Designing woman: Carolyn Kinder

by Letha Mills

Designing Woman: A $3,000 Loan Burgeons Into A $20 Million Business For This Successful Arkansas Business Woman Carolyn Kinder, CEO of Kinder-Harris Inc., a Stuttgart-based manufacturer and importer of high fashion decorative accessories, is a tough interview. Not that she’s isn’t eager to talk about her company, which is recognized internationally as the leader in a very specialized industry. She is. If you can catch up with her.

First, you’re told she’s leaving for Europe to look at new products and deliver designs to be developed by overseas suppliers. Then, she’s off to New York for a frame show.

Today, she’s locked in her office for a last-minute fitting with her seamstress in preparation for a trip to market in High Point, N.C., the world’s largest furnishings market, where Kinder-Harris has had a showroom for eight years. Finally, you sit across from her as she talks about the phenomenal results of her modest entrepreneurial beginnings.

“It was never my goal to be in business,” says Kinder, a petite, soft-spoken blonde. When she and a friend borrowed $3,000 in 1970 to open The Art Place, a custom frame shop, in Stuttgart, it was to provide supplies for Kinder’s art students. Today, Kinder-Harris has an employee base fluctuating between 115 and 124 and expects to do $20 million in business this year.

Unexpected Growth

In the late 1970s, Kinder began designing frame and mat combinations for the art she sold to area furniture stores. Then, needing a showplace for her merchandise, she traveled to the Dallas Market Center, visited with a rep, and put together the Kinder-Harris product line. “And all of a sudden, we were in the wholesale picture business,” she says.

Next, she joined forces with a young man wanting to start an accessory line that would become Dara International. He arranged financial backing, she designed and marketed the products, and, in 1985, after a year of operation, Dara, which was supported by dozens of foreign suppliers, sold out to Kinder-Harris.

It was soon apparent that the import business required larger infusions of cash. Since local banks were getting nervous about putting that much money in the hands of one local person, especially for an industry in which they were not particularly well grounded, Kinder-Harris needed outside financing. In 1987, J.C. Penney Inc. bought into the company, providing management and financial support. Kinder won’t disclose the percentage, but says, “We’re not wholly-owned, by any means.”

Kinder-Harris’s goal is to provide a kind of one-stop shopping service designed with a common thread – the classic, transitional, Kinder-Harris look. The 1989 merger with David Thomas Lamps made it possible to offer four of the five major categories needed to accessorize a home: wall art, mirrors, lighting, and decorative porcelains. Silk flowers, the fifth component, will be added eventually.

Framed art, contemporary in style, is the backbone of the company. At the 96,000-SF Stuttgart production facility, warehouse and studio, a predominantly female workforce produces an estimated 80 percent of the artwork. “Everything is handmade, one at a time,” says studio supervisor Robin Millsap, who creates most of the designs. Kinder coordinates each project and designs the final products, which wholesale from $23 to around $900.

Wall decor and accessories – including a candleholder for $12 all the way up to a chandelier for “close to $3,000” – are displayed at showrooms in Chicago, Denver and Toronto; at the International Home Furnishings Center in High Point; the Atlanta Market Center; and the World Trade Center in Dallas.

Kinder credits her success as a designer and marketer in part to her understanding of the needs and desires of “the common woman,” but admits most of her prices exceed that woman’s budget. Future plans include using less expensive materials to produce a more affordable product. “But first you develop your reputation [and] craft,” she says. “And with a backer like Penney’s, nothing can get in our way, except sheer deciding not to do it.”

A major component in her business success is a series of carefully chosen partners, including her brother-in-law, Virgil Harris, whose name was retained when he left the firm. The ideal partner “loves to do what you don’t love to do,” she says. Joe Phillips, director of Stuttgart operations who came on board in 1981, likes fine-tuning the working environment while Kinder involves herself with the product, vendors and customers.

Phillips, an industrial engineer who owns a percentage of the company, says, “My first impression of Carolyn was that she could predict where fashion was going before fashion designers knew where they were going. That’s the reason I got involved with her. She’s the franchise of Kinder-Harris, the artist, the sorcerer. And Carolyn is known nationally. More people know her in Taipei, Taiwan, than know her in Little Rock.”

Kinder roams the world scouting new products and suppliers. “I love to see what people think my life is like,” she laughs. Traveling at night to save time, she packs her days with work, most of it spent in taxicabs, agents’ offices – “which are grubby little places” – and factories with dirt floors.

The small, agricultural community of Stuttgart provides a stable workforce of long-time residents, but lacks a pool of corporate talent experienced in decorative accessories. So, in 1990, Kinder-Harris will move its administrative and research and development operations to a 19,000-SF facility at the Dallas World Trade Center, a move also designed to tap into the management and technological resources of Penney’s headquarters.

Kinder, who is divorced and has two grown sons, was deeply affected by her daughter, Susie, who was born with a rare condition which inhibited normal growth and died five years ago. Kinder’s perception of the complaint, “I can’t,” was altered by her daughter’s perseverance in the face of severe disabilities. “Not everybody has had the opportunity to learn this lesson, so my standards are my own,” she says. “But they pass through me on to other people who are with this company. You just don’t hear, `I can’t.’ And if we can’t, it’s only because we can’t right now, but we’re working on it.”

(Editor’s note: Early this month the company announced plans to move Kinder-Harris’ corporate headquarters to Dallas to enhance its working relationship with J.C. Penney.

COPYRIGHT 1990 Journal Publishing, Inc.

COPYRIGHT 2008 Gale, Cengage Learning

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