Ivy League Business

Chris and April Cornell began importing goods for resale in 1969. Thirty years later Cornell Trading in Williston, Vt., includes 70 retail stores and a wholesale operation.

by Julia Lynam

Photos: Jeff Clarke

Chris & April Cornell It might be winter outside, but within the walls of Cornell Trading’s Williston headquarters it’s perpetual summer. The corridor walls are glowing yellow with pale green accents and round every corner is a new example of the delicious mix of bright colors and natural motifs that are Cornell’s trademarks. Chris and April Cornell started trading in 1969 when, inspired by the quality and variety of textiles and clothing they encountered on travels in the Far East, they brought suitcases full of goods back to sell in flea markets in their native Montreal. They had met some years earlier at Dawson College in Montreal where April, a talented artist, was studying fine arts and Chris, commerce. “We started from very modest beginnings,” Chris explains. “We had almost no money. We traveled overland from Amsterdam to India and saw an opportunity. So we started buying things in Afghanistan for resale.”

From these modest beginnings Cornell Trading, registered in 1973, has grown to encompass a chain of 70 stores in major cities throughout the United States and Canada — even one in England; a thriving wholesale business; 750 employees, and worldwide sales topping $55 million in 1998. The extent of their success was unexpected, to say the least. The Cornells’ company history records how, relaxing in an Afghan hotel nearly 30 years ago, surrounded by thousands of pairs of newly-purchased socks, April turned to Chris and asked: “Are we crazy?” They obviously weren’t, and one thing led to another.

“We saw the sort of craft work people were doing and imagined it in other forms more appropriate to the market here,” Chris explains. “We soon started asking people to produce goods specifically for us.” In 1975 they opened their first shop, LaCache, on the second floor of a townhouse on Montreal’s Greene Avenue. They still have a Greene Avenue store — though not in the same location, and they also have 24 more Canadian stores. “We started with one and built from there,” says Chris. “We’ll be opening about eight more this year.” The first half of 1999 will see April Cornell stores, with their distinctive mix of custom designed clothing, household fabrics and furniture, opening in Palm Desert, Calif.; Seattle, Wash.; Cincinnati, Ohio; Bridgewater, N.J.; and Norfolk, Va. Mark Davitt

April Cornell collaborates with a team of a half-dozen designers working in materials like fabric, carpet, ceramic, and wrought iron. Pictured: CFO Mark Davitt.

April Cornell stores have a recognizable style — bright, flowery, casually sophisticated with a romantic ambiance. They’re growing, though: “Most of our stores used to be 1,000 to 1,200 square feet,” says Chris. “Now they’re more like 1,700 to 2,300.” The Cornells first ventured into the United States in 1981 when they opened a store on Columbus Avenue in New York City. An instant and continuing success, it was an early indicator that the way forward for the company lay south of the border. The New York store served as headquarters for their U.S. retail and wholesale operations until 1987, when overcrowding necessitated a move and they pinpointed Burlington as a suitable location. They moved their offices and wholesale warehouse into 237 North Ave.

“Burlington was within reasonable distance of Montreal, where we still lived and worked,” says Chris, “and it was much easier to oversee.” In 1988, they opened their second U.S. store, on the Church Street Marketplace in Burlington, originally called Handblock. The wholesale venture began as a way of being able to order in quantities that made custom designing economical. But wholesaling proved to be an important part of the mix and has grown side-by-side with the retail operation to account for roughly a third of annual gross sales. Cornell Trading services 6,000 trade accounts in the U.S. and supplies private label goods to catalogs such as J. Peterman and William Sonoma.

The North Avenue premises, which the company subsequently bought, now house their “non-Cornell” division, receiving and shipping the 15 percent of their retail products that are not designed in-house: “We embellish our presentation by purchasing in the domestic marketplace,” says Chris. As it became increasingly obvious that their major growth area was going to be in the United States rather than Canada, the Cornells moved to Burlington in 1992. “At that time we had just two or three U.S. stores,” Chris recalls, “and now we have 44.”

The couple, who live on South Willard Street, also have three sons: Cameron, 22, a student at Concordia University in Montreal; Lee, 18, who attends the University of New Mexico; and 12-year-old Kelly. The three boys have grown up with the company, and spent an entire year living in India while their parents established a factory in New Delhi. Indian school

Cornell Trading’s Indian manufacturing division employs 250 workers who produce goods from April Cornell’s designs. “We feel we make a valuable contribution in good jobs, foreign exchange and a safe work environment to people and countries in need,” says Chris Cornell. The company sponsors a school near New Delhi.

Harpreet Sidhu is general manager of the Indian manufacturing division where 250 workers produce bright and beautiful clothing and household goods to April’s designs. Some items are also manufactured in Indonesia and China. Cornell Trading sponsors several social projects in India and China, including a school near New Delhi that educates 200 “first generation” learners — children whose parents do not read or write.

The founder of the Sai Siksha school, Anjina Rajagopal, has adopted 16 orphaned or abandoned children. April and Chris visit their manufacturing sites abroad and are able to ensure that conditions are good. “We are proud of our workers and have the lowest turnover rate of anyone we are aware of,” says Chris. “We feel we make a valuable contribution in good jobs, foreign exchange and a safe work environment to people and countries in need.” Warehouse

Cornell Trading has grown to include 70 retail stores throughout the United States and Canada. Warehouse space at its Hurricane Lane, Williston, facility was recently expanded from 32,000 to 50,000 square feet.

Cornell Trading sees itself as part of a positive process of creating work, hope and pride in Third World communities, and of spreading good business practices to people whom they find are eager to learn. Back at home, in 1996 they completed and moved into custom-built company headquarters on Hurricane Lane in Williston, where they now employ more than 70 people. A recent addition has increased the Williston warehousing space from 32,000 to 50,000 square feet, where rows and rows of shelving hold neatly folded bedspreads, tablecloths and cloth dolls, and numbered boxes stand ready to replenish Cornell stores across the country.

More than 90 percent of the goods are shipped by common carrier — UPS or FedEx. Burlington architect John Wadhams has worked on 20 Cornell stores, and will produce architectural, mechanical and engineering documentation for this year’s openings, too: “I’ve known Chris and April for some years — we’re neighbors,” says Wadhams, who also works on store design for two other locally based chains: Bruegger’s Bagels and Ben and Jerry’s Homemade Inc. “When they really started to expand,” Wadhams continues, “Chris asked me to help.

“They always know exactly what they’re doing: Chris is very much on top of things and knows what he wants.” April spends as much as four months of every year working at the company’s Asian locations, while Chris travels extensively to visit Cornell stores in the U.S. and Canada. They are closely involved with every other aspect of the company, too, and although officially

“April is product and Chris is projects,” meaning that she designs while he takes care of the day-to-day running of the company, in fact they overlap considerably. “Neither of us is unaware of the other’s area,” Chris says: “It’s a 50/50 partnership. We’re not isolated — we know one another’s problems!” Why, of all the “hippie” businesses that emerged from the ’60s and ’70s, has Cornell Trading survived? Chair & table The answer might lie in their unusual mix of entrepreneurial talent, good business practice and artistic creativity. April’s design talent, her flair for color and her feel for texture, shines through everything the company produces: apparel, housewares, even the retail interiors with their custom-designed cabinets and “antique” features.

The company offices, like the stores, are piled high with beautiful and eye-catching objects. Sitting at her bright and busy corner office in the company’s new Williston facility, water-color box open on the desk, she explains: “A lot of my inspiration is nature-based — developed for textiles, ceramics and embroidery.

“Over the past 20 years in the textile industry many people have become neutral and serious. Our stuff continues to be alive, spontaneous and colorful. That’s what we do that no one else does.” Working in fabric, carpet, ceramic, even wrought iron, April and her team of six designers have to have an understanding of the qualities of the different media and the techniques of processes such as weaving and printing. The blend of artistic talent and hard-headed business know-how that has made Cornell Trading thrive has re-surfaced in the next generation: Their oldest son, Cameron, having started out in liberal arts, has recently switched to a business major. Bonnie Delp & Kathy Belcher

Cornell Trading services 6,000 trade accounts in the United States and supplies private label goods to catalogs like J. Peterman and William Sonoma. Pictured: art director Bonnie Delp (left) and director of retail operations Kathy Belcher.

Another component of their success is wide appeal, says Chris: “In the south we appeal to customers who appreciate gracious living; in Washington and Baltimore we are popular with the sophisticated shoppers and travelers. We also do well in New England, California, Chicago, and our best gross sales are in the New York City shop, which exceeded $1 million last year.” But the biggest factor might be the sheer dedication, enthusiasm and personal involvement Chris and April bring to their business.

The future always seems bright when you’re the sort of people who view a devastating fire that destroyed their Montreal premises in 1986 as “a momentary setback” that had the beneficial effect of forcing them to move into more suitable space.

Wide-eyed and fresh-faced, April is looking forward to, and designing for, the turn of the century. All 1999 April Cornell designs will have a special “1999” label sewn into them to celebrate the end of the century. Even their range of fabric dolls, dressed to match their children’s clothing, will have shoe ribbons bearing the date.

“Millennium dressing!” she exclaims: “It’s going to be a big celebration. If you’re ever going to go out in your life you’re going to go out on New Year’s Eve 1999! Everybody will need a party dress!” And she has just the thing for you!