Jan Childress Keeps The Business In The Family

By Marcia C. Smith
The Orange County Register.


The headquarters of this multimillion-dollar travel accessories company feels hidden, like a tiny, secret compartment among the plain Jane buildings in an office complex on North Poplar Street.

The buried treasure is J.L. Childress. It designs, manufactures and sells the handy pouches, multi-pocket bags, tags, carriers, organizers and other products that parents use to keep from losing their baby bottles, baby wipes, keys, cellphones, wallets, toys, pacifiers and sanity.

Here’s what successful businesses do: They solve problems.

The first one J.L. Childress solved — in 1984 — belonged to Jan Childress, then a Disneyland art director and a new, first-time mother.

She designed the Express Bag, a tote for carrying her breast pump, and the DuffleCOOL, an insulated bag with a reusable ice pack to chill the expressed milk until she arrived home.

She initially marketed her products through direct mail. She built a customer base of other working mothers, grew sales, and found inspiration for more solutions in her own daily juggle of work and family.

Her products for car seats, strollers, nursing, diapering and, yes, balancing lives are now sold at Target, Babies R Us and Amazon, among others domestically, and in 15 countries.

“I wanted to have it all and do it well,” recalled Childress, who left her Disney job in 1985 to grow J.L. Childress, do freelance work, be a wife to Ron and a mother to Kate, now 31, and Sarah, 29.

Her daughters were born entrepreneurs. As kids, they were go-getters, like their mother, setting up lemonade stands on sidewalks of their Fullerton neighborhood and leading their troops in sales of Girl Scout cookies.

They also learned their mother’s business from the living room floor up.

Childress originally ran the company out of the family’s home. The living room was stocked with inventory and large cardboard boxes that eventually emptied to become playhouses for the girls.

The kitchen table was covered with order forms. The staircase was a filing system.

“We weren’t even 10 yet and we were already helping her fill orders,” recalled Sarah Gray of Villa Park. “We also put invoices between the spaces in the stair railing (spindles).”

Vacations were planned around trade shows and store visits, which took the family frequently to Las Vegas, Florida and Hawaii.

Childress worked her girls’ sports schedules into her business schedule, since, as she put it, “I took on this job to be around my children more.”

Sometimes, the girls would ask their mother, “When do I get to be in charge?”

Childress replied: “I’m in charge!”

Naturally, this drove them to want to run their own companies. Honor students in high school, both earned business degrees — Kate Doti at Chapman University (2005) and Gray at the University of San Diego (2007) — and went to work for the same Orange County marketing firm.

In 2006, Doti remembered meeting her parents for dinner at B.J.’s Restaurant & Brewhouse in Irvine. Childress said that she was thinking of selling the company.

“I want you to rethink this,” Doti remembered telling her mother.

It was around then that Doti realized she needed the company to become her solution for the life she wanted.

She had seen her boss sacrifice his family life for his job and she didn’t want to make the same choices.

“I thought about how my mother had looked at all the possibilities of life, in balance, and how I wanted to be a woman and successful,” said Doti, who has a husband, Mark, a real-estate appraiser, and 18-month-old son, Austin.

In 2010, Doti, of Orange, left her job of five years to join the family business as vice president. She oversees operations and finances.

Two years later, Gray followed, becoming another J.L. Childress vice president of sales and marketing.

“It makes sense that we would want the same things out of life that our mom did,” said Gray, who is married (Robert) and is six months pregnant.

They’ve grown up to keep each other company in a cramped, 400-square-foot office space that’s home to four desks, a small conference table and a dog kennel for Lady, a lick-crazed Cavalier King Charles Spaniel.

The mother and her two daughters build their empire, pitch ideas to each other, juggle schedules and balance work and family within the family.

The future of the business, they know, is in the bag.

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