Building Bella Tunno into the TOMS of baby products

Michelle Buelow’s life was playing out exactly as she imagined it would.

She had built a career around big jobs at big companies. She was flying all over the world, working long hours, sleeping under her desk to finish big projects on tight timelines. She came from a small town — Meadville, Penn. — and had always dreamed of a bigger life. And she got one.

Then, on Aug. 5, 2003, all of that ground to a halt. Her brother, Matt, died suddenly, at the age of 30.

He was three years older, funny and smart, a fly fisherman with two masters under his belt and a Ph.D. in progress. He was also a drug addict, and the addiction claimed his life despite his family’s best attempts to save him.

“I thought I was doing meaningful work and then all of a sudden it was like, ‘What am I doing?’” Buelow recalled. “So I quit — with no plan.”

It was a moment that would come to define Buelow in more ways than one. She became committed to making sure her brother was remembered for more than his addiction, “a demon he fought but not who he was.” And that commitment pushed her down the path of entrepreneurship, as the founder, CEO and creative force behind the Charlotte-based baby products company Bella Tunno.

Today, Bella Tunno has set its sights on becoming the TOMS of baby products. For each item sold, the company gives one meal to a child in need. Through a partnership with Feeding America, the company has donated over 1.1 million meals to kids in the United States, and, at the time of our interview, 35,000 meals to Hurricane Harvey relief efforts. Bella Tunno has been featured on “Good Morning America” as a brand that gives back, and its products — which include teethers, knee pads for eager crawlers and the Cadillac of diaper bags — are sold in major retailers, such as buybuy Baby and Bed Bath & Beyond, as well as in scores of smaller boutiques and specialty stores.

“It’s been like the healing tool in a weird way,” Tunno said. “It’s just opened so many doors to a bigger life than I thought.”

And it started with a sewing machine — and $6,000.

A few months after Buelow’s brother died and she quit her job, she found out she was pregnant with her first child. Her mother had given her a sewing machine, so she started making pieces for her soon-to-be daughter. After enough compliments and encouragement from friends and family, she started making gifts. Then she approached boutiques. Ten of the 11 stores said they liked what Buelow was making and they wanted more.

So Buelow came up with an idea: She would use the baby products business to fund a foundation created in her brother’s name and, in doing so, help prevent other families from experiencing a similarly devastating loss.

She and her husband agreed to use the $6,000 they’d saved for their unborn child’s education and give it a shot. If they blew through the $6,000, they wouldn’t dip into anything else.

“We’ve never dipped,” Buelow said.

Her products took off, and allowed the Matt Tunno Make a Difference Fund to add five rooms onto the Charlotte Rescue Mission so that 30 more people a year could go through the program. They also started giving scholarships to unwed teen moms through Safe Journey.

“We gave to things that we thought could help break family cycles,” Buelow said. “In the midst of it, I had to become smarter and better at business to do what I wanted to do through the business.”

Retail is tough, and the economic climate the past decade hasn’t exactly been stable. Bella Tunno got some game-changing opportunities early on — catching the eye of Gap and then Target and landing in the gift bags at the Golden Globes. (Buelow could suddenly count Courtney Cox and Matthew McConaughey’s wife, Camila Alves, among her most satisfied customers.) But when the recession hit, it forced Bella Tunno to rethink everything.

“It’s one of those things where you wonder, ‘OK, is our run over?’” Buelow recalled.

Higher end baby items are not necessities, which puts them on the chopping block when budgets get tight. Add to that the fact that regulations in the baby industry changed and testing and safety standards went through a massive overhaul — creating crippling new expenses.

As a result, the cost of launching a new product as a small company became a huge obstacle.

“So we had to get lean and we had to take everything to China. And that felt like selling out, but at the same time, there wasn’t really an option to stay with the big buys and the big stores and do the work we want to do on the side without doing that,” Buelow said.

Buelow and her team overhauled the business, and then realized their customers weren’t aware of all the philanthropic work their purchases were making possible. So they looked at the TOMS model and decided to embrace it, giving one meal to a child in need with each product sold.

“We just have to share our voice in a way that matters to them. And they can hear it,” Buelow said. “[Our customers] want to be part of something bigger.”

Bella Tunno survived the recession, but new challenges have tested the company since. Most recently, it’s been the decline of large retailers. Two large Bella Tunno retailers declared bankruptcy in the past year: Family Christian and Babies R Us.

“That’s hard to bounce back from,” Buelow said. “You think, ‘I’m getting the hang of this after 12 years,’ and then you get leveled. It keeps you humbled. It keeps you honest.”

And in the case of Bella Tunno, it keeps you working — hard.

By 2019, the company wants to give away 2 million meals and expand internationally. Buelow said she has targeted a few countries in particular and is looking to launch some international distribution partnerships.

The company is also sub-branding. One sub-brand, Tunno Tots, is helping Bella Tunno expand into stores that are more cost-conscious and tap a new pool of customers.

More than anything, though, Buelow is looking to turn Bella Tunno into a household brand — a trusted name in the baby industry with a powerful mission behind it.

“Nothing would make me happier than if people would say, ‘Oh Bella Tunno, the TOMS of the baby industry,” Buelow said. “We’re leaving [my brother’s] name as a legacy of hope.”