PPP: The Spirit of the Season

November 29, 2002
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A solid business model and a commitment to serving others have helped Steve and Penny Carlile turn Casey Pottery into a booming enterprise with a wide outreach.

Seasonal and garden-themed pottery forms the core of Home & Garden Party's direct sales business.
For many of us, December is a time for family togetherness and helping others in need. For Steve and Penny Carlile, owners of Home & Garden Party based in Marshall, Texas, these principles form the basis of their business throughout the year. The couple founded their company—a home-based party plan business featuring stoneware and terra cotta pottery made by Casey Pottery, as well as framed prints, figurines, brass accessories, candles and other home decor products—six years ago, primarily as a way to create opportunities for others. To succeed, however, the Carliles needed more than just an altruistic attitude. Through faith, solid financial backing and sound business decisions, Home & Garden Party has quickly grown into a multi-million dollar enterprise with a national outreach.

High product quality and a diversified product line have helped Home & Garden Party steadily increase its sales.

Starting out Small

Steve and Penny grew up in Marshall, Texas, and made a living through several oil and gas businesses for most of the ’70s and ’80s. By the time they sold one of those businesses in 1990, they had amassed a small fortune and could have easily retired early with plenty of cash to spare. But they were convinced that there was a larger purpose for their success. “We’ve both been very active Christians for most of our lives, and we believe God has given us the ability to be successful so that we can create opportunities for others,” Steve explains. “After we sold our business, we felt like part of our obligation was to take that money and do something with it that not only benefits the community but also benefits individuals. So we started looking for businesses we could purchase that would create jobs in our area.” At about the same time, Casey Pottery in Marshall was struggling. The company’s owner, Robert Casey, had recently died of cancer, and his wife wanted to sell the company. When the Carliles heard about the business, they were immediately intrigued. “Watching potters make hand-turned pottery is fascinating, and we really felt like this would be a good opportunity for us. We thought we could bring some business skills and some capital to the company that other people might not have,” Penny says. The Carliles bought the business in 1992, but they had no idea they were about to embark on an immense challenge. The company was extremely small—with just two potters and 12 other employees—and its products were sold through a handful of independent distributors. Growing the business would mean expanding the company’s product line and increasing sales, but the Carliles had no experience in either pottery production or retail sales. “We definitely had to go through a learning curve. For a little while, we made some of the ugliest pottery I’ve ever seen,” laughs Penny. “We had to find out how to perfect our process and make the product appealing to customers.” Over the next four years, Steve and Penny dedicated themselves to making Casey Pottery succeed. To increase the quality and consistency of their products, they switched from hand painting to using customized decals. Instead of working with independent distributors, they began establishing relationships with retail stores. They opened their own showroom in Atlanta, Ga., in 1993 and exhibited at numerous markets throughout the U.S., and they also expanded their product line into related home d?r products, such as framed prints and candles. By the mid-’90s, Casey Pottery had become a fairly successful enterprise, with sales reaching nearly $1 million per year. But the Carliles felt like they could still be doing more. “We initially thought we were going to open a chain of retail stores. But by 1995, even though we had been relatively successful, we realized that retail was not where we needed to be. We didn’t like the fact that our employees had to work on Sundays and holidays, when they should be spending time with their families, and we really weren’t cut out for the retail business. So we began to investigate alternatives,” says Steve.

Steve and Penny Carlile, founders and owners of Home & Garden Party.

All photos by Design Media Communications, Marshall, Texas.

Taking a Direct Approach

After reading an article about a direct sales business in The Wall Street Journal, Steve and Penny decided to try that approach. “We felt like the direct sales business could provide a lot of jobs and opportunities for people that retail and other businesses could not provide—especially for women,” explains Penny. “Women who want to stay home with their children but also want to work part time, or who want to have a successful career but don’t feel like they have the right skills for another type of job, can be very successful in this type of business. The direct sales approach enables them to spend as much time as they want to with their families while still earning some extra money. Of course, the harder they work, the more money they make, but they have the flexibility to set their own goals and schedules.” “Direct sales also made a lot of sense from a business perspective,” adds Steve. “You don’t have to travel around the country putting up stores, and you’re not buying real estate. Today you might not have anybody selling in Cincinnati, Ohio, and tomorrow you might have three people selling there, and it doesn’t cost you very much to get those people out there selling.” In 1996, the Carliles established Home & Garden Party—and quickly encountered a whole new set of challenges. “We found out pretty quickly that customers who buy products from a direct sales business are extremely picky about product quality,” says Penny. “They’re ordering from a catalog, so when they receive their order they really inspect it closely, and they don’t hesitate to return it if they’re not happy with it. As a result, we’ve had to develop a really good quality control program in the manufacturing plant.” At first, the company assigned several different people within the plant to randomly pull pieces from each product line every day and carefully inspect them for quality. Recently, that task has been shifted to one quality assurance manager who oversees the entire plant. Monthly quality reports are generated and distributed to all of the managers, and a copy is also sent to Steve. The company has also empowered all of its employees to make individual decisions about product quality. “We give them a lot of ownership over the products,” explains Steve. “Our employees know that we would rather have them take a substandard piece off the line than let it continue through the process. We’re also really fortunate to have a workforce that’s very eager to do quality work.” As the business began to grow, keeping up with orders also became a big challenge. “Sales were slow in ’96 and ’97, but then in 1998 we grew from $1 million to $15 million as more people started selling our products. It was difficult to turn all that pottery and get it out within a reasonable timeframe. We try to ship all of our products within 48 hours from the time each order is placed, so we have to stock enough inventory on each product to allow us to ship it as quickly as possible,” says Penny. The Carliles purchased a hydraulic press and other equipment to enable them to increase their manufacturing efficiencies. They also began importing and decorating blank ware. “Our specialty has always been hand-turned pieces—we currently have 12 potters, and they produce a total of around 15,000 hand-turned pieces per week. But we’ve had trouble making cast pieces. Importing blank ware allows us to expand our product line while maintaining a high level of quality and efficiency,” explains Steve. Increasing production efficiencies has also helped them keep their prices competitive. “The price of most of our pieces probably runs about 60% of what a hand-turned piece would normally cost, so that makes them even more appealing to our customers,” Steve says.

Defining Success

Home & Garden Party has continued to grow at a rapid pace. Today, the company’s annual sales are over $100 million, and its products are sold throughout the U.S. by more than 26,000 “designers”—95% of whom are women. But to Steve and Penny, it is the individual stories, rather than the overall numbers, that define the company’s success. “We’ve talked to women whose husbands have been laid off from their jobs, or whose husbands have left them, and they’ve told us that Home & Garden Party has helped them pay their bills and keep their homes. Other women have told us that Home & Garden Party has helped them spend more time with their families, or send their children to college. Of course, it’s not a ‘miracle cure,’ but if somebody wants to work hard and they’re willing to ask people to have parties, the system will work for them, and that’s encouraging to us,” says Steve. The Carliles are quick to point out that they’re not saints. “The company has to be profitable, because we have to build factories and warehouses and buy equipment. But our main goal is to help people be successful, so we’ve made it as lucrative as we possibly could for our designers,” says Penny. “We know that if they’re successful, then the company will be successful. “It’s been a very rewarding experience for us because we really feel like this business has made a difference in the lives of a lot of people,” she says.

For More Information

For more information about Home & Garden Party or Casey Pottery, call the company at (903) 935-4197, e-mail info@homeandgardenparty.com or visit www.homeandgardenparty.com.

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