Ideally, you want manageable business growth — a few changes with time to see what works and what doesn’t. Over the past year, CWI Gifts has undergone the opposite, but when things fell into place all at once, there was no other choice.
The wholesale distributor of country-style gifts transitioned to new software, moved to a new facility in Groveport that is three times larger, and bought a manufacturing company, The Hearthside Collection, and moved it from Washington.
“I’m not doing that again, ever,” says Tara Parker, vice president of sales and marketing, adding that “the past couple of months have felt much more manageable, than the 10 before it.
“This past year has definitely been tricky with a new company, a new building and we also transitioned our software system this year,” she says.
Her parents, Karen and Farley Piper, started the family company more than 30 years ago. Slowly Tara, her husband David Parker, vice president of operations, and her sister Ariane Lewis, vice president of finance, are transitioning into leadership.
Tara and David returned to work in the company in 2008.
“You can imagine building up a company of this size — it’s hard for them to tear themselves away,” David says. “While they love the idea of being gone, this is their legacy.”
There’s no specific end date for the transition, but he says with each passing year, the goal is that they can spend a little more time away. With the acquisition of Hearthside last year, however, that got pushed a bit aside.
“It kind of blew the lids off some people’s heads when we’re like, ‘We’re moving, we’ve just transitioned a computer system and we’re buying a new company,’” David says.
Transitioning up and over
One key to surviving was communicating with the employees the vision behind the moves and emphasizing that it was a good thing to be growing, even if the change was almost too much to handle.
And that’s why it’s so critical to have a core group of people who can support you, work hard and see the mission of the company, Tara says.
“I feel like we’ve surrounded ourselves with people who want to do all of those things, like growing,” she says.
Since the Parkers returned to CWI, the employees have doubled to more than 100 as the company has diversified its product selection. Its niche is purchasing from a variety of manufacturers, and then putting that merchandise in one spot for small shops that cannot meet minimum order requirements.
It also does catalog and online sales through its retail, KP Creek Gifts, and now works directly with manufacturers in China to produce the Hearthside designs.
As staff is added, they can’t always be like part of the family, as was the case before. But it’s important to treat employees the same way that the company treats customers — as well as possible.
“You want to keep all of these people that are helping your company to thrive,” David says.
At the same time, additional layers like specific supervisors have helped with the transition.
Tara started out in customer service, helping the manager with her responsibilities. Over time, she moved up to manager and then passed it along to the next person, in order to focus on product development, purchasing and marketing.
She and her dad are working now to explore new channels to market like Amazon and Wayfair, in addition to the company’s core mom-and-pop brick and mortar stores.
“My challenge for myself and the company right now is to figure out the best way to get the product into the customer’s hands,” Tara says.
Stick to what works
But as much change as there has been over the past year, the second generation at CWI isn’t looking to reinvent the wheel.
As a family business, being able to take advantage of the experience that comes before you is an advantage — so don’t let that slip away, David says.
“You hear all these stories about how businesses transition from generation to generation, but then the folks that come up don’t want to do everything that the people who started the business wanted to do,” he says. “Our vision has always aligned with the original mission of the business, because we’ve taken advice from those who started it.”
For example, from an operations standpoint CWI is doing what it has always done, while judiciously implementing technology like RF scanning or conveyer belts to create efficiencies.
David says that CWI’s growth is a testament to the groundwork that the Pipers laid.
“It’s seen great growth over the past five to 10 years, but we wouldn’t be here without the people who started the company,” he says, “and taking advantage of that has been one of the most important things.”