Altar’d State: How Its Philanthropy-First Approach Makes an Impactful Difference
With more than 100 stores operating in 30 states across the country, Altar’d State is a successful retail chain. It is a rapidly growing women’s fashion brand that offers feminine and flirty womenswear showcasing boho-chic trends with antiquated accessories or charming home décor and gifts. Although Altar’d State is a faith-based fashion company, it does not sell Christian apparel and claim to be inclusive to its customers, regardless of faiths or ages.
Founded in 2009, Altar’d State seeks to inspire through action and supports a mission of standing out for good in the world. From day one, the Maryville-based company has pioneered connecting retail with goodwill through efforts ranging from donations in local communities, to offer funding for global initiatives that support social development. Altar’d State CEO, Aaron Walters was guided by God to find his life-long meaning in giving back to the society and merging it with his passion in retail industry. The fashion chain reached a global revenue of more than $200 million last year and was named one of the best large workplaces in retail.
The Founding Story
The young Aaron Walters never dreamed of ending up in retail. Growing up in a small town in America, he went off to college on a football scholarship and had planned to become a doctor. Mr. Walters then took a manager position at Walgreens where his later passion for retail was sparked. At that point in life, he has vacated a successful career in the corporate world, yet his soul was never fulfilled.
“I always felt like this emptiness, like there had to be something more to my life than just my next promotion and my next pay raise, what house I lived in and what car I drove.” – he recalled. “Instead of making my entire life about moving up the corporate ladder, I wondered what is going to be my legacy? What do I do with the talents that God gave me?”
In 2009, when the economy was hit by the global financial crisis, Walters decided to sell all his stock, car or literally anything he could to build up his dream. He and his co-founder, Brian Mason, opened the first Altar’d State store in Turkey Creek in Knoxville. “The goal was to create a company where you could get out of bed every morning, work your butt off, make a difference, and feel good about your work” – Walters shared.
Altar’d State first called itself Altar’d State Christian Stores but dropped the “Christian” qualifier in 2012 while also adopting the tagline “faith meets fashion.” By August of that same year, a new, comparatively non-religious slogan emerged: “Stand out. For good.” Other language on the site clarified how the company planned to set itself apart from competitors: “Fashion focused. Cause motivated.” “We’re a faith-based company, we have individuals from all backgrounds, all lifestyles, all beliefs who work for our company.” – Walters said. “So for example, we have individuals who are Jewish, Protestant, I mean, any background you can think of: atheist, Muslim, whatever it may be. So number one, we’re all accepting. But part of the principle of really what we’re trying to communicate there is living our faith, living through what our beliefs are, what our core beliefs are.”
A Giving Back-Driven Company
When Aaron Walters talks about what makes him most proud of the Altar’d State, the conversation turns to how much money the retailer has given away. The company promises to donate a total of 1% of all sales to local and international charities and fund employee volunteer hours each month.
“I don’t think there are a lot of CEOs across the country that could say that because typically the way it works is you hit your profit numbers first and then you give. We do it completely backward. I just think that speaks to something about who we are, that we genuinely give first,” says the 43-year-old Walters.
The name Altar’d State is a reference to both the altar of God and the altered life of a Christian, or, as Walters said at the time, “because when you live a Christian life, it is a different life.” Giving back was also part of the internal company mandate from day one, says Walters. With all the years into the market, the company has maintained a philanthropy program called The Mission Monday which Altar’d State takes 10 percent of its gross profit and donates it to local communities. That might be financial assistance for a cancer treatment center or helping the homeless. In some cities where Altar’d State has stores, they have paired up with animal shelters or provided backpacks for school children.
Other than working with like-minded give-back brands and maintaining Mission Mondays’ give-back policy, Altar’d State also makes direct donations to local and international organizations. “We’ve donated to hundreds, if not thousands, of different charities,” says Walters. “We’ve donated money to basically anything to do with homeless women, building self-esteem, betterment, veterans, children”
In addition to projects in places where Altar’d State operates, the company has worked with an organization called Coprodeli, to help the poverty-stricken areas of Peru. Walters travelled to Peru in 2013 and the impoverishment he witnessed in this country prompted him to do something to make it better. He and his team decided to sponsor at-risk youth in Peru and even helped build high schools.
“We decided to become part of that community with a goal of giving these kids a first-class education,” Brian Mason said. “To give them the opportunity to get out of poverty to change their families forever.”
Employees at Altar’d State are paid to do volunteer work. Employees are free to pick their own charities, and the compensation process abides by the honor system. “Altar’d State has funded employee volunteer hours since its founding, paying its staff for up to four hours of volunteer work a month. When employees volunteer for paid hours, they must file those hours with the home office.” – says Jamey Snyder, Altar’d State’s media marketing manager.
“We just didn’t want to be a company that wrote out checks and didn’t make a difference in people’s lives,” explains Walters.
Altar’d State’s pricing rests in the mid-tier range, with certain items topping out at $300 and the majority of apparel hovering around $50 to $150. While the price may be higher, the company’s customers are willing to pay more as they know part of the money is going to charity.
There is indeed value added in bundling product with philanthropy. According to research by Nielsen in 2014, 55 percent of online consumers are willing to pay higher prices for goods offered by companies that advertise charity as part of their brands. Many corporations make yearly, tax-deductible charitable donations (think McDonald’s Ronald McDonald House), but companies like Toms, The Giving Keys, and 31 Bits — which have all been sold at Altar’d State in the past — render purchasing their products the socially-conscious choice simply by way of their charity-centric identities.
“I always think that people want to do the right thing, that we want to help but we don’t always know how,” says FIDM’s Hinckley. “So when a brand like this builds it into their business model, it makes it easy for the customer to say yes. It differentiates them from the other retailers.”
As much as Walters care about giving, making profits is of no less importance. He believes that only when Altar’d State succeeds can he give back to the community. “You can’t give anything unless you’re successful,” says Walters. “We have to be unbelievably successful to be able to make a difference in the communities we’re in. So if we’re not thriving as an organization, and we don’t have that mission, then we can’t be successful. And also remember that giving does not just necessarily mean financially, giving means of your time. As a matter of fact, I would even argue, giving of your time is even more important than giving of your finances.”
Aaron Walters’s Two Mantras to Build Any Business
#1 Know Your Why
One of the reasons that Aaron Walters quit his high-paid job at Walmart and built Altar’d State is because he couldn’t find happiness in his previous job. A lot of entrepreneurs start their businesses without knowing their why and only focus on monetary incentives. However, only when you work for your passion can you overcome challenges that will arise along the way.
Walters found his passion in giving back and he was driven to turn Altar’d State from just a few stores to more than 100 boutiques in the country. With a lifetime goal of building the best performing giveback company in the world, Walters is on his way to achieving that. “You need to choose something that you’re passionate about. You need to find that passion.” – Walters emphasized. “One of the biggest differences between me and my friends is I do what I’m passionate about. When I get up in the morning, I’m typically excited, and even though my work is really busy and tiring, I love what I do.”
Walters attributes the success of Altar’d State to its meaningful purpose, great team and differences the business makes to give back to society. “The number one success factor to Altar’d State is we know our why. The cool thing I found out when I worked at the Goody family clothing is what my why was, and it changed my life.” – said Walters.
#2 “When You Get Knocked Down, You Get Back Up Again”
As an entrepreneur, challenges and hardships are the first thing to expect when starting a new business. When Aaron Walters sold all his possessions to build Altar’d State, he barely had any money left. The CEO had to sleep on his friend’s couch and was lucky enough to borrow a few hundred dollars from him.
Other than personal troubles, Walters and his company also went through “anything and everything and made every mistake” as recalled. Within the first six months into the business, Altar’d State lost almost 100,000 dollars for its very first store. “I went from the guy sitting in the corner of the office, driving the nice car to the guy unloading the boxes, helping people in the feeding room, cleaning the bathroom, or whatever it took” – Walters shared.
“A great entrepreneur understands that it’s not where you start, it’s where you finish” – he said. The first store turned around with $2 million in revenue which reassured Walters to open his second boutique in Birmingham, Alabama. From this, Altar’d State rises to be one of the most successful retail chains in the nation.
“One of the keys to success and the key to life is when you get knocked down, you get back up again.” – Walters believes.
His Other Advice for Business’s Leaders
Hard Work Works
“If you want to be successful, you got to be willing to work for it”, said Walters in an entrepreneurship conference at his old university. For the first few years with Altar’d State, Aaron Walters worked seven days a week, 10 to 15 hours per day for the minimum. He was on the road all the time, driving from store to store.
Surround Yourself with Amazing People and Take Care of Them
While passion and resistance are two pivotal keys to building any business, Walters couldn’t help but emphasize the importance of having a great team. Gathering people with like-minded mindsets and taking care of them is another focus.
Make a Difference
“If you’re going to start a company or start a brand or whatever, make a difference”, said Walters. He takes great pride in his company as Altar’d State differentiates itself from other brands to be one of the largest give-back companies and has positive impacts on many people’s lives other than its customers.
The Bottom Line
Altar’d State’s popularity is growing not only for its inspiring boutique-style shopping experience and on-trend women’s fashion and accessories, but also for its emphasis on giving back to local and global organizations. Through its Give Back and Mission Monday initiatives, Altar’d State donates a portion of all net proceeds to global and local non-profit organizations. In 2018, A’Beautiful Soul became the second brand within the Altar’d State family. When talking about the future, Aaron Walters expects to see 200 to 300 stores of Altar’d State in the country and desires to give back a billion dollars before his retirement.