Rags to Riches: Tawny Thieu’s success story is all about landing on her feet

Tawny Thieu talks so quickly and with so much energy it’s almost impossible to keep up with her. And that could really be said of her as a businesswoman too – she’s almost impossible to keep up with. Since 2007 she has opened four stores under her signature Pink Pump brand and another three stores under the more affordable Pink Pump offshoot P2. And for anyone who’s counting, opening a small business is indeed difficult, and launching a successful franchise even moreso … but these were the years of the worst recession in metro Detroit’s recent memory, when businesses were struggling just to stay open and no one in their right mind would even attempt to start a new one. “Ignorance is bliss!” she jokes. “Now I don’t think I’d have the guts to do it. Now I’m very worried and weary to open a store where before I was like, ‘OKAY!’  … When you’re young and don’t know any better, that’s the time to try!”
 
Thieu may not have been in her right mind, but her against-the-odds enthusiasm has certainly paid off. She is building a women’s clothing and accessories empire here in metro Detroit (and it will only be a matter of time before Pink Pump fever spreads), and she is every inch as hands-on as she was in the very beginning. But lest this sound like she’s one of the lucky few to whom success came easy, it didn’t. Before the well-heeled flocked to Pink Pump for designer brands and boutique service, Thieu lost everything she had on a concept that failed.
 
Thieu got bit by the entrepreneurial bug right after college. She graduated from Oakland University with a business and marketing degree, then took a year and worked for a couple of different companies. “When you graduate from school you literally have no idea what you’re going to do … I realized corporate is not for me, it didn’t allow me to be creative and I didn’t have the free rein to do what I want to do.” Thieu had worked in the salon business since she was 15 years old and all through college. Her brother-in-law is a “phenomenal” stylist, so she had the idea that they open a salon together. At the age of 24, Thieu had opened her first business, Liquid Salon in Bloomfield Hills. 
 
Her family helped her open this first venture and as soon as she had paid everyone back, she started saving her money for her next project. In 2006, a year after opening Liquid Salon, Thieu opened Shoe Envy in Keego Harbor, a tiny town surrounded by lakes that serves as a through-fare between Waterford and West Bloomfield. “This is where I learned location was very important and the right mix of product is very important,” she says. She was able to use all of her own money to open the store without having to take out any loans, but by the following year she was forced to close the Keego Harbor location. She doesn’t mince words: “I tell people my first store opened and it was not easy. I lost a ton of money and it was all the money I had saved up. [There are a] lot of lessons learned when starting business.”
 
Despite that initial failure, Thieu was resilient. “It has always been in my nature to want to do something on my own and have something I could see to the end, where the success or failure is on me. Working the hours wasn’t a big deal to me. I’ve always had two or three jobs and was doing it for other people so why not do it for myself?” What she took away from her experience with Shoe Envy was a lesson in business probably more valuable than anything she could have learned in school. “When you experience something [like that] in the early stages of opening a business it does make you stronger; that trial and error are a part of life. You learn from it. [Now I] can give [others] advice from that experience.” Advice that includes the need to be patient. “People always think things happen overnight … it really wasn’t so easy. It was a struggle. I learned a lot from opening and closing that business, and I’m still learning every day and making mistakes every day. You determine your own success. If you really want something, you have to go for it.”
 
Undeterred, she decided to re-launch the concept as Pink Pump, moving into a space in the same Bloomfield Hills shopping plaza as Liquid (all the better to manage both). The rest is, as they say, history.
 
“My mom said to me that from a really early age she knew I don’t take orders well. [She tells me], ‘It’s really good you are your own boss.’ ‘No Mom, I work for the customers.’ ‘Yes but you don’t like being told what to do. You’re stubborn.’ I just want to do [things how] I think is the right way; it’s a part of who I am!”
 
Pink Pump is every inch a lifestyle brand. With locations in Bloomfield Hills, Royal Oak, Birmingham and Ann Arbor, each store uniquely caters to their clientele. Bloomfield built the Pink Pump brand by offering high-style fashions from hot haute brands and up-and-coming designers. Birmingham is very much the ultra upscale boutique, while Ann Arbor caters more to the college crowd with lots of loungewear and denim. Royal Oak is more edgy and urban, with later hours and a beauty bar inside (incorporating a bit of that salon style) so customers can get their whole look for the evening done in one place. “This is not a cookie cutter store,” Thieu states. “The customers appreciate that.”
 
Never one to rest on her laurels and ALWAYS one to appreciate a good bargain, Thieu’s next project was to launch P2, a more affordable boutique where everything in the store costs under $50. “I come from a single parent household,” Thieu explains. “If I wanted something I had to work for it, and I started working as soon as I could. I wanted to be fashionable but within a budget.” While Pink Pump isn’t exceptionally high-priced (prices are on par with what you might find in popular stores like Guess?), Thieu understood that some of the items could be pricey. With P2 she wanted to offer a store that everyone could shop, so that buyers on a budget – even those not – could find something fashionable and affordable. “You can walk out with a whole look for $80 from head to toe. Our customers shop both – they like coming to P2 and getting the basics like tees and camis to mix with their other pieces.”
 
P2 isn’t a “juniors” concept, nor is it a bargain basement. It is a boutique. “That’s been one of the coolest ideas I’ve had so far! You can get so much bang for your buck. I love it because I love a bargain and I love being able to pass that on to customers.” She shares a story about when she first opened the store it was right before prom season, and a single mother was able to buy both of her daughters a prom dress and shoes for under $100 each, thanking Thieu for making it possible. “That was my ah-ha moment … I remember how hard it was trying to save up my money and get everything [I needed for prom]. This store is fulfilling a need. People don’t necessarily want to say they have to bargain shop but when you can go to a boutique [and get a great bargain] you feel proud.”
 
Within eight months Thieu had opened three P2 stores. She is now working on her third new concept, another spin-off called P2 Exchange. This concept will focus on affordable accessories – shoes, jewelry, sunglasses, handbags – and candy (their motto is “All things sweet”). The P2 Exchange flagship store will celebrate their grand opening with a media/VIP preview on August 30.
 
Despite all she has going on, Thieu likes to remain in the very thick of it. “I don’t believe in having a personal assistant, I just want to do it all myself!” (In fact, at other people’s insistence she did try to have a personal assistant but still did everything herself. The woman can’t be stopped!) “I just want  to make sure every one of my customers is being taken care of. I never want anyone to feel like they aren’t important enough for me to handle myself.” Though she certainly credits her team for enabling her to expand so much and so quickly: “I’ve been really fortunate to find great girls who really want to grow with me and stay with me. Without a great management team I wouldn’t be able to expand. I can’t be everywhere!”
 
Thieu says she is back to working seven days a week but she really enjoys what she’s doing. “It’s nice being able to take care of my mom who’s worked so hard for so long. Now she doesn’t need to worry about retirement.” She adds, “I never thought it would take off like this. Especially when I was closing that first store. I’m really happy; I feel like I’ve come full circle. I always drive by [the space where Shoe Envy was] and it’s a reminder: ‘Don’t get ahead of yourself; take it day by day.’”