Mother-daughter combination helps Le Sueur greeting card-based business achieve national standing
Photo Illustration by Kris Kathmann (Inset photo by Jeff Silker)
A young girl’s thoughts on paper.
That’s what started it, really, little poems and journal entries written by Kimberly Rinehart as a teenager in her Mankato home. As kids do with their creative output, she gave hers as gifts to her mom and dad, Forrest and Georgia Rettmer.
Just a young girl’s thoughts on paper. Happens every day.
Today, though, Rinehart is happily married to husband Tim and they have four busy children of their own. With her mother, she oversees it takes two, a greeting card-based business known for both its charm and eclecticism; a business that employs dozens of residents locally and distributes its goods around the world from an office and warehouse complex built for the business 15 years ago on the edge of LeSueur. Kimberly and Georgia are quick to point out that the support of their husbands is key in making the behind-the-scenes aspects of the business run smoothly.
And those little poems—now they’re intellectual property, and they’re not so little anymore. It takes a forklift to load the cards, stickers, rub-ons, notepads, scrap booking sheets and other items in the storage area, where workers such as shipping manager Jackie Weringa of LeSueur pull materials, arrange them into boxes, shrink-wrap them and send them on to the rows in the front warehouse, or the picking area.
“To keep ahead,” Weringa says, “we basically have to do it all day long.” On this windy spring morning, Christmas materials have arrived from the off-site printers, and room has to be made. A forklift shuffles pallets (30 boxes per palette, 30 to 50 scrapbook sheets per box) to make room for the goods. There are 110 field reps throughout the country that need to be kept current on samples and promotional materials.
While this back warehouse, the size of a gym with cool and clean concrete flooring, has room for a visitor to navigate freely, the front warehouse is a maze of tall shelves, row upon row filled with cardboard bins, each labeled with product numbers such as CSO6C. This particular item is a colorful notepad that will become a gentle addition to someone’s stationery collection. It features the inscription “Tis the season for friendships rekindled” at the top and a passage from the gospel of Luke on the bottom.
Multiply that by thousands of bins, housing the ready-to-be-shipped packages of everything from ribbon-wrapped decorative bags containing fancy stationery to stickers, scrap booking supplies, guest books, magnets, pocket planners…and, of course, cards grace the shelves for every conceivable occasion, from sympathy to congratulations on a new home; from happy birthday to one day at a time.
It’s poetic justice for a business that started 21 years ago in the hopes of finding a little market for cards that combined the homemade sentiments of Rinehart and the original artwork of Rettmer. They called the business—and still do—it takes two, which was pretty much the case in the early days, but much has changed. The name applies not only to the mother-daughter team, but also to the relationship of card-giver and receiver—a quiet, often delicate communication upon which a grand and colorful business has been built.
Whether it’s the funky jewelry, the elegant poise, or both, Georgia Rettmer has that presence that says “artist.” And years ago, until she started raising a family in Mankato, she taught art in the Minneapolis and Mapleton school districts. Her artistic specialty was torn-paper designs—not carefully cut, but torn by hand, a technique that lent itself well to encouraging students to get their hands and heads busy. And it made the artist happy, as well.
“I love how I actually hold the paper, I know how certain papers tear,” Georgia said. “It’s just a medium I’m very comfortable with.”
Meanwhile, Georgia kept Kimberly’s writing for years, which ultimately led to the idea of combining their passions for a small business. Today, those writings remain in a safe at Georgia’s home, a time-treasure indeed.
The sentiments that came through in those works were upbeat, positive and gracious about the life Kimberly was enjoying growing up in Mankato. It was appropriate to give her original writings to her parents, Kimberly said, because they were the inspiration for the happiness that came through the words.
“I had a charmed life,” she said. “I was certainly inspired by my family, my Christian upbringing, and my friends.”
In 1984, with those original writings at their disposal, mother and daughter locked in on the idea of trying out a small greeting card business. The family income had come through Forrest’s work with National Poly Products, which allowed Georgia the time to focus on starting the business.
The card company was an idea based not on market research but on the hope that others might appreciate greetings with their special touch. The greeting cards on shelves in 1984 seemed to be heavily commercial cards from Hallmark or the ones with off-color humor. It just so happened that Georgia’s beautiful artwork, combined with Kimberly’s meaningful verse, filled a significant void in the greeting card industry.
Simply put, there was no big plan, no idea that they would someday be situated in a 21,000-square-foot warehouse and talking over the screech of packaging tape, shrink wrap machines, and a forklift. “We were just doing what was in our hearts,” Kimberly said. “We hoped that mom’s torn-paper art combined with my style of writing would fill a need.”
Had they embarked on a market research study, it would have looked encouraging. What they didn’t necessarily know at the time was that markets were opening up for exactly the kind of touch they had, Kimberly said. At the same time it takes two was in its infancy, so too were a growing number of the small, independent gift shops and specialty stores that sought out the more unique, home-style greeting cards and stationery.
The odds were also in their favor in terms of competition – or at least better than they would be today. When they started, there were 200 alternative card companies operating in the country. Today, there are 3,000 and, Georgia added, 80 percent of start-ups fail. Beginning with many unknowns, they approached retailers with a collection of 24 cards covering the basics: birthday, get well, sympathy.
Initial response was encouraging, but it was the power of the press that helped most of all, they say. During their first year, the two were the subject of a feature article by Sue Menton in the Mankato Free Press. Menton’s article was less a business story and more a feature that focused on the mother-daughter dynamic and the unique aspect of their cards.
The feature story, after running in The Free Press, was picked up by the Associated Press and hit papers across the country. That, Georgia said, was the defining moment of the business growing.
“We got calls from sales reps throughout the U.S.” Georgia said. Soon, the cards were being bought and sent, with the recipients apparently impressed and buying their own.
“Our cards were appearing nationally very early on,” Kimberly said.
The pair was working mostly in Mankato, where Georgia lived. They eventually had to find a facility, and in 1990 built the offices and warehouse in LeSueur. And as business expanded physically, it expanded its range in terms of the content.
For the writer in the family, this meant the task of sincerely writing wishes she hadn’t necessarily experienced first-hand. Sympathy cards, for instance. Although she had not lost close family members, Kimberly said, she was nonetheless able to express heartfelt wishes of consolation and sympathy.
It’s an inner quality that keeps her able to keep coming up with fresh ways to express eternal emotions without falling into a routine or insincerity.
“It’s part of my natural makeup for me to care deeply about others,” she said. “Combine that with a God-given gift to put feelings into meaningful words, and you’ve described my creative writing process.” On the lighter side, Kimberly noted with a laugh, “It can be a real challenge to think of many different ways to say “happy birthday.”
Mother’s Day and Father’s Day are, naturally, a cinch for her. If she had to pick one of the most difficult greetings to write, it would be St. Patrick’s Day, since it wouldn’t be her style to write about Leprechauns or stereotypical partying.
Kimberly and Georgia talk in a front office, outside of which are seven others —sales, customer service, accounting, bookkeeping, etc. There are four cubicles and 16 chest-high file cabinets. The atmosphere is businesslike, certainly, but Kimberly said she takes pride in being flexible for the needs of her employees, most of whom are women.
“Naturally, there are business hassles,” she said, “but, thankfully, it doesn’t take long to re-connect with positive creative energy.”
Indeed, as the result of the workplace she’s created and the atmosphere fostered, the creative bug has flourished in this environment. She finds in her employees and their ideas a barrage of inspiration both creative and good for business. Many of the niche items they continually create are the result of employees and customers making suggestions.
“We have incredibly gifted, visionary people on staff,” Kimberly said.
In recent years, four different employees suggested exploring licensing partnerships with the Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts, 4-H and FFA.
“I ran with their suggestions,” Kimberly said, “and today, it takes two provides a variety of scrapbook materials, stickers and stationery for all four organizations.”
The sheer amount of work and orders, as well as the desire to offer more creative depth, ultimately required the addition of more artists. Today the company has a team of artists, who design the products, but the words are still all Kimberly’s, and they are replenished often—retailers want to keep their shelves fresh. And every poem, every word printed over the years, is stored on hundreds of CDs that line the shelves of a meeting room.
Rettmer still waits for her daughter’s writing to inspire the art that goes on the materials she designs, but that system has become the anomaly. With the addition of other artists, Kimberly finds that she’s also serving as art director, coordinating the art that comes in and then writing verse complementing each design.
“I write to the art,” she said. “It’s been a wonderful challenge.”
It’s clear today that the two have been less-than-content with staying, you’ll pardon the pun, stationery. With the paper-and-verse base of the business well in place, the two began branching out after the first 12 years into products that help the consumer make their own personalized greetings in a variety of upbeat, colorful ways. When the scrapbook craze hit a dozen years ago, the business was poised and ready to expand its customer base to well beyond the card consumer.
“It’s not the same person,” Kimberly said. “The one who spends hours scrap booking is also important to us. Now we’ve created a way to provide tools to that person.”
A successful line of stickers called “Timeless Moments,” provides simple, do-it-yourself ways to enhance birthday cards, genealogy projects, baby books and anniversary cards. The stickers vary in size and include tidbits of historical information for particular years. Arranged around a photo of the birthday boy, for example, can be individual stickers listing the top movies, the big news headlines and the hit TV shows of the year he was born, all with lively fonts and illustrations.
“It’s one of those spontaneous purchases,” Kimberly said.
Stickers of Kimberly’s poetry are also available for scrapbook pages and other projects, and the themes are as plentiful as they are for the cards. There are also scripture stickers, branded stickers for 4-H, Boy Scouts and other organizations.
“We have to stay 15 minutes ahead of what everybody else is going to think of,” Kimberly said. “Creatively speaking, the challenge is to be the first to offer fresh ideas and products that provide our customers with artful, meaningful ways to communicate.”
Which brings the story full-circle: They are now providing others with the spirit of the personal, the genuine.
“Really it’s all about what we are,” Kimberly said. “The mission hasn’t changed.”
“I’m often asked if I’ve had a rough life, because of the sympathy cards,” Kimberly Rinehart said.
She has not lost a loved one, let alone a loved one to combat. Yet, a particularly effective card in the it takes two line expresses a message that’s both strong and sensitive: An American flag at half-staff, a dove soaring above it with a red, white and blue trail behind. No one values the gift of peace more dearly or knows the cost of freedom more deeply than one who has given a part of their very heart to help pay the price…Thoughts and prayer surround you as you grieve the loss of one of America’s heroes.
Some of the easiest verses to write, Kimberly said, might be for the pet sympathy cards, which she reluctantly agreed to add to the line. Although they were easy to write, Kimberly’s skepticism about whether the cards would sell was eased when they became bestsellers.
Our animal friends teach us more than we could have expected and love us more than we could have hoped…that’s why we miss them more than we could have imagined. With sympathy at this time of loss.
From the sensitive hand-scripted phrases to the bottom line of this business employing 26 people, mother and daughter still oversee it with a business savvy that continually pushes it into new territories and items. Once a small card business, today it offers 45 product lines.
In addition to an artistic spirit, the mother and daughter share a restless one as well.
“It’s all about that 15 minutes of fame,” Kimberly said, “and then we need to be ready to offer our customers something fresh.”
Gift That Keeps Giving
It was in high school that Kimberly Rinehart started blossoming as a writer, putting her words not only to journals and poetry, but to music as well. She started sharing her work with her parents, giving them poetry and personal essays as gifts, which initially took her mother aback.
“I always knew she was sensitive and caring,” Georgia Rettmer said, “but I didn’t know she put it down in words.” And as the gifts kept coming, Georgia saw something in her daughter’s writing that seemed appropriate to share with others. So combining her own art with her daughter’s words, the best vehicle seemed to be homemade greeting cards— would a real artist trust Hallmark?—for friends and family.
Though she seemed destined to write, Kimberly Rinehart’s professional goals were aimed at music. She attended Concordia College in Moorhead and graduated with a music degree. Setting aside her desire for further education to specialize in music therapy, she accepted a position in sales with a large corporation and moved to Rochester. And what may have appeared to be a sidetrack to her passion ended up being the right move.
“I enjoyed sales, I enjoyed people,” she said. “I was a rep, and learned a lot about business and field work. Looking back, I realize that experience was very much a building block to someday running a company of my own. But that first job wasn’t what I loved doing.”
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