From Humble Beginnings
“Most entrepreneurs are introverts, and I think I fit that description,” said Kathy Phillips, chief executive officer of Primitives by Kathy. “When you are a basement operation and someone helps you name your business, you don’t really think of where it could grow to be someday.”
Yet now, 18 years after she started her business literally in her basement, Primitives by Kathy has grown into an enormously successful international company offering a wide variety of wholesale home décor and gift items—and she couldn’t be happier about how things have turned out.
Born and raised in Lancaster County, this proud mother of two said that the entrepreneurial spirit is in her blood, coming from an entrepreneurial family.
Back in 1988, she and her mother opened a gift shop and painting studio, working as a team to guide the business as it grew. Ten years later, Phillips started her own business, Primitives by Kathy (PBK), with her mother’s blessing and support.
“I count on my mom as a support person in my life to this day,” she said. “I often share my challenges with her over breakfast.”
At first, Phillips started by making a simple candle box by hand and then attended local craft shows selling her product. She found that the candle box was in great demand at the small shows she was attending.
“I knew I had a hot product and decided to attend my first wholesale gift show in June of 1997,” Phillips said. “That show resulted in $85,000 worth of orders … I had no idea how I was going to make all of this product by myself.”
That was when Phillips approached Goodwill Industries for the first time, looking for much-needed assistance—and providing an exciting opportunity for others as well.
“PBK leased a workshop and hosted upwards of 150 Goodwill trainees with various mental and physical disabilities to manufacture the goods,” Phillips said. “This was a rewarding experience, working with everyone to train the tasks needed to manufacture a candle box.”
It was a tremendous way to give back to the community, and although she misses the days of working with Goodwill Industries, Phillips continues to produce such opportunities by working with the local IU-13 middle and high school age children.
“We sometimes have rework projects for them that need done on products that don’t pass inspection,” she said. The students also enjoy attending “life skills shopping field trips’” that PBK organizes, where they are given “Kathy Kash” to spend on gifts for others from the PBK line of products.
“We do many company-wide community volunteering (projects), and we try to focus our efforts to give back to the needs of people with physical and mental challenges,” Phillips said.
The company is also very committed to their employees and has implemented an employee benefit called Family Fun Day, Phillips explained.
“We host volunteer opportunities as a company, and when an employee participates, they receive an extra paid day off and $200 to go have a Family Fun Day.”
The one stipulation, however, is that the employee must share three photos and a story about their day.
“The Family Fun Day stories are shared on a big share board for all employees to enjoy … Many employees have continued to volunteer and love the experiences,” Phillips said.
As PBK continued to grow and hire more people to help with that growth, Phillips had to learn to delegate and to trust in her team.
“The growth of the team continues to this day as I have recently added an upper-level management team that has really helped me concentrate on what my best contribution is to PBK: product development,” she said.
Because it is vital to have a well-designed product offered at a marketable price in a product-driven industry, Phillips knows that she needs to focus on what she’s best at and let others use their skills and talents to assist her in continued successful growth of PBK.
“Even though I am fully familiar with all the warehouse operations, service expectations, accounting analysis, etc., I have had to trust others to lead these areas of my business, following my mission and vision.”
Currently, PBK boasts 7,500 active items in their product line.
“We retire approximately 50 percent of those in a year’s time and develop new trend-forward goods to replace the retired items,” Phillips noted. “There are so many items in the PBK line that it is very difficult to call out my personal favorites.”
But to avoid familiarity breeding contempt, she does not decorate her own home with items from the PBK line.
“I tend to like fun antiques that I find in my travels,” she said. “I love buying something that will help me remember that moment or that specific trip for years to come.”
One such traveling opportunity came back in 2002 when Phillips took her first trip to China to “begin researching importing my goods,” she said. “This was a tremendous learning curve as we had to find factories that were able to provide good-quality goods, delivered on time.”
Watching a product line develop and head to market, and then witnessing the sales of that product line soar, is a thrilling experience for her.
“My perfect world would be full weeks driving the product direction.”
Back when Phillips started Primitives by Kathy, she didn’t really want to be “the Kathy” that customers now ask about.
“When I am at a trade show and introduce myself, I often get, ‘Are you the Kathy?’” she said.
But Phillips does enjoy meeting key account buyers and independent store owners at the trade shows and is also always ready with a grateful note of thanks for their participation in and sharing of the success story that is PBK.
But perhaps most importantly, Phillips said that she has “learned that my biggest driver is knowing that I am making a difference in many lives. Here in Lancaster, we are providing a great work culture for 110 employees.”
That’s a pretty good outcome for an introverted entrepreneur who started her company in her basement 18 years ago. BW