Woman of Faith and Substance
Cindy Brock Tyler went to work in Mullins Department Store in downtown Starkville as a sophomore in high school. She continued to work there all the way through her college years at Mississippi State. The things she enjoyed most were being with people, getting to know her customers, and helping them find that certain item.
It’s a running joke with her husband Tim that she always wanted to own a store. He says she did. She says she did not. She recognized how hard, inflexible, and long the hours could be.
The Mississippi Gift Company was Tim’s baby at the start. He was the one with the vision, and part of that vision included Cindy’s innate people skills. He could see her running the business. Cindy knew she could sell, but she had her eye on pharmaceutical sales with lots of vacation time around Thanksgiving and Christmas.
For somebody who claims to have been slightly reluctant in the beginning, this outgoing girl with the ready smile appears to be having a lot of fun in her 25th year as the proprietor of The Mississippi Gift Company. Her happy personality defines the place.
“I’ve been in retail since I was 15, and it is all I know. I think if someone bought me out tomorrow, I would ask if I could stay on and work!”
The brick-and-mortar store in downtown Greenwood is an experience. Bright lime green walls are lined with racks holding every kind of unique Mississippi-made treasure you can imagine. There are more than 150 gourmet food companies, local entrepreneurs, and artists represented here. Seventies music plays in the background conjuring up some fine memories for clerks and shoppers alike. Just up the stairs is a mezzanine where Mississippi artists’ original works are on display. There is a whole other world of color there!
Despite a modest beginning and what Cindy describes as “baby steps,” the business has grown steadily. With the evolution of the Internet and the growth of their catalog and mail-order business, The Mississippi Gift Company’s footprint is now international.
Some of her success was being at the right place at the right time, but to a greater degree, it can be attributed to an unusual blend of Tim’s creative thinking, Cindy’s retail know-how, and an indisputable blessing from God. Cindy sees His hand everywhere.
In the Beginning
Although Cindy and Tim attended MSU at the same time and had many friends in common, they did not meet at all until after Tim had graduated. There was a party in Jackson in 1990 where both were in attendance, and everybody there knew everybody else except for these two.
Tim describes falling hard for Cindy from the get-go. He loved her sense of humor and recognized that she was unusually caring toward other people, particularly her friends and family. He was also a guy who was known for always having a different girl on his arm. That changed when he met Cindy. He knew he wanted to spend the rest of his life with her.
Cindy, however, was about to go back to school. She had dropped out after her second year when an automobile accident had taken the life of a close friend. Needing time to regain her focus and to just get past her grief, she had taken a job in sales with a well-known clothing vendor. She had traveled three states as a sales rep, but she had never intended to stay out of school forever.
At that point, she was determined to return and to get her degree. She had grown up a lot in those two years, was more independent and had decided to change her major from Fashion Design to Marketing. Tim was not going to persuade her to change her mind about finishing college. And so began a three-year courtship that crept along until April 1993 when it was as if someone had put a foot on the accelerator.
Tim and Cindy got engaged in April; Cindy graduated from MSU in May; and oh, yes—Tim quit his regular job in May because he was not happy with it and he had this great idea.
He wanted to begin a fundraising company with Mississippi products. Schools and civic clubs were always selling things—light bulbs, candy, and popcorn. Why couldn’t he and his bride start a fundraising company using Mississippi products?
So, as Cindy planned a wedding, she was also part of planning a brand new business that really needed to succeed since they were about to be young, poor, and married!
They got a small business and minority loan since the business was going to be in Cindy’s name.
Tim began visiting with people like Evelyn Roughton at The Crown restaurant in Indianola, home of Taste of Gourmet food, and The Timbs family of Indianola Pecan House convincing them that he was there to promote them. This was a win/win idea. He chose three products from each business, did a photo shoot of the products with a borrowed camera, and created a cardstock flier with the products on the front and an order form on the back.
And then he set about getting himself invited to different civic clubs and schools to pitch his idea. About the same time gift baskets were coming into their own. Tim immediately convinced Cindy that she would be great at putting gift baskets together and that they should offer that service for the upcoming Christmas season.
Picture this. The new company, originally called Mississippi Product Sales, rented a small space in downtown Greenwood with a plan to do corporate gift baskets and more during the Christmas season. Tim and Cindy married on November 6 and opened their store on Thanksgiving weekend.
So much for adjusting to marriage or anything else! Cindy had found someone in Jackson to teach her to tie bows, and she tied a lot of them that year. Business exceeded their wildest expectations. Tim’s sister, Jana had introduced Cindy to a local potter, Susie Cranston. She had also connected with Debbie Dabbs whose Take Five cookbooks were selling like hotcakes, and she picked up a few more items to create a Mississippi Gift Basket that was fresh, new, different, and incredibly popular! They did $15,000 of business between Thanksgiving and Christmas.
Cindy was convinced that her husband’s idea was a winner. Tim’s mind that never stopped had hit on something unique and very good.
It didn’t hurt that they were both extroverts and really, really appreciated every customer, every vendor, and never missed a chance to say, “Thank you.” Southern manners met authentic souls in this entrepreneurial venture.
The Internet was in its infancy, but computers were becoming a staple in more and more homes. Websites were popping up, and the public was quickly learning how to vet a business by looking for a website.
Tim was self-taught, but as Cindy says, “He is just wired that way. He understood how to do it all from the start.” Their website was so effective that Tim began to get calls from other businesses asking if he would consider designing a website for them.
It wasn’t long before Viking Range Corporation, Greenwood’s premier industry, noticed Tim’s ability and asked him to come to their marketing department. A steady salary with benefits looked quite appealing. It sounded like security.
Yes. He would.
And The Mississippi Gift Company became, for the most part, Cindy’s baby at that point.
Finding a Presence
Getting the word out about her business was a different challenge in 1993. Of course, there was no Facebook, Instagram, or Twitter. Print advertising was pricey, and there wasn’t a big budget for that yet. Word of mouth was spreading the news about The Mississippi Gift Company rather well.
Satisfied customers told their friends who shared the news with their friends, and so it went. Displaced Mississippians who missed home were eager to share a part of who they are. The products, which had been so carefully selected were some of Mississippi’s finest, but that was just part of the immediate success.
There was an attitude toward the customer that set the business apart. Kindness has been an intentional policy from the beginning.
The Clarion-Ledger, at that time, had a weekly column called “Jack Sun.” It was in question and answer format, and readers wrote in with questions about almost anything pertaining to Mississippi. The anonymous “Jack Sun” would research and deliver the facts. Tim’s older sister who lived in Jackson hit on a strategy that was surprisingly successful.
She became a frequent inquisitive reader of Jack Sun’s using a string of aliases. Inquiring about a business in the Delta that featured only Mississippi made products, Cindy’s sister-in-law managed to get the same question answered again and again. The repetitious letters also attracted customers from all over the state!
It was not surprising that so many of those large orders came from Jackson. In 2001, Cindy opened a second store in the Fondren area of Jackson. Cindy’s mother agreed to run that store, and it started off with a bang. She had the same work ethic that her daughter has, and she also had a personality like Cindy’s. Neither of them ever met a stranger.
Cindy’s mother, Ann Froshour, was killed in an automobile accident on New Year’s Day the very next year. Her sudden death was a devastating blow. They had shared a strong mother-daughter bond, and her mother’s absence left a gaping hole in Cindy’s heart.
The staff at the Jackson store was hardworking and supportive, but it was not quite the same as having her mother there. Cindy tried to run back and forth between Jackson and Greenwood on a weekly basis keeping both stores operating at capacity. It was painful every time she opened the front door of the Jackson store. She simply missed her mother’s presence there.
Add to the grief over her mother the demands a baby. Cole Tyler, Cindy and Tim’s only child, was less than two years old.
It was simply an overwhelming time emotionally. When the lease on the Jackson store expired, Cindy decided to move everything back to Greenwood. It was a decision she has never regretted.
As savvy a businesswoman as this lady is, she prioritizes her roles as wife and mother above everything. The physical and emotional stress was just not worth it.
And It Was All Good!
Greenwood was booming about this time. Viking Range Corporation had created quite a renaissance in the downtown area. The renovation of a dilapidated downtown hotel and the establishment of the Viking Cooking School were attracting tourists to this quaint city with the brick streets, historic eateries, and Southern charm.
The Mississippi Gift Company was one more destination with local flavor that was a “must see” for all who came to Greenwood. Cindy is still fascinated when she finds herself shipping orders and repeat orders to the East Coast, West Coast, and points farther away.
Unexpected doors just kept opening, and Cindy kept rising to the occasion. She took her wares to the Mississippi Picnic in Central Park in 2007. She still ships regularly to some of those Vermont and Connecticut customers she met there
This past summer she was invited by Google to a small business symposium in San Jose. She was chosen to represent Mississippi based on the success of Mississippi Gift Company’s utilization of technology tools.
“I get nice letters from senators and governors, and they see me as an ambassador for Mississippi. I don’t necessarily see myself that way,” she says. “We have so much to be proud of in Mississippi, and so many talented people. I just love finding that product and sharing it.”
In the middle of the commerce, however, other things have happened that Cindy counts as “God things.” When she began to hire high school girls for part-time help, she found herself adding “mentor” to her resume. The same girls who worked afternoons during high school begged to come back and work during Christmas and summer vacations after they went to college. Some even came back after marriage and children!
One of those oldest and dearest workers is Rosanne Archer Hodges who used to do double duty as a sales clerk and a babysitter. She would feed, entertain and stroll baby Cole all around the store when he came to work with Cindy. He was there every day for the first six months of his life.
Rosanne, now the mother of three boys, says, “As soon as I started working part-time for Cindy 22 years ago, we developed a quick bond. Cindy became more like a sister than a boss. We have shared a lot of laughter and tears over the years, and to this day, I still call on Cindy for whatever life throws. I’m sure it is not easy to be the boss and still be close friends with your employees, but Cindy nails it!”
Rosanne picked up some business acumen from her boss as well. She has her own t-shirt company, Archer and Cove, and you can be sure to find her wares at Cindy’s store.
Those Family Values on the Home Front
Cindy’s parents divorced when she was in elementary school. She and her younger brother who has special needs went to live with their mother, moving from the Montpelier community in Clay County to Starkville.
Whatever the difficulty or sadness in that event, Cindy took her cues from her mother. She was in Cindy’s words the epitome of kindness, caring and thinking of others before herself. However, because her own family was broken by divorce, she knew in a deep way how serious a decision choosing a mate had to be.
Tim, the youngest of four, was a very late-in-life child of a WWII veteran and prisoner of war who had earned the Purple Heart. The values in the Tyler home were all about faith and family. Cindy appreciated the close bonds in the Tyler family. She could see that he had been reared to be “a very good Christian man, husband, and father.” He was easy to fall in love with.
Their sanguine personalities are a definite complement to each other, and even in the first days of business when they were together 24/7, they just got along. She trusts his instincts on business, and he trusts hers. So, there is a great deal of respect between them.
And then there’s the faith issue. They are on the same page there, too.
The Tylers are members of St. John’s United Methodist Church in Greenwood where they are very active.
They also share an unusual relationship with the scripture John 3:16, “For God so loved the world that He gave his only begotten son that whosoever believeth on Him should not perish but shall have everlasting life.”
It is the first scripture Cindy learned in Vacation Bible School as a child. It was more than a memory verse even then. The thought of being “so loved” was a concept that resonated with her.
Throughout her life, that verse, either displayed in its entirety or just the number 316 referring to something else entirely seems to show up in unexpected places.
Invariably, when Tim has a big decision to make, that verse begins to pop up—a sign on the highway, a bumper sticker on a car in front of him, other unexpected sightings. That is another of those “God moments” that are not lost on either of them.
It’s just a reminder. It’s also a comfort. And more than that, it is at the heart of Cindy’s joy, gratitude, selflessness, and purpose. And it doesn’t get any better than that!