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Greetings, Hallmark, From 3 Upstarts


CAMDENTON, Mo. — In the competitive greeting card industry, Among Friends is a grain of sand on a beach full of such giants as Hallmark Cards, American Greetings and Gibson Greetings.

But the alternative card company, formed two years ago by three women in this Lake of the Ozarks community in central Missouri, has set some lofty goals.

"People say, 'Oh, is your goal to have Hallmark buy you out?' I say, 'No, our goal is to buy Hallmark,' " Claudia Parrish said with a poker face. She quickly laughs at the thought of the tiny, anonymous firm gobbling up Hallmark, the industry leader, which reportedly notched $1.25 billion in card sales last year.

But Parrish and her partners, Roxie Kelly and Shelly Reeves-Smith, are serious about carving their own niche. Among Friends has expanded from selling a few cards in local shops to marketing a line of 36 all-occasion cards, gift tags, decorative bags and a card-organizing notebook in 48 states, Japan and England. The company is working to expand that line.

Parrish, the company's business manager, said Among Friends tripled its sales in the last year and has about 1,300 accounts.

Rudolf Hokanson, who tracks the greeting card industry for Blunt Ellis & Loewy in Milwaukee, said the company has one advantage: Alternative cards are the fastest-growing industry segment.

The women said they are somewhat surprised at the company's success, considering the mistakes they made in the early going. "We knew nothing about the greeting card industry," Kelly recalled. "We made some of the worst mistakes you can imagine. But the cards sold anyway. It was amazing how much people liked them."

Kelly, 35, a former physical education teacher, used to own a popular restaurant and a combination gourmet bakery-gift shop at the lake. She handles marketing and contacts about 35 sales representatives.

Parrish, 49, was a hostess at the restaurant and a business partner in a cookbook Kelly wrote and sold. The artist, Reeves-Smith, 24, was a student of Kelly's.

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