Chief giver Featured

6:24am EDT November 2, 2005
It’s not about the money for Cheryl Krueger. At least not completely.

The CEO of Cheryl&Co., a $34-million-plus division of 1-800-flowers.com, insists the amount of goodwill her Westerville-based company generates is an equal measure of its ongoing success. And she puts her money where her mouth is.

Roughly 3 percent of Cheryl & Co.’s annual sales are donated - either through in-kind contributions of its baked goods or actual cash outlays — to various community nonprofit organizations.

“That’s over $1 million,” Krueger says. “It’s a big number. I’ve seen lots of publicly traded companies that give 100th of 1 percent. For the size of our company, we do a tremendous amount.”

And what return does she get on that investment?

“We don’t measure it. We can’t measure it. And, really, we don’t do it for that reason,” Krueger says. “I do it because it’s morally the right thing to do. I think human nature is such that people really appreciate companies that are trying to do the right thing. We don’t do it because we think we’ll get sales benefits or marketing benefits out of it. I’m interested in knowing that, at the end of the day, we are trying to help others.”

Krueger started driving home the importance of corporate philanthropy the day she opened her first store in 1981. She was adamant about selling freshly baked cookies but couldn’t bear the thought of simply throwing away any that hadn’t sold by closing time each day.

“So we gave them to either the Mid-Ohio Food Bank or other places in town that could use them ... like LifeCare Alliance or Faith Mission,” she says.

In the mid-’80s, Krueger’s corporate giving became a bit more personal. Her longtime friend and early business partner, Caryl Walker, was diagnosed with and eventually died of cancer.

“We did a Norman Rockwell [cookie] tin to help raise money for the American Cancer Society in the late ‘80s,” Krueger says. “I’ve also done a lot of speaking engagements over the years, and all of my donations for my speeches go to The James [Cancer Hospital & Research Institute].”

In January 2003, when The Ohio State University won the national football championship, Krueger teamed up with OSU coach Jim Tressel to raise money for cancer research through sales of a commemorative, autographed cookie jar. Tressel lost both of his parents to cancer.

“We’ve now donated over a quarter of a million dollars to the Tressel Family Fund,” Krueger says. “For a company our size to donate that kind of money, that’s a big deal. It’s a very big deal. We’re really proud of it.”

Krueger, whose own father has struggled with cancer, even donates her personal time to The James, serving as vice president of the hospital’s development board.

“I admire Cheryl for the way she gives back to the community,” says Mary Eckenrode, a Cheryl&Co. associate who oversees the company’s outreach programs. “That’s a really big thing of Cheryl’s, and I think that says a lot about the character of the person who owns the company.”

With 25 to 30 requests for donations coming into Cheryl & Co. in an average week, Krueger has been forced to carefully limit the causes her company can support.

“I’d rather be meaningful to a few than spread out to many,” she says. “We try to pick where we can do the most good.”

The other two priorities in her company’s giving program are helping women entrepreneurs and children’s causes.

“The causes we’ve chosen are near and dear to our company philosophy and, quite frankly, to my heart,” she says.

That’s key in starting and running a successful corporate giving program, she says.

“So many of our people here in our organization have been struck by cancer,” she says. “We’ve had members of our team whose parents have had cancer, whose siblings have had cancer, who themselves had had cancer. So people rally behind it because it touches almost all of our lives in some way, shape or form.”

Another key to finding true success in corporate philanthropy is to give consistently.

“You have to stay committed through good or through bad,” Krueger says. “You can’t be in a philanthropic mood one year then not the next. You can certainly cut back if you need to, but you still have to be committed.

“I think it’s great that these companies show up for the big catastrophes and want to give to that, but I’m hopeful those companies are also giving on a regular basis in their local areas. I worry about whether they’re doing it to really help the people or are they doing it just to get the publicity. If they’re doing it all the time, it has more credibility in my eyes. Not to say the gift isn’t appreciated, but the sincerity of the gift is also what I look at. And that, to me, is measured by how consistent your giving is and whether you have a plan for your giving.”

It all starts with the CEO, she says.

“It makes me sad to see companies like Enron and Tyco that did such a disservice to the business community by manipulating the numbers and by the CEOs taking exorbitant expense accounts when they could’ve used those monies to help others,” Krueger says. “I think it’s just terrible. I choose not to live my life that way.

“I choose to run a company that prides itself on giving to the community as much as we can and still returning to our shareholders because I still have a responsibility to the shareholders who invest money in the company to give them a return on that investment. But we’re going to do it the honest way.

“At the end of the day, I think there are two kinds of people,” Krueger says. “There are givers and there are takers. And I think the CEO sets the tone.”

HOW TO REACH: Cheryl&Co., (614) 891-8822 or www.cherylandco.com