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The wedding wizard Featured

8:50am EDT December 27, 2005
Imagine being single, fired twice and living in a new city, with no college degree and no job prospects.

That’s the situation Cathy LaValley found herself in 17 years ago before she started Cathy’s Concepts, a wholesale manufacturer and distributor of wedding accessories. To make matters worse, she had recently been swindled out of most of her life savings by a jewelry wholesaler.

“It was a low point in my life, for sure, but it made me determined to find success on my own terms. I was not willing to be homeless or live at home with my mother at age 32,” LaValley says.

LaValley took the jewelry business knowledge she had gleaned from working at Claire’s for 13 years and began selling wholesale jewelry products to local nail salons and boutiques. Her luck began to change when she showed her products to a local bridal shop.

“They were happy with the manufacturers they were buying from, but I kept asking questions until I identified two unmet needs: immediate shipping of white pearls, and colored jewelry in quantities for bridesmaids’ gifts. I was able to satisfy these needs and got the business.”

Today, Cathy’s Concepts supplies virtually every bridal accessory imaginable.

“We take the bride and groom from engagement to honeymoon,” she says. “The average engagement is 14 months, and as soon as the engagement is announced, the buying begins.”

Smart Business spoke with LaValley about how she plans to grow her market and target her customers.

How do you maintain the right staffing level?
I use an outsourcing service. Although we just started outsourcing, I am confident it will work out great. Like most small businesses, we do not have the specialization to handle the human resource functions such as paid time off, disciplinary action and benefits.

We can now focus on running the business instead of getting bogged down in staffing issues. I am looking forward to gaining efficiency, since previously, we were overstaffed at nonpeak times of the year.

The fourth quarter is our slowest time, but it is the busiest time for businesses such as retail and shipping and packaging companies. (The outsourcing service) can provide our employees with other work until we need them again.

How do you plan to grow the business and further target your market?
Our current revenue is $5 million, which is an improvement over the past couple of years. It has been difficult to make the transition from bridal retailers buying stock for their stores to drop-shipping to the consumer for Internet retailer sites.

I expect sales in the $6 million range next year. Nobody else offers drop-shipping of exclusive, personalized wedding and gift items with the unique offerings of personalization quite like us on the Internet.

The average age for brides these days is 27. Our studies show that over 80 percent of brides surf the Internet for information and products related to their wedding. I expect that our Web-based business will increase to 80 percent of our sales or more in the not-so-distant future.

We are expanding our personalized products to appeal to the nonbridal buyers. For example, we have a personalized bathrobe that can be a bridesmaids’ gift but is also a perfect Mothers Day, holiday, graduation or birthday gift. This diversification will allow us to increase our sales during our slow season, the fourth quarter of the year.

How do you keep your employees motivated?
I have four executives reporting directly to me. We work as a team, and I am always encouraging them to think strategically. I am currently in the process of restructuring the responsibilities of my executive staff and am totally involving them in this process.

I pulled them together, gave them paper and said, ‘Pretend you are me. Lay out the executive responsibilities that make the most sense to you.’ This was a great exercise because it led to lively and honest discussions.

Some things came out that I was not aware of. For example, one executive was responsible for an area that was always a real challenge and it became obvious that another executive would be much better suited. I was able to gain tremendous insight during these candid discussions.

It is crucial for the executives to be involved in the day-to-day process and grapple with the real business issues.

How do you network with other business owners?
I’ve been involved in TEC (The Executive Committee). This committee consists of 14 CEOs, entrepreneurs and business owners. We meet once a month, have a guest speaker and spend time discussing our individual challenges.

It’s a life-saver for me because being an entrepreneur can be a lonely situation. It’s not like working in corporate America, where you can bounce things off a number of people who understand the business.

How to reach: Cathy’s Concepts, (800) 969-7417 or www.cathysconcepts.com