy with their significant other. They weren’t looking to put on a pair of stilettos.”
Later that evening, Patty held Pajama Night. About 300 women showed up in their PJs. During Patty’s presentation, the ladies laughed until they had tears running down their faces. It was one of the first times that entire weekend they momentarily forgot they were undergoing cancer treatment.
“They became women again,” is the way Patty puts it.
Normally, her speaking engagements last 30-40 minutes. She then opens it up for questions.
Two hours later…Patty had to bring her “team” in at that point; she had a red-eye flight to catch.
She will never forget the first question.
“She was young lady, probably 20, newly diagnosed, had just begun losing her hair, and she had never been intimate with anybody. Her doctor had told her that atrophy was going to probably set in, and that she needed to buy a bedroom toy so that the atrophy wouldn’t own her body.
“What should I buy?” the young woman asked Patty.
What a first question. Imagine the courage it took to stand up to ask it.
Then more questions…and more questions.
“We were working with Indiana University at the time,” Patty recalls. “I’d follow up on questions to the researchers. I’d say ‘what does this mean?’ ‘What does that mean?’ They’d tell me, ‘This is what it means; there’s a diagnosis, but no real treatment."
“Why?” Patty asked.
“Because there’s been no research into it.”
“Because there’s enough funding.”
“We’re going to change that,” Patty said.
And she did.
The Patty Brisben Foundation for Women’s Sexual Health was born.
Patty had no idea that what she was doing was unique. All she knew is that she wanted to raise as much money she could.
Three-and-a-half million research dollars later…
Here’s the back story of that famous first party and some subsequent events…
“Those 15 girlfriends turned into about 40, because everybody brought a friend. That night, it was a lot of fun, but I didn’t know a whole lot about anything. I had worked for doctors and most of my friends were registered nurses so that helped. I was going to surround myself with the best of the best, and I was going to be able to feed these women information about their bodies, and about themselves, and help them through the process of making decisions of what would work best in their bedrooms.”
Patty had a successful party from a Consultant’s perspective: She sold a little over $500 worth of products, and five people booked a party apiece.
More than anything, it was the feedback Patty received that made it work. It wasn’t that Patty knew everything; she admits, she didn’t know “anything.”
And that’s the point:
It’s not so difficult to listen, once you’ve trained yourself to do it-- if you care enough to try.
And if you’re a Consultant, it’s going to help you throw a better party; make the party pay off, both figuratively and literally.
“I listen to conversations; I don’t get into the midst of their conversations – this is their party, not mine,” Patty counsels. “Somebody will say, ‘Oh, I’m getting married soon and I’m looking for stuff to take on my honeymoon,’ or ‘You wouldn’t believe the product we were talking about today at work."
“So that’s some of what I’m going to talk about at the party --- without mentioning names. ‘Here are some great things to take on your honeymoon, and this is our No. 1 product, and I’m sure they’ve been talking about this at work if somebody went to a party the night before.’ ”
And here, here is the key to a real salesperson:
When Patty hears women at the party say that aren’t going to buy anything – “My Joe looked at the invitation, and he told me, ‘Here’s the checkbook, buy everything,” but I’m not buying anything; there’s not anything here for me” – it’s an invitation to openness, to borrow a phrase from the famous jazzman, Les McCann.
“There’s one at every party – every party,” Patty says. “She’s going to be my best friend. I love being able to turn somebody’s mind around. I want her to have the best experience in the room. I am going to put her mind totally at ease, at ease in knowing how to use a product, at ease in knowing how to introduce it (in the bedroom). I’m going to give her ‘permission’ to go home and change things up. I’m going to give her some backbone, going to turn everything around for her.
“She’s the one I want to hear say in the ordering room – like they so often do. ‘Ohmigosh, Patty, I had no idea it could be like this.’ And even if all they do is say, ‘I’m going to start off with just the ‘Between the Sheets’ (orchid powder-based linen spray)’ or ‘I’m going to start off with the sheet spray and cream,’ I’m okay with that. Remember, she was ‘never going to buy anything.’”
And, yes, it’s always “one client at a time” in the ordering room.
It’s all between the client and the “Consultant.”
Says Patty: “So often I hear, ‘Thanks so much for making this the rule. I wasn’t going to buy this if my friend came in with me.’ Or ‘I wasn’t going to ask this question if my friend came in with me. She’s my best friend and we tell each other everything, but…’ ”
Like so much else in life, it’s about communication.
“No kissing, no telling,” Brisben says. “Once I see you, I’m going to forget about what you ordered. I’m going to forget what we talked about. I am a firm believer that if somebody tells you a story, you don’t run and tell that to somebody else. That can ruin a relationship, and in this (line of work), it can ruin your business. I’ve had (clients) ask me, ‘So-and-so is having an affair. Did she tell you about it?’ And I say, ‘No, she never said anything."
“Well, what did she buy?”
“I can’t tell you, and I’m not going to tell you.”
“Well, I was going to book another party, and if you tell me, I’ll book two more parties.”
“No,” Patty says. “No.”
Here’s how Patty makes the parties work, and she traces it back to that very first party:
“As soon as that (first) party ended, I wrote down their questions, and I’d go get the answers for them."
It is in the follow-up in the ordering room where the best of Brisben comes out.
One time, she had a woman tell her, ‘Make it go away; make it be faster.’ (intercourse, in other words) … That gave me an opportunity to ask, ‘What are you missing in that passionate moment? What are you running from?” And we talked, and I could tell what was missing was foreplay… And it was so (fulfilling) to later hear from her, ‘That talk you gave me in the ordering room? Ohmigosh, the best.’… I can’t’ always remember the answers I give, but I remember the questions.”
Patty has heard the words “Conservative Cincinnati” used so often in introducing her at speaking engagements around the country that it practically sounds like one word now.
Well, how “conservative” does 25,000 square feet of relationship-enhancing inventory sound?
Yes, this is the part of what Brisben does for women that initially “scared” her the most: the business side.
Well, she turned out to be a savvy businesswoman, even though she didn’t have business sheepskin to suggest it might be so. She followed her heart, her common sense and her competitive drive; she’s a born salesperson, always seeking to be top of the heap - or as close to it as is humanly possible.
Her first “Top Five” prize in sales was a cigarette lighter (“I didn’t even smoke!”); the second (it was her choice; actually she let her kids decide), a home entertainment system.
1985? A home entertainment system? Are you kidding me? TV, VCR, stereo, speakers, you name it. That’d get your kids into doing whatever they could do to help you succeed, no?
From the get-go, Patty made her mission of transformation known to her “oldest” children, 8 and 6.
“This first year’s going to be tough,” she’d tell them, “but at the end of the year, our life will change.”
And, in effect, their lives did change.
How successful were you, Patty? Put it into numbers.
After her first year as a consultant she had enough money to buy a new Dodge Daytona and put a down payment on a new home.
What started in that box the UPS man delivered back in 1983 soon grew to 1,200 square feet and kept increasing… 2,500-3,000 square feet … to 10,000 square feet in Milford (“When we built it, I literally sat down on the floor and cried, ‘I’ll never fill it!”) … within five years, it was full … to 25,000-30,000 square feet in Loveland in 2005.
This, too, began in Patty’s home. She remembers well the days when she had to rely on 8-year-old, Chris, and 6-year-old Nick to tend to the babies, 19-month-old Matt and 2-month-old Lauren – to make certain she wasn’t interrupted on what she and she and family elders dubbed “Picnic Night.”
“That was the night, Sunday night, when I would call my (Consultants) to go over the whole week,” she remembers. “I’d ask them about their (scheduled) parties, how many people (were booked), things like that. ‘Hostess coaching, I call it. People ask me, ‘How did you do all this with four kids?’ The answer is that I shared it with my kids what was going on in my world, and I made it a part of their world.”
She needed to have and give the undivided attention of her Consultants.
“I communicated with my kids, got them ‘into it’ with our own (set of incentives) -- the celebration at the end of the year, what we had achieved as a team. Of course, I didn’t tell them what I was selling (they were far too young for that).”
But they deduced from what their Mom told them – “I’m helping parents; I’m helping them communicate better” – that she was a teacher.
Which, in effect, she was.
And the kids knew that if Mommy continued to have success as a teacher, well, they’d be eating at McDonald’s on Fridays or Saturdays, a very special treat for the young family.
When the phone rang on Sunday nights, that was the cash registering ringing (although Mom didn’t put it in those terms.) She incentivized it: the phone ringing was, in essence, a combination of McDonald’s calling and Mommy bringing home the bacon. And it was amazing, really, how well it worked in those days before home computers and cell phones and a video game in every TV.
Fast-forward it a couple decades later when Chris, about 27, was involved at the company. He’d been making his own way, but he recognized that it was time help out Mom again in a hands-on way. He decided he could give her six months of help in a calendar year.
His mission was to get her to relinquish day-to-day operations of the company. From Day One, Patty had been involved in everything: customer service, recruiting Consultants, warehouse manager, talking with vendors, you name it.
“Giving up all that was like giving up my first-born,” Patty says
Which, come to think of I, she almost did.
Consider: Chris’ first big venture on behalf of the company was the first-ever “on the road” promotional trip to St. Louis in 2002 to recruit Consultants. It was and is Patty’s favorite part of the business; the one that Chris, as her son, wanted to give her yet another head-start on.
Patty did guest-spots throughout the week in St. Louis during morning and afternoon “drive time” shows on radio, and Chris handled the logistics on setting up the big “hit” – the recruiting of Consultants at the hotel afterward. (“Come meet Patty Brisben! Start Your Own Business! Turn Your Life Around!”)
Thursday night was the big night, party night.
Would you believe that after all that work, only 10 people showed up for the party?
Patty: “Chris hadn’t told me he’d spent over $30,000 (on the ‘tour’)! On the ride home, I was sick, he was sick; it was terrible.”
The next day, Sunday, they were at the warehouse putting product back on the shelves, both a lot less happy-filled than the inventory, to put it mildly. That’s when the phones started ringing simultaneously.
Patty has a rule that a man can never answer the phone at the warehouse to fill an order. But so many phones were ringing, Chris had to step in.
Caller: “I can’t believe you’re there on a Sunday! (Aside to a husband in the background: ‘Honey, there’s somebody there!’) I want to become a Consultant.”
Chris: “You must have come to the Sheraton.”
“Did you come to the party?”
“Then how did you hear about us?”
“You’re on the front page of the St Louis Post-Dispatch: The headline reads, ‘The New Tupperware of the 2000s.’ “
It was “0 to 100” in the squeal of the wheels.
Patty and her eldest couldn’t believe how good had been their fortune.
By the end of that first week back home, they had signed up 50 new Consultants for the St. Louis region alone.
Turns out it had been St. Post-Dispatch reporter that was one of the visitors to the ballroom on Party Night at the hotel.
“I thought back to that night, and I remembered a woman asking me to sit down and discuss the business,” Patty recalled, quickly putting two and two together, having been so eager to tell her things that she totally missed the “St. Louis Post-Dispatch” part of the woman’s introduction.
Can you imagine the conversations among wives and husbands that Sunday and afternoon in St. Louis?
Why, it was Patty’s first party times one times one hundred thousand!
And son, Chris who now serves as Pure Romance's CEO & President?
“He said that if that reporter hadn’t shown up that night” and saved the day, recalls Patty, “he didn’t’ know whether as the son of the owner he’d be fired or grounded.”
And that’s when the show really hit the road.
Patty and her son spent a goodly portion of the next three years dragging a U-Haul all over the place, building on that serendipitous success in St. Louis.
“When we got to Atlanta,” recalls Patty of that high-water-mark road trip back in 2004 or 2005, “there were so many women that we filled up three ballrooms.”
The sweet spot isn't always the same.
But you always know when you’ve hit it.