25 Years Of Success At Greeting Cards, And More

By Diane Mastrull The Philadelphia Inquirer.

It's not that Kathy Davis considers herself a font of positiveness, or an unfailing source of just the right thing to say. She's just glad that so many people do. More than 400 million of her greeting cards have sold in the 25 years they have been on the market. Lately, that amounts to $100 million in annual sales.

"It is an out-of-body experience for me," the former art teacher in the Hatboro-Horsham School District said recently at the low-profile headquarters of Kathy Davis Studios in a Horsham shopping center.

At national conferences, "people will stop me and say, 'Are you the real Kathy Davis?' It blows my mind," Davis said.

In other words, she's a brand. And that brand -- long distinguished by Davis' watercolor art, hand-lettering, and words that are both casual and authentic, and intended, for the most part, to scatter joy -- is now expanding into a range of "lifestyle" products.

The products include bedding, jewelry, fabric, candles, wall decor, and tabletop accessories. Eight licensing agreements for the Kathy Davis lifestyle line have been recently negotiated.

The company is also in talks to renew its contract with the greeting-card behemoth American Greetings, which has included Kathy Davis works in its collection for the last six years and is about to test some of it in the United Kingdom.

"The consumers love her," said Mary Beth Sibert, director of brand management for Cleveland-based American Greetings, declining to provide sales figures but citing some of her favorite Davis work, including: "I can't tell you how glad I am to have you to hold" and "I celebrate you on your Birthday, and honor the friendship we share, day after day, year after year."

While American Greetings is not likely to carry the Kathy Davis home and personal products, Sibert said American Greetings supports the brand expansion.

"It will only complement and benefit us as a card company," she said.

In recognition of the difficulty in managing a brand in the retail market, where the mass market requires one level of product and the higher-end shopper another, Davis in March hired a well-known fashion entrepreneur from Philadelphia, Sarah Van Aken, as executive director of brand development and, now, vice president of marketing. The founder of the SA VA women's clothing company and boutique pulled the plug on her seven-year-old venture last December, conceding the economic difficulties of small-scale, locally based clothing manufacturing.

At the time, Van Aken said she wanted the next phase of her career to involve branding, which she cited, along with designing and selling, as one of her strengths.

So "critical" was getting that hire right, Davis said she used a headhunter for the first time.

"The challenge now is catching up with brand marketing . . . and really translating this incredibly authentic mission into things people connect with," Van Aken said. "In building a lifestyle brand, we need to show the essence of the brand and get buy-in."

Buy-in most definitely has come on the card side, which began as a hobby of sorts for Davis, 63, whose artistic skills were mainly available for appreciation by family and friends for many years. Then life took a jarring turn when Davis was in her late 30s and a stay-at-home mother of two young children: She got divorced.

"Now I can't play at this," she said then, regarding her art.

And a part-time job at a printing company taught her "I didn't want to do business cards and annual reports."

At a friend's urging, she attended a stationery trade show in New York in the spring of 1990. Her first walk among the exhibitors left her intimidated. That feeling quickly gave way to this one: "Why should I let them have all that fun?"

She went home, landed some freelance work, and had the skeleton of what would become the Kathy Davis empire, which now involves 33 employees.

Her biggest break was landing work for Recycled Paper Greetings in Chicago (now part of American Greetings), she said, because "they gave you total creative freedom and also wanted you to write copy for your cards."

In 1995, she would marry Peter Walts, who would become president of Kathy Davis Studios and currently serves as its business visionary officer. Davis' brother Fred is her finance director -- and the person who had skeptically asked her years ago when she first mentioned the idea of starting the business, "Do you think you're really going to be able to make a living in greeting cards?"

It was also with Recycled Paper that Davis started to adapt her designs to products beyond cards, such as mugs and post-it notes. And it's with an eye to ensuring the company's relevance that she is now lending her designs to even more things.

"Who knows the future of paper?" she said.

Davis has demonstrated that same versatility in her card work over the last six years with American Greeting, which has contributed to the company allowing her to have four-foot-long displays and, where her cards are sprinkled in with other creators, special locators so they stand out in the rack, Sibert said.

"She just continues to stay relevant in the marketplace," said Sibert, who also called Davis "very motivating to work with."

"When you meet her, you leave feeling you've been touched by someone who is very true to themselves," Sibert added.

Davis also feels an obligation to give back, which explains the Dec. 5 debut of the Scatter Joy Center for the Arts, housed in a renovated farmhouse behind her company's headquarters.

"The role is to add an enrichment of art and culture to the community, to help send the message that art belongs to everybody," said Bill Lessa, the former Hatboro-Horsham schools superintendent. Davis recruited him to run the nonprofit center. It has plans for after-school programs for middle schoolers and public art projects, among other things.

As for the for-profit business, Davis said, time will tell whether Kathy Davis has the brand staying power of, for instance, Lilly Pulitzer or Kate Spade.

"I would like this business to continue on because I think what we do is important," Davis said. "I think the work we put out there tries to uplift people -- and God knows the world needs that."

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