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Entrepreneurs Get the Word Out on Ethnic Greeting Cards

December 24, 1987|CARLOS V. LOZANO | Times Staff Writer

A Culver City company that has been making greeting cards for blacks for the past four years expects to make a profit for the second consecutive year this Christmas despite predictions that the firm would fail.

Wayne Wilson and Taylor Barnes, owners of L'Image Graphics, said Christmas accounts for a quarter of the company's annual sales, which this year will amount to about $300,000. Sales last year totaled $150,000.

"When you have a good Christmas, you're doing something right," Barnes said, adding that they have had to return money to some customers because they did not have enough cards to fill orders. "It's the first time that's ever happened," she said.

Wilson, who is in charge of sales and editorial content, said: "We are 90% sold out. We have a lot of irate people calling us saying, 'God, I should have ordered earlier.' "

The idea for an ethnic greeting card company is not new. Another Los Angeles company, Black Is More Than Beautiful, closed up shop in 1986 after three years of trying to break into the market.

Barnes, who serves as both the art and production director for L'Image, said the company concentrates on slick, contemporary designs.

"Our attitude is, if you like the art, buy it," Wilson said.

It was difficult in the beginning. "We used to say to ourselves we could revolutionize this industry. Because when we came in, everybody was saying it wasn't going to work," Wilson said. One person in the card business told them they would fail because "blacks don't have money."

"Everybody thought we were wacko," Barnes said, laughing at the memory. "They thought we were nuts to devote this much energy into trying to start a greeting card company. But we had such a clear vision down the line that this idea and this company could not fail."

The main problem was finding financial backers. "For four or five months there were people slamming doors on our faces," Barnes said. "We just didn't know where the money was going to come from."

The money and support eventually came from actor Sidney Poitier and music mogul Berry Gordy Jr.

Wilson had stumbled across Poitier's name while thumbing through a book about where to submit screenplays. After a number of calls, Wilson and Barnes personally delivered a sample of their work to Poitier's office.

A week later Poitier called and said he was interested. Poitier brought Gordy in and together they invested $200,000 in the company.

But sales were slow, and after a year and a half Poitier and Gordy pulled out.

"They didn't see it going anywhere at that point," Wilson said.

Barnes and Wilson maintain that it was an amicable split and that Poitier and Gordy sold their shares back to them at a good price.

Shortly thereafter, Wilson said the company regrouped and expanded its line of cards. He said sales were spurred by the addition of an astrology line along with a new contract with W. H. Smith, a supplier of cards to hotels such as the Hyatt Regency.

L'Image cards are now carried in more than 1,500 outlets across the United States, Canada and Puerto Rico.

Barnes said that although the company is trying make a statement, the cards are designed to appeal to everyone.

"They're designs of people . . . and the people happen to have brown skin tones," Barnes said. "But there's a lot of other elements going into every design than just . . . a statement about it being a black card.

Barnes still does some of the artwork, but she said most of it is now commissioned.

In the past, she said, major card companies that carried black cards would "shoot two or three models in six or seven different situations and put those on cards. And then they wouldn't bother to update their line for 10 or 15 years.

"So that becomes offensive," she said. "Because that's someone saying 'We don't care enough to keep this part of the line updated. We're just going to give you the product so you have something to fill that category.' "

Another problem, Barnes said, is that companies such as Hallmark are selective about where they market ethnic cards.

"For example," Barnes said, "you won't see them in Century City, but you will see them in Inglewood."

She said L'Image understands that people live and work in different areas and the company is willing to go into "unexpected areas" such as the Beverly Center, Westwood or Century City.

Ashod Korgodorian, owner of the Card Factory store in the Beverly Center, said he stocks L'Image cards. "They're are only viable source for ethnic cards," Korgodorian said.

He said the Christmas and astrology lines sell the best, and that the cards appeal to whites as well as blacks.

Wilson said he has been approached by some larger card companies with buy-out offers. But Wilson said they are not interested. "Their attitude has been, 'We just need to fill a need.' It's more of a token attitude," he said.

L'Image plans to expand. In 1988, the company will introduce its first Valentines cards and Barnes said there are plans to market mugs, calendars and invitations.

Wilson said diversification is an important goal. "We really don't want to be pigeonholed in any particular category. It would be very easy for another company to suddenly jump on the bandwagon and follow right behind what we're doing if we have a one-look theme."

Barnes and Wilson are happy with their success. "We're going to put up a big sign one day that says, "It's about time," Wilson said. "Because that's the kind of thing we hear all the time" from customers.

"That makes you feel good."

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