Selling hugs in an envelope
Husband and wife team Alan and Jackie MacNamee tell Sean Gallagher how to grow a greeting card business
The custom of sending greeting cards dates to ancient China where people first began to exchange messages of good will to celebrate the New Year.
The early Egyptians were also known to have sent greetings to each other by way of papyrus scrolls.
And while the tradition seems to have started in Europe in the 15th century, the custom only became widespread following the emergence of postage stamps and the printing press, developments that helped move the practice from the expensive to the affordable.
Even today, one of the nicest feelings in the world is when we receive a card in the post from someone we care about.
So last week, I met up with husband and wife team Alan and Jackie MacNamee to learn about their growing greeting card business.
Based in Rathnew, Co Wicklow, they run Garlanna - one of Ireland's most successful card companies. Set up in 1996, the pair employ 40 staff and have an annual turnover of more than €4m.
The first thing that hits me when Alan and Jackie take me on a tour of their expansive headquarters is the display area. Like a sea of colour, it is packed with thousands of cards in every shape and size imaginable.
"We design and print all manner of greeting cards ranging from the traditional birthday and wedding cards, to anniversary cards, cards that celebrate the arrival of new-born babies, to offering congratulations to those who have successfully passed their driving test. And we have the more traditional seasonal ranges such as Christmas, Easter, and St Patrick's Day," explains Alan.
Flicking through the displays, Jackie points to an extensive range of Mother's Day and Father's Day cards as well as a host of different type of 'thank you' cards.
"We see new trends in cards emerging all the time, the 'thank you teacher' card is one of them, which has really grown in popularity recently. It's a lovely business to be involved in," explains Jackie. "Because cards are really like hugs in an envelope," she adds with a smile.
While not totally unexpected, I am still surprised to learn that as many as 85pc of all greetings cards are purchased by women.
"Our primary route to market is directly through retailers such as SuperValu and Centra stores, part of the Musgrave Group and Spar, Londis and Mace which are part of the BWG group. We are delighted that we have been recently appointed as the greeting card Category Managers for the former Superquinn stores within the SuperValu group," says Alan.
Alan MacNamee is originally from Deansgrange in Dublin. Growing up, he was surrounded by art and design. His father was an accomplished illustrator whose work heavily influenced him and encouraged his creativity.
"My father was responsible for designing the Galtee cheese box," explains Alan proudly.
After school, he got a job working in the warehousing department of Marks & Spencer before becoming a trainee manager with Dunnes Stores. While he made his way up the ranks, he was becoming increasingly restless and keen to try his hand at working for himself.
Looking around for ideas, he was introduced to the card sector by an uncle who was selling mass cards and birthday cards to local cash-and-carry dealers in the Dublin area.
"I realised that there was a gap in the market for well-designed quality cards," says Alan.
Starting out in a small way initially, he began by sourcing a range of birthday cards and general cards, bought a small van and took to the roads selling these to small retailer shop owners. Once he had sold all his stock, he then used that money to buy more stock and so on until he had built up a thriving business. Over time, he had grown to become one of the largest wholesalers of greeting cards in the country. It was at that point that he met his future wife and business partner, Jackie.
From Rathfarnham, Jackie had grown up beside the Hallmark card factory. Her father was also an artist and poet. While at school, she worked in a local newsagents where, among other things, she was responsible for ordering the store's supply of greeting cards.
After school, she got a job with Benetton in their retail fashion store, and while she enjoyed working there, she found the weekends trying. She switched for a time to dental nursing, but found that too boring.
"Looking around, I noticed that many of the retail shops in my area had a very poor selection of greeting cards," explains Jackie. "I decided to approach the owners of these stores with a proposition: if I could source better cards than the ones they were selling would they buy these from me? Thankfully they said yes," she laughs.
Having invested in a small van, she began to expand and soon found that she had built up a thriving business selling something she loved - greeting cards. That was when she came across Alan from whom she began sourcing cards on a wholesale basis. The following year, the couple joined forces professionally to set up Garlanna. And then later married.
At that point, they decided to focus their attention exclusively on the retail sector rather than the wholesale market. Getting listed in retail stores, especially those that are part of a larger chain, would prove more challenging than they had expected. They also found themselves up against larger UK companies, with much larger teams and bigger budgets than they had.
Fortunately a number of Spar retailers around the country provided them with the opportunity they needed - and not long after, they were listed by retail giant Musgraves. From there, business began to grow.
"The decision to create our own brand was a major turning point for us," says Alan. "Instead of relying on wholesalers to supply a limited range of generic designs, we were now able to create our own catalogue of cards, gift wrap and gift bags for the Irish market," he adds.
"Most people are initially attracted by the image on the card before they read the verse," says Jackie. "So getting the design right is critical. Setting up our own in-house design team and having our own illustrator was hugely significant. We've also been very fortunate to have built up a very loyal staff here, all of whom are very creative and who have had a significant input into the company's success," she adds.
Other developments in recent years have seen the company move to the wrapping of individual cards in plastic cellophane - something that helps protect the card and prevents envelops from going missing.
"Individual pricing of cards has also been something that has been warmly welcomed by both our retailers and customers," explains Jackie. "Most people find the old system of cross-referencing price codes far too cumbersome to operate," she adds
Currently working on new card and gift wrapping ranges, the pair are focused on growing their Irish business as developing export sales particularly in the UK.
"We see huge potential if we can get into stores there such as Morrisons, ASDA and Tesco UK. That would be absolutely great," says Alan excitedly.
Do they still enjoy what they do? I ask.
"It's such a wonderful feeling to see new cards being created," explains Jackie. "After months of work by the team, there's great excitement every time we get together in the office to open up the finished samples for the first time. Even more exciting when you walk into someone's home and see one of our cards on their mantelpiece. That's so incredibly satisfying for all us," she adds.
For further information: www.garlanna.com
Alan & Jackie's advice for businesses
1 Do something that you love
"To be successful, you have to live and breathe your business. Therefore, it is essential that you are passionate about what you do. You have to really believe in yourself and the products or services you are selling. How you feel about your business comes through in everything you do."
2 Jump straight in
"Like most things in life, there is never a perfect time to start a business. Sometimes you just have jump straight in and make things work as you go along. If you have passion as well as a good plan, then go for it. Much of the rest you can figure out as you go."
3 Team is everything
"The people you work with are the backbone of your business. These include your customers, your suppliers and especially your staff. Nurturing a strong team spirit is essential in ensuring that all parts of the business are pulling in the same direction."
Business: Design and print of greeting cards
Set up: 1996
Founders: Alan and Jackie MacNamee
No of Employees: 40
Location: Rathnew, Co Wicklow
Sunday Indo Business