A few months ago, I met with a few of our members at the National Stationery Show in New York, when it was pointed out to me that “I needed to get out more.” I suppose I could have assumed several things from these comments (they may have been referring to my lack of a tan!). Whatever the intent, I took it as a challenge to get out into the field, to see where the real work was being done, learn more about the greeting card process from end to end, and see for myself where creativity and innovation are resulting in some of the most imaginative card lines to hit stores in years. And this challenge was a welcome one! But where to visit? Then, I saw the image above.

Wisconsin and Minnesota, eh? Well, why not? We have a significant number of members in both states. And very seldom does the GCA get out this way for other functions (perhaps we should change that some day). Decision made. Let’s hit the road!

Touchdown in Wisconsin

I started by visiting a plant that produces what is arguably the most important ingredient in the process (relax everyone… I said arguably). The paper! Off to Wisconsin, and the very collegial folks at Neenah Paper. Brad Cannaday (Commercial Sales Manager), Mark Kleman (Paper Scientist), Brian Danz (Asset Leader) greeted me.
Then Brian showed me around the mill. And what a fantastic tour it was. Having the opportunity to begin the tour in the original building where Neenah began their operations back in 1873 was a thrill. The painstaking attention to detail, at every stage of paper development, was impressive. And there’s no doubt that Neenah’s clients benefit from that. What did I learn, personally? Where do I begin? First, I learned that post-consumer recycled products are not necessarily always the “greenest” option for your paper needs……cotton content paper is still considered the ultimate “green solution”. I’d give you the whole story, but Brad and Brian can tell it much better. Another fun fact? Neenah and their team know how to ensure that the texture and custom colors blended into every product remain consistent. Suffice to say, it’s an extreme process. And the variety! Neenah still honors the tradition of 100% cotton product when the need arises, while offering many other options to fit every budget. They have also branched out into other areas of production, to include packaging and digital paper product offerings. Wish I could have stayed longer in Wisconsin. I could have put a larger dent in Green Bay’s cheese supply. But time marches on!

On to the Star of the North

Next, I jetted off to Minneapolis, a first for me, to meet with the team at Old Tom Foolery and Modern Lore. They have a very memorable little shop called Greater Goods that you NEED to visit if you’re in the area! All of their card collections are on display, as well as a nice mix of complimentary items for those impulse buys. But that’s only where the story begins. The shop is a clever mix of inviting retail space, convenient Sweden-inspired offices (sorry, couldn’t resist Lauren!), supply and warehouse space and a cozy conference room, from which the Old Tom Foolery pros can plan their next card line and collaborate with their contacts and friends. Lauren Gryniewski, my host for the morning and all-around card biz guru, filled me in on what really makes this small but successful company tick.

Greeting card publishers have so many wonderful opportunities to gain more exposure and grow their brands. But it’s also clear from my conversation with Lauren that there are more challenges to the bottom line each day! This is not unique to Old Tom Foolery. So it’s important to try to be smart about every move you make as a small publisher. How can you ensure that you’ve achieved the right look and feel for the market, both online, in person and at trade shows? Sorry, no silver bullet there. It’s all about testing and observation. How do you know when you’ve achieved the right product mix? Sometimes it’s a gut feeling. But it’s clear that a constant stream of information from colleagues, and a generous helping of Pinterest, helps. It probably comes as no surprise that it takes loads of creativity, some experimentation, lots of networking and negotiation with clients and reps, and some good old fashioned luck, to make the magic happen while also tending to the bottom line. Starting a greeting card company is relatively simple. But Lauren and Joel Gryniewski have learned that the back of the house (the part of the business that isn’t glamorous at all) can be just as important as the products themselves, if a business is going to be profitable over time. After saying goodbye to Lauren, her able-bodied assistant Melanie, and the Gryniewski’s well-adjusted dog Ryder, I had just enough time to gaze at a few of the many lakes in the city of Minneapolis (a.k.a. the “city of lakes”) before it was time for my next appointment.

Excellence since 1898

Of course, the perfect way to cap off this trip, and “seal the envelope” if you will, was with a visit to Heinrich Envelope.
In business since 1898, Heinrich has certainly experienced the ups and downs of a changing marketplace. But Carrie Berkner, head of greeting card industry sales, is happy to talk about the resilience of our industry! She also points out that it’s a marketplace that expects innovation from its envelope suppliers. And Heinrich is in a great position to deliver, with colors and styles to fit the needs of today’s card publishers. Their hard working staff will work with individual clients to personalize their products to help them stand out from the competition. The many options available to clients were evident during my tour of the plant. With digital and traditional production options, small and large print runs, and customization on demand, Heinrich has an impressive operation with equipment that ranges from the early days of mass production (some of those machines are still humming!) to the newest equipment available. Need an envelope? You can’t go wrong if you pay a visit to Heinrich.

I learned quite a bit on this trip… and not just that construction cones are everywhere. I also learned, or perhaps I was reminded, that this is a relatively small industry (it seems everyone knows everyone else), but one with a HUGE impact. It’s really an inspiration to work with you all, and to contribute to the growth of your businesses if even in a small way. On behalf of the GCA, thanks for all you do.

Peter Doherty, CAE is Executive Director of the Greeting Card Association. Follow him on LinkedIn or Twitter.