Success by Design

At Clover Creek in Hinesburg, Holly Boardman designs and crafts hand-made invitations that command big bucks and celebrity attention.

by Cal Workman

Since starting her Hinesburg business, Clover Creek, in 1993, Holly Boardman has grown her custom invitation business from $12,000 to $350,000 in sales as her reputation as a trend-setter has grown within the industry.

The letters "C C" engraved on the wooden shutters of a trim little brick house in Hinesburg's village center once stood for Carpenter Carse, the town's public library. The building now serves a new clientele, namely more than 450 retailers and event planners in 42 states who purchase sample books of the elegant invitations created by Holly Boardman's design company, Clover Creek. Her designs are.

The maple shelves lining the buiding's interior once housed children's fairy tales, classic fiction and new releases. Today, with nameplates intact, the shelves hold the colorful ribbons, papers and embellishments Boardman and her in-house staff of three use for her unusual designs. Tables scattered throughout the open space display sample invitations to milestone events and celebrations, including weddings, birth announcements, corporate events, bar mitzvahs and holiday parties.

"We're just a little dinky cottage industry in Vermont," says Boardman with a smile "but the standard I've set has pushed the benchmark of invitation design to a whole new level."

No doubt about it: The designs are drop-dead gorgeous. Receiving one of these sumptuous invitations in the mail could be cause for celebration in itself and hints of a momentous occasion warranting a black tie and bottle of the finest champagne.

Each design set of invitations and envelopes is meticulously presented on mat board, assembled loosely together with other designs and placed into unusual, customized "clam shell" boxes dressed with luscious fabrics or textured papers tied with a satin ribbon. Each sample collection set commands up to $500.

Retailers purchase the sample books and place individual orders for their customers while reaping a tidy 50 percent profit. Boardman's profit margin is much smaller at 18 percent. She says the average wholesale order is $1,500; the typical individual order is about $3,000 for 100 wedding invitation and response sets.

Clearly, these invitations are not for everyone. Boardman's designs are custom-made and affordable to a niche market.

Laurie Karzen, a consultant in the gifts and stationery industry for 25 years and columnist for the trade publication Gifts & Dec Magazine, describes the Clover Creek line as "top shelf. Holly is on trend before the others in the business," says Karzen. "Each invitation is perfectly done. She always delivers high-quality work, and that's of great value."

"I don't ever expect to sell millions," admits Boardman, "but my goal is to be the number one design company for the invitation industry within this niche."

She seems to be well on her way toward attaining her goal. Since she started her business in 1993, sales have climbed steadily from $12,000 to $350,000 as her reputation as a trend-setter has grown within the industry. Her designs have been nominated three times for the highly coveted Louis Awards sponsored by the Greeting Card Association. Her booth at the national stationery show is always mobbed, and soon after the show, cheap knock-offs of her designs appear in the marketplace. Celebrities, including Arnold Schwarzenegger, Tom Arnold, Stevie Wonder, George Steinbrenner and Van Halen's Sammy Hagar have purchased custom invitations from Boardman prompting her to design a new lavish Hollywood line.

Slow and steady growth has been Clover Creek's mantra throughout its nine years in business. The company began as a hobby business out of Boardman's home on the urging of her then-boyfriend, Dan Boardman, who couldn't believe the kind of hours she worked as a designer for Jager diPaolo Kemp. While she admits she "rocked and rolled" on designs late into the evening, she insists the three years spent at the studio served her well.

"Working there was like going to grad school," she says. "They taught me a sense of design. Now I tweak my designs until I get them just right. That value was instilled in me at Jager."

Fresh out of college with a graphics design degree from Pratt, Boardman had planned to head to California, but derailed her plans when she landed the job at Jager. There she handled all design work for Merrell, her biggest account, as well as all package design for Twincraft's Twinscents line. She designed everything from the marketing and point of purchase materials, dealer catalogs, hang tags and box designs to actual footwear product design, selecting patterns and choosing colors for the footbed, sandal webbing and shoe laces.

One of her specialties was creating impressive presentations for clients. "It was a labor of love, but it was great. I pulled out raffia ribbons and other embellishments to make presentations visually pleasing," she said.

Julie Basol (left) in charge of customer care, handles sales and marketing, customer service and the company's newsletter. Jo Unwin is production coordinator. The maple shelves filled with ribbons, papers and embellishments, still bear the nameplates of the books they once held.

This experience of marrying visual design with tangible textures provided good practice for her work as an invitation designer.

The business side of things presented more of a challenge. Boardman was certain she could design for the invitation industry, but to learn the ropes of running a business, she enrolled in the Women's Small Busines Project (WSBP). There she learned how to write a business plan and, in the process, discovered she couldn't make a mail-order invitation business work. "More than anything, WSBP gave me the confidence to say I can do this. It was a very supportive environment," said Boardman.

On the recommendations of friends, Boardman sent mini sample books featuring handmade papers to several retailers for $50 apiece and she pulled some orders from some of them. Others responded with a piece of advice.

"They encouraged me to follow the industry standard by designing larger-format gaudy-looking cards," says Boardman "but I stuck with what I liked, a smaller format with smaller typeface."

Her gut instinct to go with what appealed to her sensibility paid off eight months later when Boardman took out a booth at the Jacob Javits Center for the annual stationery show and was overwhelmed by the response. In four days she received orders for 98 sample books.

To meet demand, she worked in overdrive for four months straight with help from more than 12 friends and hired high school students. Home was turned inside out.

"There was something going on in every room of the house. It took over my life, but it was a wonderful feeling." she says.

Creating the books required a lot of materials ribbons, hand-made paper, mat board, glue and that required an injection of cash, money that Boardman did not have at the ready. So to finance her start up, Boardman juggled 14 credit cards.

"I maxed out every one," she says, "and I was too afraid and too busy to open my mail."

Finally, two friends offered to sit down with Boardman and tackle her enormous basket filled with more than 40 pieces of unopened mail. Together they sorted them into piles with the intention of setting up payment plans.

"It was a mess. I didn't take Visa at the time. Some were sent pre-paid, some were sent COD, some I just hoped they'd pay eventually. Then we found more than $7,000 in COD checks from UPS. I couldn't believe it. I thought they were all bills!" she says, laughing.

Julie Basol (left), Jo Unwin, Holly Boardman and her son, Quinn, pose in front of Clover Creek's headquarters, once home to the Carpenter Carse Library in Hinesburg. When they saw the C's on the shutters, they knew this was the right building for their business.

Those days are long gone. Today, Boardman can afford the services of a bookkeeper who comes in one day a week. She employs three full-time staff members who have taken over most of the invoicing, typesetting, production, shipping and customer service, and three additional part-time homeworkers assemble customer orders. Boardman still keeps a hand in the day-to-day operations and easily knows all her accounts on a friendly first-name basis. But now she can concentrate more fully on the design and creation of new collections meeting a grueling schedule to unveil new lines every 18 months.

Boardman takes enormous pride in two things: the company's ability to do completely custom work and the congenial professional relationship she has built with Clover Creek's wholesale customers throughout the country.

"Very few companies have the elegance and look of ours. Moreover, customers can call and say I want this ribbon on this paper and this envelope and we can do it. That makes each invitation really special and personalized for the person who ordered it. And that is what distinguishes us from other companies."

She adds "I have a fabulous relationship with my active dealers. When they call they don't speak to a fast talking sales representative who pushes sales with incentives and they don't get poured into a voice mail menu. They talk directly to us. They know us by name and they know our faces from shaking our hands at the trade show. They always ask about my family and kids. I love that about my business."

The name Clover Creek was inspired by Boardman's working farm, a 20-acre tract of land in Charlotte next to the LaPlatte River that sits in a carpet of sweet-smelling clover. Fittingly, the designs are also inspired by Vermont's pastoral surroundings. Wild flowers, diminutive oak leaves and other natural flora accent several designs. Even the annual trade show booth exudes Vermont charm with its use of an antique barn door as a display table surrounded by farm shutters pulled from architectural salvage yards "a far cry from the steel-walled corporate giants who bring in hard walls and pillars."

Boardman believes Vermont companies enjoy special benefits operating in this state.

"Being in Vermont, you get a lot of hand-holding from the community. There is such great spirit in the state and that homegrown support allows us to blossom out and take on challenges."

The other benefit of the state is that it is here that Holly Martone met her future husband, Dan Boardman. She was a high school sophomore, and he was a junior at St. Lawrence who came to the school to address her basketball camp.

"He noticed my long legs and great jump shot, and when I met him, I thought to myself, 'I hope when I go to college, I'll meet a cool guy like that!'"

They met again later when Boardman returned to Vermont after college and, she exclaims, "He scooped me up fast." She remembers that Dan, a fourth-generation Vermonter, held her hand and said, "Holly, if you marry me, we're here for life. Vermont is where my roots are and I'm never leaving."

Today, Dan Boardman's profession as a financial planner has come in handy at times. He helps out with the big financial picture, and, she says with a chuckle, "He has no problem telling me what's going wrong."

Clover Creek took a more serious turn with the move out of the home and into the Hinseburg building in the fall of 2001.

"We used to decide our own hours and have breakfast together every day. Now that we have a mortgage to pay, we are far more serious about the business."

Boardman and most of her team still work a flexible schedule, but when they're in the office, they are highly focused and productive. Boardman spends three days in the office and checks in twice a day by phone on the days she's
out. The other two days she devotes to her two children, 3-year-old son Briggs and 10-month old daughter Quinn.

"I didn't skip a beat having them. I had Briggs on a Tuesday and was back in that Friday because we had to get sample books out. With Quinn I was back at work in a couple days. I'd set up a nursery in the basement, and when they were sleeping I'd run upstairs and make a call. Now it's a little more tricky."

Boardman says she does absolutely no marketing, but nevertheless, she's skillfully taken steps to position herself in the marketplace. For the last four years, she's taken out a full-page ad in Martha Stewart Weddings magazine. She doesn't expect to recoup the ad cost, but the ad leaves an indelible impression on the consumer, elevates the company profile and helps retailers promote her lines. Needless to say, each invitation set featured in the ad becomes a runaway best-seller.

Boardman believes word of mouth markets the company best. "Someone receives one of our invitations, and then their little sister or cousin sees it and wants it for their wedding. The more design that goes out, the more people find us."

She also sends out a quarterly newsletter to active accounts, keeping the name Clover Creek at the top of their minds. The newsletter reflects the business's warmth and personality. It's loaded with trade information, but it also includes pictures and news tidbits about the Boardman family along with humorous trivia, such as the following from the winter 2001 issue: "In the 1500s, most people married in June because they took their yearly bath in May. They were still smelling pretty good in June; however, brides began carrying a bouquet of flowers to hide their body odor."

Boardman says her entrepreneurial streak runs in the family. Her mother ran the Willard Heights retirement home, now the Willard Street Inn; and her brother, Anthony, started Martone's market in Essex Junction. Born in Springfield, Mass., Boardman was the baby in a family of three children her older sister, Katherine, is a public defender in New York City.

The family moved to Chittenden County when Boardman was in the fifth grade, although it was in second grade that Boardman experienced what she calls "one of my proudest moments" and identifies as a harbinger of destiny. She won a contest for designing Valentine's Day card seals. First prize was a box of chocolates.

Destiny or not, with a sentiment probably shared by other business owners, there are days when Boardman wishes she could clock in and have someone else write her paycheck. Then she reminds herself that she created a business from scratch and she's doing precisely what she wants to do.

"There are those people who are running a business because it was their father's business or they think they can make money on it, but they're not having fun. I love what I do, and I'm having fun. I'm on top of a wave and I'm going for it."

Originally published in October 2002 Business People-Vermont