How Michael Catanzarite combines competitiveness and a family atmosphere to keep Darice atop the craft industry

“A Pat Catan’s Company” reads the sign in the lobby of Darice Inc. where Michael Catanzarite greets his guests. Catanzarite, or Catan for short, is the son of Pat Catan and is CEO of Darice Inc., a premier wholesale distributor in the craft industry.

That lobby sign is a symbol of the company Catanzarite’s father started in 1954 with $200, basically creating the craft industry.

“It’s a unique story because how the hell would you get into the craft business?” Catanzarite says.

Pat Catan was a pilot instructor during World War II. When he returned from service the only place to get a job in Cleveland was at NASA. As a new guy living in Cleveland walking around, he saw a need for supplying decorations for decorators of store window displays.

“Back then, department stores’ biggest form of advertising was the window decoration itself,” Catanzarite says. “He started supplying products for that. It evolved into material for making your own flowers for displays and floral arrangements for your house and grew from that point.”

In 1954 Pat Catan’s was just one single store. By the mid-’70s, the company had six or seven stores.

“He was a pioneer in the industry, because there really was no craft industry,” Catanzarite says. “In the early’70s, we came up with the name Darice. Darice is our wholesale name and that’s the majority of our business. If you go into any big box store like Wal-Mart, Target or Michael’s, you would see the Darice brand in there.”

The wholesale division started in the 1970s. Catanzarite entered the family business following his graduation from high school in 1976.

Catanzarite knows the ins and outs of Darice. He knows the names of virtually every employee and can quote his father’s sayings and other inspiring messages that line the walls of the Darice office.

But what else would you expect from a man who has worked at the company for his entire life?

“My dad was my idol, my hero,” Catanzarite says. “I enjoyed being with him and I enjoyed working with him. Why did I come into the family business? I hated school.”

Catanzarite has been CEO for nearly 20 years, but he isn’t the only family member working at Darice. In fact, there are 22 family members who work full time in the business. His office contains nearly 100 photos of family and items like his dad’s old briefcase and jacket, which help motivate him and serve as a symbol of who started the business.

From 1954 to today there have been a lot of changes within Darice and the craft industry itself.

“The difference between today and yesterday is the speed to market and the speed of business,” Catanzarite says. “You better be at the wheel every day and have your foot on the gas 100 percent or you’re going to be left behind.

“Today, we are fortunate because of our employees and their hard work, we’re the largest in the industry at what we do. Being the largest has its challenges in that you’re always a target for competition.”

Here’s how Catanzarite keeps a family feel at Darice while also pushing the company to remain an industry leader.

 

Fight the competitive forces

Darice Inc. today has 1,800 employees and is one of the top privately held companies in Ohio. The company supplies craft product lines such as craft basics, jewelry making, paper crafting, bridal, floral design, fine art supplies, kid’s crafts and licensed products to retailers such as Wal-Mart, Target and Michaels.

“We’ve made it a priority in our company that we are going to be product-first people and product-innovation focused,” Catanzarite says. “That’s our business: creativity and products. When we do that, everybody in this building understands that our goal is to find the next best product to make sure we’re to market quick and can respond to a call from Target or customer X to have a presentation done in a week.”

Anything that Catanzarite does to be successful is a result of the company’s mission statement and that his employees work on it every day. It requires the right kind of people to live the company’s mission.

“Do we have the right people and the free thinkers for that?” Catanzarite says. “That’s how we take something from concept to reality. In any company, if you just talk about stuff and you don’t make it a priority with the facility and the people, you’re not going to get anywhere.

“If you say you’re going to do something, but all you have is an idea on a piece of paper, well, what the hell good is that? You’ve got to give it substance.”

Catanzarite spends a lot of his day motivating and counseling employees and trying to figure out what areas Darice needs to improve.

“You’re constantly changing and trying to upgrade, but not because the people are bad, successful companies merge new ideas in with the old ideas,” he says. “We never really focus on the competition. We just try to be as good as we can be.”

Part of making the company better is continuing to get products to market quicker than anyone else.

“Here, we do things quickly,” Catanzarite says. “We get stuff to market in half the time of our competition. We react to our customer faster than anybody. That’s the only way you’re going to beat the competition because everything is so fast and everybody is trying to increase their margin to go around you.

“Today, you better be the best at everything or you’re going to get run over. We’re focusing on how we do that.”

A big reason for Darice’s success is due to its employees and the culture Catanzarite has helped foster over the years.

“The people part of the business, which a lot of people shy away from, is really the most important part of the business,” he says. “It’s what’s driving the company. You have to motivate them to do what’s next.”

Catanzarite fosters this kind of culture through commitment, consistency, being honest with his organization and devoting the time to it.

“I always compare it to being a parent,” he says. “The biggest component to being a parent is that children need your time. There’s nothing, as you raise your children, that’s more important than time. Your employees are the same way.

“If your boss came in today, sat with you, had a cup of coffee, and was nice to you, that would make your day. But a lot of people are just so busy going to the next meeting that they don’t carve out that time.

“You’ve got to spend time on relationships. That’s how you get the trust. My goal is for people to do good because they want a paycheck, but also because they like me and they don’t want to fail me.”

 

Eliminate family politics

In a family business, it’s easy for family members to develop office politics and destructive habits that can destroy a company. Darice and the Catanzarite family follow a simple motto to squash any of those possibilities.

“Faith, family and friends is our motto,” Catanzarite says. “We live by it. There’s nothing more important than faith, which drives our family. Once you’re my friend, I’ll never get rid of you. We have 22 full-time family members that derive their full-time income from working at Darice. How do we deal with that? We try to eliminate politics.”

If a family member wants to come to work at Darice, the most important thing Catanzarite does is find the right job for that person.

“Are you going to make a guy who’s good with his hands and likes working on cars a salesman at Wal-Mart?” Catanzarite says. “You may, but his chance at failure is much greater.”

Catanzarite’s family members let him have the ability to place them where he thinks they’re best served within the company.

“So far everybody still comes over on Christmas,” he says. “But with 22 family members, if somebody gets mad, they go home and tell their spouse and they tell her mom who might be my sister, so you have to have the openness and honesty.”

Not every family member works full time inside the company. There are others who play outside roles.

“Even if you’re not internally in the building, most everybody else is in the business,” Catanzarite says. “The guys that are outside play such an integral part that if I lost them, it would be like I’m losing somebody internally. It’s good the way we mesh that.”

To keep the family atmosphere in a company that has gone from three employees to 50, 50 to 100 and 100 to 1,800, it takes openness and transparency. Most importantly, someone needs to take charge.

“There are a lot of families that have trouble even sitting in the same room to meet,” he says. “As a company you need a plan and unfortunately there could be five to 20 relatives in there, so you need a boss.

“There has to be a single leader in the family and the family has to be committed to supporting that, otherwise you’re going to fail,” he says.

Darice is currently undergoing a succession planning process so that it is prepared for the future. The company has also brought in people from outside the family for integral leadership roles.

“A lot of family businesses struggle to bring in professionals in executive positions,” Catanzarite says. “We were the opposite. Our president is a non-family member. Our CFO is a non-family member. Our IT director is a non-family member. Our head of marketing is a non-family member.

“Long term, one of our decisions will be that we always want an outside president and CFO. In family businesses, it’s tough for people to do that sometimes. They say, ‘I’ve been doing this forever; I know everything.’ I may know more about crafts than anybody, but I don’t know more about selling to Wal-Mart and Amazon. I’m not an expert in distribution.

“Bring those people in and allow them that ability. Having those outside positions in a family business helps the rest of your employees too, because they see that it’s not just Catanzarite’s running the company.”

Every decision Catanzarite makes about the future of Darice is done so with his family and employees in mind and how that decision is going to make everybody feel.

“My focus is on continuing to grow this business to be a premier company in what we do and taking it to the next level and seeing the employees flourish,” Catanzarite says. “I’m driven by the goal that my dad wanted a great company for his family, and if I don’t finish that, I failed. I’m not going to fail. You’ve never met a guy so driven to make something successful for the benefit of his family.”

How to reach: Darice Inc., (440) 238-9150 or www.darice.com

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