Fetish Fantasay Pipedream

(Note: This story appears in the April 2020 issue of STOREROTICA.)

Google Maps will tell you the drive from Anchorage, Alaska to Huntington Beach, California is 61 hours. For Sportsheets president Julie Stewart, it took two weeks, or 336 hours.

“I left in November with a friend and temperatures were -30,” recalls Stewart. “The first night, the car gas line froze so we had to be towed back to Anchorage and start over. With only about five hours of daylight per day, driving through avalanche zones and being almost pushed off the narrow roads by logging trucks, I had about two nerves left when we got to Seattle after five days of driving. It was a beautiful drive but my own personal version of ‘Dangerous Jobs: Ice Road Truckers’ with me in a Subaru. I stayed in Seattle for a few days before finally making it to Huntington Beach in December.

“I knew very little at the time about Sportsheets,” continues Stewart, “it was still very small.”

Fast-forward to the present and Stewart is president of a company she has helped grow with her brother and company founder, Tom, from garage start-up to a global corporation that was twice named to the Inc. 5000 fastest-growing companies list.

STOREROTICA spoke with Stewart to find out how something that began as a change of scenery blossomed into not just vocation, but into becoming one of the major players in a multi-billion-dollar industry.

SE: At what point did you realize you were probably sticking with Sportsheets for the long haul?

STEWART: I knew nothing about business at first, but I did realize early on that having more payables than receivables is not a good thing. I took an accounting class at Golden West College; we signed our first lease on a commercial facility, and we began to use my credit for the company to borrow money. So, I guess I became embedded, so to speak, pretty quickly. It kind of organically evolved and the industry became interesting and the challenges of running a business were very exciting.

“I’m as much about building a great company and place to work as I am about making products that people love, the two are synonymous for me,” says Sportsheets president Julie Stewart.

SE: What’s been your biggest headache in the 25-plus years you’ve worked in the erotic retail industry?

STEWART: I would say that there are certain challenges that haven’t improved very much. The duplication has only worsened as it’s coming directly from overseas now.

Finding banks, insurance firms, accounting firms and access to federal and state business resources has not improved. We have an incredible bank and CPA, but the taboo is still pervasive in the financial sector and there are government small-business resources that we cannot access like SBA loans and state employee training rebates.

I think this generally points to a misunderstanding of who we are as an industry and what we provide. At Sportsheets, we employ over 30 people, we’ve provided health insurance and 401k plans for over 20 years, before it was required by law. These are just some of the things many people don’t understand about our business practices.

SE: Did you imagine when you were starting out how much progression there would be in erotic retail and attitudes surrounding sexuality and wellness?

The Sportsheets team (products manufactured in the US)

STEWART: No, it was just a different business 27 years ago. There was so much taboo. The industry always had a renegade feeling to it as many retail and manufacturing founders had been charged for crimes and even served time. That edginess was refreshing; there was an authenticity to it. There also seemed to be a greater acceptance of sexual diversity as many key retail folks were pushing for greater acceptance of their own sexuality and that of their customers. Adult stores were really ground zero for sexual education, sexuality information and intimacy wellness.

I love seeing the progress, especially seeing so many female-owned businesses, sex-education resources, and the diversity of participation, experience, and knowledge in the dialogue today. We still have a long way to go, especially with embracing sexual and ethnic diversity, but we’re in a new day and our access and knowledge is only going to grow from here for designers, manufacturers, retailers and customers alike.

SE: What is Julie Stewart doing when she’s not consciously involved with work?

STEWART: Juggling. I think my greatest joy and my greatest challenge is being a working mom. I love my family and I love to work but it’s extremely difficult to do both at 100% at all times. Raising a child, having adult relatives to care for, keeping a marriage going, maintaining some level of self-care while running a company is hard as hell.

After I had a daughter, I had so much more appreciation for all the working moms at Sportsheets and it made me even more grateful for their contributions to Sportsheets and their own lives.

I think being at this age in my life, 49 now, I have more of an appreciation for the different stages of sexual experience a woman goes through in her life from puberty to midlife. I am concurrently watching my daughter and her friends go through puberty and it’s so different from my experience. They are so open, which is wonderful.

Besides juggling work and home life with my family, I spend time mentoring women in life transitions. Of course, I’m always kept busy journaling, playing with our dogs and doing laundry just like everyone else.

“After 25 years of being at Sportsheets, I still love what I do. The people at work, our customers, people I see but don’t know on social media that are championing sexual health, body-positivity, and inclusivity, they all motivate me.” — Julie Stewart

SE: Has there been a moment at Sportsheets where you were awed at how far the company came?

STEWART: Many times! Most recently, moving into our new 35,000-square-foot facility in Cerritos and seeing how it looks has made me so proud of the company and our incredible team that made it happen. I rely on so many people to make great decisions, to represent Sportsheets with integrity and class, and to keep the company running.

SE: Among the number of accolades you’ve received was SE’s 2018 Executive of the Year Award. How did it feel to be recognized for your business acumen, especially as president of the company?

STEWART: I think that was really wonderful. It’s great to receive an award as a woman but to receive an industry genderless award like that was very humbling. Since I am not on the road like I used to be when I did trainings myself, I feel a little less attached to the industry and that made me feel so connected. I love the approach of SE and I feel it truly helps elevate our industry. Accepting an honor like this really comes from the place of accepting it on behalf of everyone at Sportsheets who makes awards like this possible.

I really love the inventory management, financial analysis and cash flow juggling that is critical for the company’s success, and I think people often don’t grasp that women can have that interest and expertise. Being a woman and having to go to the bank, I knew I had to know my shit. I had to know the numbers and what they meant and what the bank wanted to see.

SE: How long before you officially became president of the company had the possibility entered your mind? Was there a lot of conversation between you and Tom surrounding the decision, or was it more organic/spontaneous?

STEWART: I had been the vice president for decades. After I got my Executive MBA from Pepperdine, we had more serious discussions about what a partnership we were and how to build on that from an ownership perspective. It was in the last 10 years that I became the president and really began to direct the strategic direction of the company, the sales and marketing and accounting. I continue to rely on Ed [Hayes, COO] to manage the operations. Tom was more interested in the creative piece, so I focused more on the business side.

SE: “When you’re coming up on your 25th year, you start to wonder ‘Are we still relevant? Are we still making products that people want? Are we getting our asses kicked by the competition? Clearly, we’re not.” That was a quote from Tom in a previous STOREROTICA story—how do you ensure the company maintains relevancy?

STEWART: It is wonderful to see that we can stand the test of time and not only remain relevant but still lead with the work we do. We are delighted with the response to our body positivity and inclusivity in our packaging.

We talk a lot about innovation. When we ask the entire company what words describe Sportsheets, the top three are innovative, family and quality, in that order. We strive to innovate and create new designs and concepts as well as innovate as how we operate as a business. This year there is a big focus on growth and culture.

I think we have kind of quietly innovated and been on the edge as a business, we just didn’t shout it from the rooftops. Our bathrooms were gender neutral way before the law required it. And we’ve been providing free menstrual products to our employees for years. I’m proud of the diversity we have among our staff and the leadership development that we offer within the company. We just started a twice-a-week meditation program that our “Culture Club” team came up with and it’s been a huge success. And of course, there are the mascot dachshunds; leave it to Sportsheets to have a couple of wiener dogs running around. But really, everyone loves them and they bring the best energy to the building.

SE: Talk about the additions to your staff, and how will they help shape Sportsheets in the future?

STEWART: We are truly only as strong as our people, and we really have great leadership. Our executive team is made up of Ed Hayes, COO, Karina Figueroa, VP of Product, Mark Cataldo, VP of Sales & Marketing, and the amazing Chaney Cox, Creative/Brand Director. The team is collaborative and challenges me, which is essential to our growth. They share the passion for Sportsheets and lead their teams with that energy. They also believe in the company and our brands and the vision of taking Sportsheets to the next level. And with them, I know it’s possible.

When we moved into our new facility in Cerritos, our logistics and production managers handled the entire warehouse layout with the city and got us situated in this massive building in under two weeks! I still get giddy when I walk out and see those racks! We moved from three buildings into one huge one with more square footage, it’s organized, clean and is primed for even more growth. I am so proud of our sales team; they are truly the best in the industry.

SE: How will your creative vision differ or stay the same from Tom’s?

STEWART: I have always had the vision that this company could take what we’re good at — creativity, collaboration, making quality products — and expand beyond our current niche. Being female-led now, I want to take our inclusive and forward-thinking approach and create for couples and individuals in all aspects of wellness. I truly feel like there is something special about Sportsheets and the people who walk through our doors confirm it when they meet our team and see our recent expansion. I’m excited about our future and the chance to show the industry all we have to offer.

SE: You have a charity you make trips to India for, so I was wondering if you could elaborate on that cause?

STEWART: I joined Siksha Foundation in 2018 and went to India with them in January 2019 and 2020. The founding family are dear friends and treat me like family on these trips. The purpose of the organization is to help rural school children receive a better education in the public schools through providing safe and secure housing, kitchens and bathrooms. We’ve introduced solar water heating so that kids can use hot water to bathe and wash, which improves the health conditions significantly.

Stewart, center, joined Siksha Foundation in 2018 and has taken trips with the organization to India in 2019 and 2020.

The schools are like boarding facilities, as many children’s parents are farmers and laborers and live about 100km away. In the schools, the children are sleeping on the tile floors of the classrooms. We build two- and three-story dorms and supply stainless-steel bunk beds and new bedding. We also build new cooking facilities. These public schools in Surat were established by Gandhi 60 years ago to give tribal children an education. The funds are very limited, though, and Siksha works with the local communities and other NGOs like Tiny Smiling Faces to meet the kids’ basic needs, so they can pay attention in school and learn.

India is an amazing place; it has a soul. There is spirituality, opulence, Buddhist and Islamic architecture that is incredible, warm people and the best food. It is also chaotic, noisy, streets filled with cars and animals and people, and heartbreakingly impoverished.

I feel very fortunate that I get to be a part of this. Going to India gives me perspective, allows me to seek more gratitude in my own life, a continued love of the world and the chance to see thousands of kids working hard to make better lives for themselves, which is super inspiring and humbling.

SE: What keeps you motivated at this point in your career? 

STEWART: After 25 years of being at Sportsheets, I still love what I do. The people at work, our customers, people I see but don’t know on social media that are championing sexual health, body-positivity, and inclusivity, they all motivate me.

It’s Yolanda, who has been with us 14 years and takes the bus three-and-a-half hours each day to come to work and sew. It’s Chaney, who believes so passionately in the brands and our mission, that hearing her talk about Sportsheets make the hairs stand up on the back of my neck. It’s my husband, Ed, our COO who tirelessly and without complaint pushes us all to be a better manufacturer, designer, and company and then supports me at home and is always encouraging when I have moments of self-doubt. It’s Joanne, Mark, Karina, Monica, Juan and David, Julia, Sylvia, Kelly, Morgan and Emily; Justin, Durante, Julie, Jennifer, Lee and Erick; Vicente, Maria, Zulema, Martha, Dionicio, Martin, Llanela, Amalia, Monica, Jonathan and Mark; Sandra, Sara, Francisca. Together these people represent over 275 years of working at Sportsheets. Without them, there is no Sportsheets.

I’m as much about building a great company and place to work as I am about making products that people love, the two are synonymous for me. We can’t make products that connect people without being connected as a company. Connection really is what life is all about.

SE: Sometimes it’s hard to appreciate success in the moment, but if you reflect on your career, what are you proudest of thus far?

STEWART: Tom’s goal was always to make a difference. I think we’ve done that and continue to do that. We made a difference by creating the soft bondage/fantasy play category in the industry in the 1990’s. We continue to create and develop products with the feedback from our customers.

We make a difference in our customers, vendors and employee’s lives and now we will continue to make a difference as a female-owned business.

For more information on Sportsheets, visit sportsheets.com. For more information on the Siksha Foundation, visit sikshafoundation.com.

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