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July 15, 2016

Tapping Into Topco: Interview With New COO Autumn O'Bryan

This article originally ran in the July 2016 issue of Intimate magazine. Click here for a link to the digital edition. One of the “big five” companies in the pleasure product industry, Topco Sales has seen many changes over its 40-plus years in business. And that’s especially been true since 2012, when the company was sold to WSM Investment. Though two members of the founding family still remained on the scene—Scott Tucker, son of Marty Tucker, and Michael Siegel, Marty’s nephew—the next four years brought a lot of changes at the company, including a move from Chatsworth to Simi Valley. This spring, upheaval continued with the departure of Siegel back in May. And within a couple of weeks another change came. On June 3, Topco Sales announced that it would be sailing off in a new direction in the wake of appointing industry veteran Autumn O’Bryan as its new chief operating officer. For those who don’t know O’Bryan, suffice to say that over more than two decades in the pleasure product industry, she has explored almost every aspect of the business. And that’s fortunate because, according to a company release, O’Bryan’s new job is “to reestablish Topco Sales as a leading manufacturer focused on building trust, promoting quality, and bringing a fresh approach to the next phase of the brand’s historic legacy.” Piece of cake, right? Well, not really. But after talking to O’Bryan, it’s clear that Topco’s new COO has knowledge of the industry that is both deep and broad. And as a Topco alumna, she’s a passionate cheerleader for the venerable brand. O’Bryan’s path through the adult industry began in 1994 when she started a home party business in New England called Midnight Madness, which she sold to UndercoverWear in 2004. After consulting with the new owners for a time, she moved to New Orleans in 2005 to partner with Ann Sanders, who was then the president of Fantasy Lady, a home party company. O’Bryan and Sanders were going to do wholesale distribution to party plans—and then six weeks after she moved to the Big Easy, Hurricane Katrina washed their plans away. “At that point,” O’Bryan recounted, “Marty Tucker, who was a mentor of mine and owned Topco Sales, called me and asked me to fly out to California to interview with them, and I got the job as executive director of product development  for Topco Sales and then I stayed there through 2008.” After that O’Bryan explored another sector of the industry when she joined CNV.com, also known as SexToy.com, the pioneering ecommerce giant founded by Dave “Sex Toy Dave” Levine. From 2008 until earlier this year she worked at that company as vice president of sales, marketing and business development. O’Bryan’s resume shows her familiarity with myriad aspects of selling and making pleasure toys. “Obviously with Topco I did the manufacturing side,” O’Bryan said, “and working with CNV I had been a customer, a vendor, ecommerce, omni-channel, so I’ve pretty much covered it all. Brick-and-mortar is the only area that I’m lacking in, but I have a pretty good understanding of it.” When O’Bryan spoke with AVN via Skype from her home office in New England, she’d been on the job for just three weeks, commuting from the East Coast to Southern California.“I envision within the first six months I’ll be more there than here,” said O’Bryan. “But with technology today, with Skype, with chats, with instant messages, with virtual technology, I don’t necessarily feel that you have to be in an office. So I’m hoping to establish the team that’s strong enough that I don’t have to be there all the time because I’d like to spend a lot more time on the road traveling to visit customers, growing the international market again, and so forth. But my first three to six months I’ll be spending the majority of the time in Simi Valley.” Over the course of our talk, O’Bryan shared some details from her past and also painted a vision for what she hopes to accomplish in the present and future. AVN: What was it that drew you to the pleasure product industryto begin with? Autumn O’Bryan: I went to school to be a warden of a prison—that was my dream—and so I got my degree in human services and then I was going for criminal justice. I was working in the prison system as an intake counselor and I went to my first home party. The consultant said it was the most she had ever sold—we had done thousands of dollars in sales. So I asked her how much she made, and she told me, and I asked her, like everyone does, what’s involved in that?She told me, and it seemed really simple. ... I bought a kit and my first party did really well and I thought, “Hmm, why would I give someone else my money?” So I created my own company, and within the first year I had a hundred reps. And I left the mainstream job behind because the home party industry was just growing so fast.What did you like about home parties? I loved meeting with people and being an authority on what would fulfill their fantasies. Back in those days, a lot of women had never had orgasms. They’d been in long-term marriages and they were ashamed, and this gave them an open forum to discuss and they had a lot of fun doing it. The toys just rolled off the shelf. And at that time there weren’t as many brands, there weren’t as many products, there weren’t as many companies, the internet wasn’t big—so was easy money. It was a lot of money.How have home party plans changed since you exited that market? Obviously with the internet and women being more comfortable walking into stores and being able to buy the items online, there isn’t as much of a demand for home parties. I think the home party industry right now is trying to figure out where they can go next. ... Somehow, some way they are going to have to involve the internet, to involve virtual parties—they’re going to have to be really innovative and think outside the box, and I just haven’t seen that breakthrough yet of what they can do to grow.You’ve been selling sex toys for a long time. How have you seen the market shift? Back when I was doing sex toy parties, women would not say they were going to a sex toy party. It’s very different now, where adult toys are in the mainstream—Walgreen’s and Wal-Mart and so forth. We have come a long way, and I think it’s much more female-oriented, which it wasn’t before, and so I think a lot of the development needs to be aimed toward females and couples. The technology has certainly come a long way; however, I’m concerned that the technology is getting too far advanced for sex toys. ... It’s not iPhones and it’s not software and hardware—it’s still this really impulsive experience that you have with yourself or your partner. So I think we’ve gone really far out with technology and what I’m seeing is we’re starting to pull that back a little and get back to basics. ... People are much more familiar with what is body-safe and so I think that’s important ... listening to the consumers and creating really good products, quality products, that are body safe. However, for Topco Sales and a lot of the bigger companies, that has not been our focus. A lot of the smaller manufacturers, that is their focus and I applaud them. I think it’s going to be a longer process for [a company of Topco’s size] to get there because we still have the PVC and the staple items and the inexpensive items, because there are still wants and needs for those. These items still sell. But we can make sure that even those are the best quality that we can make them.How did you end up returning to Topco? The [Topco Sales] CEO, the largest shareholder of WSM Investments, is William Wu, and he is the owner of Lovers Health, which is a large Chinese manufacturer of adult products. They also own stores, very big in Asia, and he used to be one of my top vendors when I was at Topco Sales back in 2005 to 2008. So we had a really good relationship. I knew his capabilities; he knew mine. It was always a relationship we maintained, and one of trust, and so when he had found out that I had left CNV, he approached me. I had had several other job offers, but for me this was sort of coming full circle, but at the same time I think this is the greatest challenge. I love the underdog story, and I do believe we can be what we were but better and more evolved. So I really like the idea of the challenge ... and I want to be the leader of the team that’s made it happen.What will be your first priority at Topco? My main focus right now is to get Topco to be what it once was, but more. Topco has been around since 1972; however, it has too gone through a lot of changes over the years. ... My job now is mainly to repair relationships, to be completely transparent. It’s gone through a lot of changes so I need to reestablish the brand: the trust, the integrity and the quality, the delivery and the relationships—and the innovation again, but unfortunately that’s on the bottom of the list right now because all of those other things have to be fixed internally before we can start worrying about releasing more products and demanding more sales. What is really going to be the challenge is changing the perception within the industry of Topco Sales. Topco Sales has been silent for so long—they made a lot of mistakes before and after the new ownership, and because they’ve been silent there have been a lot of rumors and misconception that it was a sinking ship ... so it’s really focusing on having a presence again, in doing store visits, trade shows, marketing, et cetera, just really getting the message out there—the true message—that we are here, that even though we moved manufacturing to China it’s still quality product. Because we have a Chinese manufacturing facility of our own, that gives us a real advantage over some of the other bigger manufacturers that are manufacturing outside of the U.S. In addition to that we still have the FDA-approved lab [in California], so we still do cosmetics and a lot of private-label business. We are breaking ground on June 22 to expand that lab, which will increase the capabilities that we have. And we haven’t really concentrated on forming partnerships and offering more private-label in both the toy sector and the cosmetics, so that’s going to be another thing I’m really going to concentrate on. ... Topco Sales used to have huge manufacturing in Chatsworth, but once the new ownership came in they did move that to China. ... So I want to make sure we don’t shy away from that and instead we embrace it and really highlight all of our capabilities. Because we own our own manufacturing facility we have a lot more control than the other companies that are just sourcing products and buying them from Chinese manufacturers. ... I can’t speak for every company, but being in the industry as long as I have and knowing most of the Chinese manufacturing facilities and most of the companies, I have to say the majority is manufactured in China. Not lubricants and cosmetics, but again, we do private label, we’ve done private label for a lot of the bigger companies and we are unique in that we are an FDA-approved facility and there aren’t a lot of those in the adult industry. ... And with the new regulations coming in with lubricants and a lot of the companies changing the names from lube to glide and so forth, we’ll be able to really take advantage of being one of those that’s licensed to do those types of products.For those people in the industry who don’t know you, what would you tell them? That I’ve been a customer, so I’m very in tune with what the challenges are that Topco has had, and what the customers need from Topco. That is something that I bring to Topco and I’m able to really have an insight into what needs to be done. People in the industry who know me, I’m known for my honesty. I’m very transparent. So I want that to continue. I think that there has been a lot of damage control tried at Topco—and again, because it wasn’t really run as an American company, things happened that maybe shouldn’t have happened, but not with malice, not intentionally. It’s just that it was a different management style. What are some of the strengths you bring to your position? I really listen. I listen to my team. And I listen to the customers. So not only do I plan on leading Topco, but I’m very good at working with partners—customers, per se—in building a strategy for growth for both Topco and them. I’m not going to try and shove products down their throat just to make sales. Instead I want to create strategies that will help to grow their business that in turn will work to grow ours. As a large manufacturer we definitely concentrate on the distributors, the big distributors, in Europe, Russian, Australia, the U.S., and then some of the larger store chains that buy direct. A lot of people are fearful of the manufacturers going direct to the smaller companies and single stores and so forth, and that’s not our intention. Our intention is to build back up the relationships we have with the distributors and the bigger customers and get more shelf space that we have lost over the years by not being able to fulfill orders with a lot of the changes that were going on. And while that was happening, alot of the competitors went in and took advantage of that—which I would have, too—by creating the same products or similar products, so we lost a lot of that shelf space and we need to get it back. I have such strong relationships with almost all of the distributors and a lot of the big customers. At CNV I worked with almost all of the big distributors. ... I’ve had a huge outpouring of support since it’s been released that I’m there. People want to see Topco Sales succeed, and they want to see me succeed, and they think that it has real potential with new leadership. ... But my first three weeks being [at Topco] my focus hasn’t been on the customer; instead it’s been on the processes and procedures internally: figuring out the team that Topco Sales has and trying to figure out where everyone fits. And if I do need to do some restructuring, where the weaknesses are and who are the people I need to bring in. I’m looking really closely at the quality of the products, at the consistency of the message that we’re getting out there. Describe your ideal Topco employee. Enthusiasm and believing in Topco wholeheartedly. Topco right now is the underdog, and I have this vision of the phoenix rising from the ashes. I am extremely excited and enthusiastic and willing to do whatever needs to be done to get us where we need to be. So I feel that the team has to have that same drive, that same enthusiasm. Honesty and integrity is huge for me. Customer-centric. So, they have to be able to believe in Topco Sales and communicate that, and under-promise and over-deliver. ... We’ve had a lot of turnover and that’s been unfortunate and it’s been for a variety of reasons. It hasn’t all been because Topco was a sinking ship, as a lot of people believe. I just think, again, that even with me in place there may be some changes and that’s unfortunate to do to the customers because they’ve had so many different reps, but I’m hoping to get the team into place that’s going to grow and stay there and get us to where we need to be—and that the customers can rely on. It’s really important to be customer-centric. The best advertisement is a happy customer. So that’s what I’m focusing on.How many people are still at Topco from when you worked there before? Only a handful. And it’s interesting because [most] of the Topco employees that I worked with are all at other companies, so Topco did breed very, very talented people, and all of the other manufacturers and distributors and e-tailers, etcetera, have gained from what those people bring to the table that they learned at Topco. So it really was a force within the industry. And it will be again for sure. ... Scott, Michael and Marty all supported me and wished me the best, so that’s really good because I want to continue their legacy. Topco is going to be a new company and a different company, but certainly I want to make them proud and continue that legacy that they established because I was a part of that and I have a really warm spot for it. ... There were a lot of positive things that came out of Topco so I want to make sure that we definitely grow with that. ... Marty was the best as far as I’m concerned in product development, so I learned from the best. And we want to continue that legacy.O’Bryan can be reached at autumn@topcosales.us. She will be attending the ANME Founders Show, taking place July 17-19 in Burbank, Calif.

 
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