Nine years ago, Ken Shader, a production manager at a Wilmington, Del., chemical company, realized that he found his job considerably less appeling than his hobby -- making porcelain dolls for his six-year-old daughter. Ironically, it was his production experience that let him turn the hobby into a $4.1-million company, winning #39 on the INC. 500.
In 1976, an admiring friend with connections to a Long Island boutique encouraged Shader to take his dolls to market. He was game. Within a year, Shader and his partner/wife, Stephanie, were putting in 17-hour days making their dolls for specialty stores out of their house. The dolls were pricey, costing from $125 to $250 (now, the prices go even higher, to more than $7,000), but collectors loved them. Every limb, torso, and head is signed and dated by the craftsperson, and every piece of clothing sports a label from Shader and the seamstress, making it easier for future generations to determine authenticity. "Even then, we had a good reputation for quality and for being aggressive," says Shader. "Plus, nobody else was doing porcelain dolls on a large scale in the U.S."
Shader's China Doll Inc. got its big break in 1979 when, after six months of persistence, Shader finally reached the mecca of retailing -- Bloomingdale's. "From then on, it was easy," he remembers. The Blooming-dale's account opened the door to F. A. O. Schwartz, and Schwartz's recommendation landed the Shaders their biggest job until then -- a contract for 10,000 porcelain baby dolls for Atlanta Novelty Inc., a subsidiary of Gerber Products Co. While others might have shied away from such high-volume work, the Shaders knew they had the background to pull it off. With purchase order in hand, the company rented a factory and beefed up its staff from 5 to 40 employees. "Most of the other people in the business are hobbyists with no production experience," says Shader. "I've taken my experience as a production manager and made this a very efficient operation. . . . We are in a class by ourselves; we can make things happen quicker and better than anyone else."
It was Shader's production expertise that earned him such lucrative jobs as a $6-million contract to make porcelain faces for Cabbage Patch Kids, as well as licensing rights from Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus, novelist Barbara Cartland, and art deco artist Erte to produce dolls of his design. The company now has 120 employees and its own 13,000-square-foot factory.
But the flood of contract work, which often accounts for up to 75% of sales, has been a mixed blessing. The outside jobs keep the company dependent on a handful of customers and also make it difficult for the Shaders to concentrate on what they like best -- their own line, which comprises 70 different, elaborately costumed dolls. "We've always had contract work that accounted for a large percentage of our sales, and it's always made me nervous," says Shader. He's trying to remedy that by going to national distributors with his porcelain dolls and expanding his line to include soft dolls and porcelain busts. "We'd like to get to a point where our own line is the majority of our business," Shader says. As long as the big contracts keep coming, that may be easier said than done.
CORRECTION-DATE: February, 1986
In "Private Lives" (December 1985) the photo credit on page 91 should have read John Troha/Black Star.
DONNA FENN is the author of Upstarts! How Gen-Y Entrepreneurs Are Rocking the World of Business and 8 Ways You Can Profit From Their Success, an exploration of the ways Gen Y is changing the entrepreneurial landscape.
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