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Entrepreneur Says Ethnic Greeting Cards Sell Well

December 25, 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.

The idea for an ethnic greeting card company is not new. Another Los Angeles company, Black Is More Than Beautiful, closed 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.

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."

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.

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. Wilson said he has been approached by some larger card companies with buy-out offers. that would like to buy them out. 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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