Sunday, November 17, 2002

Quilt business finds pattern for success

Little venture goes international and grows

By Marcus Green
The Courier-Journal

LOUISVILLE - In the warehouse offices of Quilts By Donna, history is repeating itself - sort of.

Dean and Donna Sharp's children grew up immersed in their mother's quilting venture, which she operated out of the couple's flooring company. The family traveled to small craft fairs to sell Donna Sharp's designs. A fifth-generation quilter, she began creating her own patterns after her mother suggested she buy and market roadside quilts from across Kentucky.

Now grandson Jackson and granddaughter Jenna play in the office where the Sharps coordinate a growing global juggernaut. Quilts By Donna has blossomed into a $4.6 million business that places factory orders in China, counts cable retailer QVC among its customers and is seeking to find new office space for the fourth time in its five-year history to house a $1 million inventory of high-end quilts.

The growth validates Donna Sharp's great expectations when she launched the company five years ago, even though her husband wasn't as bullish.

"My expectations were: We can probably make a living. I don't know if it'll grow," he said. She believed that "this is going to take off and take over the world."

For years, Donna Sharp had marketed her designs from within a Bullitt County, Ky., flooring company. Dean Sharp was the company's minority owner. But in 1997, her "20-year overnight success story," as her husband calls it, moved to a new phase: She struck out on her own.

Donna Sharp had been approached by several importers asking to license her designs. She met major buyers at trade shows and made contacts that would benefit her later as a wholesaler. "She got to know people," her husband said, "and they got to know her."

"Getting started was hard because I needed to have (inventory) all at once and I didn't," recalled Donna Sharp. "We sold our house. We did a lot of things to be able to do this."

Getting manufacturers was another matter. Quilts imported from China began inundating the market in the late 1980s, resulting in price wars that drove many retailers and wholesalers out of business, Dean Sharp said.

To compete in the United States, the Sharps contacted a Hong Kong agency that put them in touch with a Chinese couple who coordinate quilt production at factories in Beijing and China's Shandong Province.

That gave the Sharps a seat at the table with other wholesalers stocking Chinese-made quilts. It also meant that unless the shipments met their standards of workmanship, some inventory might not be suitable for distribution.

Enter Debra Cash. After working at Ann Taylor's Louisville distribution center for five years, Cash moved to Quilts By Donna in 2000 to oversee the quality of the imported quilts. The company communicates with the Chinese factories via e-mail, requesting samples in advance to ensure the finished product meets Donna Sharp's specifications.

The results tell a story of fast growth. The company has gone from three employees in 1997 to 16 today.

Sales have skyrocketed from $200,000 to $4.6 million. Projections for this year estimate sales growth of 41 percent from 2001.

Quilts By Donna moved to a 14,000-square-foot warehouse last year after outgrowing three other locations.

QVC, which initially accounted for nearly half of the company's sales, is down to about 5 percent - a sign that more retailers have come on board. Other customers include Cabela's outfitters and Lighthouse Depot, and products such as duvet coverings, shams and handbags illustrate a shift in merchandise.

Steve Sikes, owner of The Quilt Shoppe in Solvang, Calif., said some of the biggest fans of the Donna Sharp quilts his store carries are the quilters themselves. "Donna really pays attention to the details."

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