Greetings from a creative downtown firm


Don Kallil, founder of Design Design, has approximately 7,000 products in 6,000 retail outlets across the United States. Photo by Johnny Quirin

Greeting cards are big business, one of which resides in Grand Rapids.

Don Kallil was a young professional in Chicago when his future wife would send him handmade cards while she was finishing school at the University of Michigan.

With an entrepreneurial spirit, Kallil quit his job and set off to start a company, and his wife’s hobby made it a clear-cut decision over his other thought: a bakery.

“As a student, I worked at the Michigan State University Central Bakery and loved the commercial aspect of baking, but I couldn’t do the all-night thing,” Kallil said. “I chose greeting cards, because I’m really a work hard all day and be at home, raise a family at night kind of guy.”

Kallil remembers his wife proclaiming, “They’re not that good, we’ll starve to death. You just liked them because you love me.” Despite her hesitancy, he started Design Design in 1986 in Chicago before moving the company to Grand Rapids in 1988. The company has been downtown, 19 LaGrave Ave. SE, for 23 years, along with an 115,000-square-foot distribution center off Gezon Parkway SW.

Design Design involves nearly 450 people, including 100 independent salespeople and 100 full-time employees.

Building a greeting card company wasn’t easy, and it took nearly 25 years to build it to its current state with approximately 7,000 products in 6,000 retail outlets across the United States. Retailers range from large nationwide chains, such as Bed Bath and Beyond and Party City, to small and mid-size grocery chains to independent specialty stores.

A majority of those products still are greeting cards, but Design Design slowly has expanded its product line to include party supplies, gift packaging, tissue paper, stationary and cocktail items. Products aren’t added for the sake of adding new products, Kallil said, so there’s no threat of adding salad dressing to a Design Design catalog, but candles are up for inclusion in 2017.

The company’s bread and butter remains greeting cards, and 90 percent of the cards are printed in Grand Rapids. The other 10 percent of cards are a mixture of hand-made jeweled cards from China and imported from the Netherlands on Italian paper.

For Design Design to be a full-service greeting card company, it must be able to fill a retailer’s full department, which can range from anywhere between 8 to 70 feet. To do so, the company has to have a backlog of approximately 2,000 every-day occasion cards and several thousand more holiday cards for various demographics.

The company outsources much of its artwork, either to artists or licensed images, but does the messaging in-house.

“We think about the need and go from there,” Kallil said. “We work off of who we are selling to and why. We have to think about voice, because someone that’s 26 likes something different than their parents, older or younger cousins and grandparents.”

Design Design launched a small line of 18 cards in partnership with Has Heart, which helps veterans through creative expression by pairing them with an artist to convey a message. The messages are deep, Kallil said, but can be bought for anyone, as they have universal meanings.

To build the product line with enough quality and depth to fill a retailer’s full greeting card department took between 22 and 25 years, but Kallil said the company was distributing nationwide fairly quickly. Cards retire because of demand, not age — some have been in stock for more than 15 years — and Kallil said the company works nearly a year in advance for holidays, and the juggling of seasonal releases is a complicated endeavor once scaled to such a large level.

“I saw this company being at this point when I started it, but I didn’t know when,” Kallil said. “I don’t think we’re anywhere near where we’re headed. I’d like to see our company grow substantially, and we have the opportunity to do so with how we’re situated.”

Despite there being more than 200 small greeting card companies in the U.S., Kallil said there are eight or so companies of similar size to Design Design, and he considers the nation’s two largest card manufacturers, Hallmark and American Greetings, his largest competitors.

Kallil knows becoming the largest greeting card company in the U.S. is a fruitless endeavor, but he still strives to be the best. The reason Hallmark and American Greetings are the main competitors is because they’re going after the same clients.

Independent retailers or small chains can have a multitude of card companies to supply their departments, he said, but bigger retail chains want to deal with fewer vendors — and few can supply them.

“There are plenty of companies with 100 years on us,” Kallil said. “But we can be the best at we do. We can have a great product and excellent service, and that gives us an opportunity to win a customer.”

Despite all the changes in the technology and the way people communicate, Kallil doesn’t believe his company’s growth will slow down anytime soon. He said people receive so many emails, calls and texts now, receiving a colored envelope elicits more excitement than ever before.

“Maybe at one point, we saw a dip because it was cool to send an e-card,” he said. “But it’s considered socially unacceptable to give sympathy over a text. People still want a letter or card. It’s an expression of love and appreciation.”

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