Selling Sentiment

UPDATED: January 21, 2013
PUBLISHED: January 21, 2013

It’s difficult to expand a company founded by your parents, particularly when plans entail dropping Dad’s name from the product line. But that’s exactly what Dominique Schurman did in 2006, when she abandoned the Marcel Schurman brand in favor of “Papyrus,” which already was on company storefronts.

“Our customers didn’t realize the product we were selling in our stores was our product, so there was kind of a disconnect between the product and the brand,” says Schurman, CEO of the Fairfield, Calif., company that operates as Schurman Retail Group. “And because building the brand was so important, it was critical for us to change the name of the product in order for the brand as a whole to be meaningful.”

Deciding to make that change took much longer than she had anticipated because of the emotional, financial and time investment involved for the privately held firm with strong family ties, Schurman says. Even though the company has expanded far beyond the family’s Berkeley, Calif., kitchen table to now include close to 400 stores operating under the Papyrus, Paper Thread, American Greetings and Carlton Cards brand names, she still sees it as a family business.

“Because it is a family business and because it is my father’s name, it was a very personal issue and a very hard thing to do. The family issues, the personal issues, can sometimes overwhelm the needs of the business, and that’s why, in many cases, you read about family businesses not being able to survive past a generational change.”

And her family’s feelings did factor heavily into the final decision to change the name of the product line, even though the shift came well after her father’s official retirement. “I think it was hardest for my father because the product line had his name on it before the change. In the end I told him that he had to do what was best for the business.”

Schurman never fully considered those types of issues before the early 1980s, when her father disclosed plans to eventually retire and sell the business. That’s when the recent college graduate realized she might one day want to run the company her parents founded in 1950. She had 10 years under his tutelage to gain experience and work through transition issues that destroy many family firms.

In the decade before her father’s 1992 retirement, she “had the luxury of working in various areas of the business and really learning from the bottom up while having the benefit of his mentorship. It gave him the opportunity to gradually transition out of the business, and that was a very important period of learning and growth for me.”

It also gave her the opportunity to prove herself to anyone skeptical of her skills because she was the boss’s daughter. “While this is always a factor, people respect you if you work hard and don’t rely on the family connection to justify your role,” she says. “I’ve always been mindful of this and have worked harder as a result.”

The work ethic paid off as Schurman evolved with the company during her ascension through the ranks. At first, the firm oversaw a few franchisers and a handful of company-owned stores while operating a wholesale business that sold its greeting cards and other products to outside retailers. This was an ideal arrangement for her father, who sought stability over brand recognition. But she wanted to build the Papyrus brand into a nationally known name in its own right and focus on retail. So the company sold its wholesale business to American Greetings Corp. in 2009 and purchased that company’s retail stores, which recently expanded to include nearly 400 Clinton Cards PLC locations in the United Kingdom.

“When he retired, the business was a much, much smaller company—very much kind of an entrepreneurial family-style business,” Schurman says. She quickly built the Papyrus brand into a market leader and Schurman Retail Group into a privately owned powerhouse with $200 million in annual sales—up from about $130 million before the dramatic increase in North American retail locations that followed the American Greetings deal—while retaining the company’s family feel.

“Everyone feels like a partner and understands their role in the team,” says Zone Vice President Germanico Cruz, who has been with the company for a decade. “When you work for Dominique, you know you are part of something special because her biggest strength is keeping everyone believing in our purpose at Schurman Retail Group—every day, every time everywhere.”

That purpose-driven expansion is more impressive given the prevalence of electronic messaging, tweeting and texting that make greeting cards seem old-hat for many people.

“Our philosophy has been, ‘What can we do that’s so special that people will go out of their way to make that effort to write a greeting card, to send a greeting card?’ And to do that, we felt the product itself really had to stand out and be unique,” Schurman says.

Papyrus greeting cards bear little resemblance to their old-fashioned predecessors featuring little more than flowery fonts and pretty platitudes. The company’s offerings, stamped with the distinctive pink hummingbird logo, sport fabric, buttons, charms, leather, glitter, zippers and other treatments that push the price tag on some cards to nearly $10. And while that may seem a hard sell when money is tight and online “card” services abound, high-end design and manufacturing processes have been one of the secrets to Papyrus’s success.

“There are so many inputs in the American marketplace—it’s very hard to stand out. I think to build a compelling brand you have to bring something new to the market. We’ve just really redefined what a greeting card can be and made them, in many ways, works of art,” she says. “That, for us, was really a turning point, and when we broke all the rules, we were told you couldn’t do this and you couldn’t do that. No one’s going to pay $8 for a card. And we said we’re going to do something that’s never been done before.”

Schurman Retail Group also creates a unique environment in its Papyrus stores, with hip music and artful displays of cards, wrapping paper and jewelry making the retail locations seem more like intimate art galleries than greeting card shops. But to break new ground and expand its retail footprint, Papyrus needed capital and locations that would give the company and its investors a healthy return. One of those investors is American Greetings, which owns a minority stake in Schurman Retail Group and shares its brands in the marketplace.

“You have to find ways to finance the business either through investments or through debt. As a private company, that’s always been a challenge that we’ve had to manage very carefully,” says Schurman, who has raised funds from a variety of sources over the years. “Retail is a very capital-intensive business because you have to build out the stores. There are a lot of upfront costs. If you don’t have the right location, you don’t get the right return and can get yourself into a pickle.”

To keep Papyrus out of the pickle jar, Schurman keeps close tabs on in-store sales. She and other executives can access detailed sales reports that cover every store in the company’s portfolio and are updated three times a day. They might look at other long-range reports weekly or monthly to compare actual sales figures with earlier projections.

“Seeing the sales numbers is critical because I get a pulse of what is happening in the market. It allows me to connect with the operations and sales pieces of the business and talk about what’s happening in real time. And having good data, having good tools, having good reporting is absolutely critical to being proactive about your business.”

Schurman also visits the stores themselves to give context to sales reports and get an even more up-to-the-minute idea of a new product’s appeal. In stores, she can see which cards catch customers’ eyes or which binders of customized wedding invitation options brides flip through first, giving her a management style that co-workers say is driven by both details and big-picture priorities.

“She’s a visionary CEO who is very hands-on, detail-orientated, driven, focused and passionate about the business,” says Jim DiPlacito, Schurman Retail Group’s vice president of human resources, who has been with the company more than a dozen years. “She leads by example. She’s the hardest-working person in the company.”

Her hands-on approach was inspired, in part, by her mother Margrit, an art historian who launched the first Papyrus retail store in 1973 after helping her husband initially establish the business’s import and wholesale divisions.

“Getting out in the real world is so important because the numbers only tell you so much,” Dominique Schurman says. “I like to go out to the stores for myself and see what’s happening, watch the customers, get a sense of what the dynamics are real-time in the business.”

Today—following her mom’s example—Schurman still has a hand in store design decisions and occasionally writes a card herself. “My mother is an incredibly inspirational woman. She’s fearless and talented and has an ability to balance her own ambitions with personal connections, with family.”

It’s a tightrope Dominique walked herself, particularly when her two grown sons were younger. Carving out enough time and emotional energy for her personal life was challenging in those early years, even though working in the family business probably gave Schurman more flexibility than serving as CEO of a Fortune 500 firm. “My biggest struggle was not having enough available time for my kids,” says Schurman, who has a strong relationship with her sons. “I always felt pulled between my personal and professional life, and that was really tough.”

Most parents, particularly women, must face the same tug-of-war at some point in their careers, she says, and there is no easy way through it. No one can be the perfect parent or the mindful manager all the time, no matter what others might expect. “I think sometimes in society, there is an unspoken message that we should be able to handle everything and do it all really well, and I think that’s unrealistic.”

Struggling to meet unrealistic expectations leaves little time to recharge and reconnect with your own thoughts, which can impact your performance as a parent and an executive. Indeed, Schurman says some of her most productive moments come when she is gardening, exercising or simply spending time in quiet reflection.

“When I have free time, I tend to kind of lie low, do low-key things and think. I get a lot of my ideas when I am exercising,” says Schurman, who enjoys running and swimming. “Having that free space allows me to think creatively and recharge.”

And she’ll need that energy in the near future, as the company continues to develop new brands, including Niquea.D, a line of gifts, jewelry and accessories available at Papyrus stores, and moves forward in its efforts to revamp Clinton Cards locations in the United Kingdom. Schurman Retail Group has already begun that process by trimming the retailer’s name to Clintons and remodeling the first phase of stores while introducing fresh colors and a new logo as well as new products. Managing Clintons is just the latest of many unexpected opportunities and challenges Schurman has faced since taking the helm of her now not-so-small family business.

“If you asked me a year ago if I thought I’d be running a 400-store retail chain in the U.K., I would have said. ‘No way.’ But here I am, doing it, so sometimes things come along that you don’t anticipate. Where it takes us as an organization, we’re not sure, but I am pretty confident we will evolve in a new direction because of it.”