Meet the man behind a multi-million dollar greeting card business

At 19, Gregory Perkins packed his things and left home in Niagara Falls, N.Y. to head out west and see what California had to offer. He worked at a fast food restaurant where he met his wife and he later got a job as a jailer in a correctional facility. It was there, in Sacramento, that he got the idea for his business.

With players like American Greetings and Hallmark dominating the greeting card business, venturing out as an independent might have seemed foolish, but 46-year-old Perkins had some divine advice.

“I am a man of faith and I wanted to serve god,” Perkins said. “I started the company with the idea that we could do better than Hallmark by creating cards the way we [African-Americans] saw ourselves instead of the way they saw us.”

Perkins wanted to create cards with African-American people, art and images on them. He tested a few products while still working at the jail and found a market. African-American Expressions grew rapidly and he came to that familiar fork in the road that all entrepreneurs reach.

He had to make a decision: Leave his steady, secure job with its good benefits plan, important for his growing family, or leave the job and step out as an independent entrepreneur in a market dominated by billion-dollar companies. It was a big gamble.

“I prayed and asked God what I should do and he told me to go,” Perkins said. “I’ve never looked back. I still have my last paycheck in the bank from 12 years ago.”

Perkins and his wife of 20 years now have four boys between the ages of seven and 16. They meet every morning before work for breakfast to brainstorm about the business and talk family. Perkins’s wife is CFO of African-American Expressions.

The company started out by wholesaling to companies, small and large, and expanded to include a showroom in Atlanta, black-gifts.com, and a fund-raising arm for schools and churches. Its cards are in many small, specialty shops, as well as national supermarkets and chains like Wal-Mart.

“The first year we were doing $17,000 and the second year it was $45,000,” Perkins said. “Now we’re up to four or five million [dollars] a year.”

The growth allowed the company stop renting and build its own distribution center in California, an area so large that they are even leasing space to other companies and manufacturers. The number of employees has grown to between 30 and 35 depending on the season.

But with steady growth comes growing pains and Perkins had to figure out how to handle the rapidly increasing demand for African-American Expressions products.

“It was difficult, especially in the early years,” he said. “At one time we had no idea how many people were calling us. We just knew they started when we opened at nine. We only had five phones and we were stressed and busy. We had to invest in technology.”

Perkins said the company invested in a 20,000-dollar phone system to record the amount of incoming calls and other data.

“My mentor, John Maxwell, says you have to look at the scoreboard to see how you’re doing,” said Perkins, also a football coach. “Business is a lot like sports. You have to see the game and make adjustments.”

Even as a million-dollar company, African-American Expressions is experiencing its share of challenges as the economy and discretionary spending take a hit and e-mail and e-cards gain in popularity.

“Big companies have the contracts in the major stores. They buy floor space in the supermarkets,” he said. “It’s always been difficult, but we’re a specialty product and you can’t find what we offer.”

The company started out selling greeting cards, but has since expanded to include a specialty gift line where products are sold primarily through the company’s website black-gifts.com. Perkins recently launched a new company called Charise, which he said is Greek for “favor.” The new company is not just geared toward African-American consumers, but all consumers interested in Christian gifts.

“We sell to a lot of Christian book stores and we had these relationships already so we decided to create a more general product line,” Perkins said. “It’s for mainstream stores as well as Christian bookstores,” he said. Inspirational products are one of the fastest-growing arms of the gift sector, Perkins said.

Diversifying the company is a strategy for Perkins, which he said helps soften the blow of dips in sales of certain arms of the company.

“We’re continuing to look at market trends and possible new product lines,” Perkins said. “When I look for development we try to look at a need. For example, we launched a luxury tote bag series featuring black art and decided to add an iPad holder.”

Perkins said his company has grown because it fulfilled a need in the market.

“I like to say that we’re authentic,” he said. “We know what African-Americans want to buy because we are African-American.”

By Mary Worrell (Atlanta Post)

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