Thompson pushes 50 Strong to shake things up, be different

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Jeremy Carroll Ashley Thompson, CEO of 50 Strong, said she came up with the idea for the business partly by walking trade shows and discovering that most bottles were made overseas.

Lima, Ohio — An expansive, thick rug sits in the middle of Ashley Thompson's office. She says she likes to sit on the floor and spread out her work. Her kids (8 and 6) like the casual space, too, she says, along with the comfy loveseat near a huge wall of whiteboards with colorful notes and project reminders.

Thompson is far removed from her days as a corporate lawyer in Sidney, Ohio. The CEO of 50 Strong vowed not to wear a suit to work again, now preferring jeans, a sweater and spotted tennis shoes to go with the green and blue office walls and yellow hallways.

The color that Thompson brings to a conversation and to her office environment matches that of the products 50 Strong makes and sells — reusable water bottles, examples of which line an entire wall of her office.

"The brainchild of 50 Strong came on our living room floor watching TV, sitting there saying, 'There is more to this. There is a market for a made-in-America brand,'" said Thompson, 36, who described walking trade shows and flipping over water bottles to discover most were made overseas.

"We have the manufacturing capability to do it, which is our distinct advantage. We don't have to hire another molder. We don't have to go overseas. We're going to cut out the middleman. We saw that there was white space in the market. We said, 'OK, we're going to take a leap of faith. Let's do it.' "

50 Strong had two things working in its favor.

First, Thompson's father has run Precision Thermoplastic Components Inc. in Lima since 1982. So that's where the manufacturing know-how came into play. Thompson, in fact, worked at PTC in high school, answering phones in the office.

Second, the company had an established relationship with Wal-Mart, having sold it accessories for bicycles. Those two factors led to the birth of 50 Strong in 2012 and the company's first water bottle, called the Bike Bottle. It was a low-cost option that the big-box retailer wanted to fit in the cage on bicycles.

"At the time, [Wal-Mart] was importing from China. So, we were able to offer them a made-in-the-USA option at the same price point as a imported bottle," she said, adding that the bottle continues to be a strong seller and profitable despite its low price point.

Thompson knows she's not a technical molding expert. But she studies. She asks questions. She even stops people at stores and asks them why they are buying the water bottle they are holding. How did they make that choice?

"I said I was a student. I know my ​ market. When I go into a retail buyer meeting, I would say I know my market better than anyone else you're going to sit down with. It sounds cocky or arrogant. I try to say it with a smile, but it's true. I spend my time. I do my research. I walk stores all the time. I talk to people. I know what our competitors are doing," said Thompson, who said she thinks about how she can help retailers drive sales.

"When my retail partner has a question, I want them to think of Ashley Thompson first."

The molder made 3 million reusable water bottles in 2016 for itself and other firms. 50 Strong now makes water bottles ranging in size from 22 ounces to 36 ounces. In all, the company offers 14 bottles, each in multiple color and cap configurations.

Thompson emphasizes fashion, style and innovation in the bottles. For example, some are slender (one, in fact, was made to fit her hand). Some are insulated. Others have sleeves to help carry keys. All fit in car cup holders and are dishwasher safe. And all caps are interchangeable within the 50 Strong family of bottles.

"It's the little things. It's the details that make a difference. It's those innovations we're trying to bring to the market. This isn't just another company making water bottles. There's plenty of those out there. I don't want to be just another company out there making water bottles. Let's do it better. Let's do it different, and let's shake things up a bit. We're the little guy in this market. There's some big companies in this. If 50 Strong is going to have any chance for success, we've got to do things differently or we'll get eaten alive," she said.

Thompson has expansion plans. Her bottles are in 3,900 Wal-Marts today, but she hopes to add other retailers to her mix.

"We are participating in the line review with other retailers," said Thompson, who believes 50 Strong can increase sales to $20 million in five years from $5 million today if those partners come online and if 50 Strong can expand its sales into five or six departments throughout each retailers' stores.

Thompson is heading to Chicago this week for the International Home & Housewares Show, the first time 50 Strong will exhibit at a trade show. Her busy schedule includes meeting with customers along with 20 media interviews. The fast pace speaks to what keeps her up at night.

"The challenge for me is work-life balance. That is — for the life of me — I can't figure out. That's the thing that I can't do to the level that I would like to do. I always say to younger women, 'There are days when I am great at what I do. I'm a great CEO. There are days I'm a great wife. There are days I'm a great mom. But there's never been a day I've done all three of them well.' And that, for me, is my struggle. That's the thing that keeps me up at night. Am I doing right by my kids? Do I have my priorities right? Am I giving them enough time? Am I spending enough time at work? That's the unique struggle for women in this environment."