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Q&A: Doug & Susan Williams, Owners, Jackson-based Kalalou

Couple turns vision into money-making formula during recession

For 25 years Doug and Susan Williams have operated a Jackson-based company now called Kalalou. Their most significant business achievement to date is growing their business 80 percent during the recession. Kalalou sells 1,500 hand-made glass, wood, twig, iron and ceramic products from nine countries to 10,000 retail stores.

The company, formerly called Country Originals, made Inc. Magazine’s 500 Fastest Growing Privately Held Companies list in 1991 and 1992, and was listed among 51 American Success Stories in Entrepreneur Magazine representing Mississippi. Susan has been named one of the MBJ’s 50 Leading Business Women.

They help provide medical care, education, food and shelter for children in Haiti, Colombia, Honduras, and here in Mississippi through their Doug & Susan’s Kids Foundation.

Q — How did you handle the recession?
A — Doug:
About three years ago, we noticed the economy. I had this vision that things were just sort of going to get worse and worse. In the middle of 2006, 2007, we decided we’ve got to develop a sales department and be so much more aggressive on the sales side. We said we’re either going to for it full-force and if it doesn’t work, we’re going to do something else. If we don’t do it and we fail, we would have always regretted not giving it our full force. We hired a VP of sales and ended up putting together over the past three or four years a tele-sales department.

Susan: We changed our name.

Doug: From Country Originals to Kalalou, rebranded ourselves in the market out there right in the middle of the worst economy. Our business grew 80 percent in 2009. What we did was obviously the right thing to do.

Susan: 2009 was the biggest (trade) show ever in the history of our company and the worst economy.

Doug: Everything you read says, “Don’t cut back.” At the time we did it, all of our competitors were crashing and cutting back. The majority of companies in our industry out there work with manufacturers rep’s that are on the road going to mom-and-pop gift stores and furniture stores with Kalalou’s catalog in their hands along with 20 other catalogues. We didn’t have a whole lot of control over them. During this whole process as well we started At West End magazine.

Susan: (At West End) is straight to the consumer. You might find this in your mail box.

Q — How big do you want your company to get?
A — Doug:
We did about $18 million last year. We were $10 million two years ago. I don’t have any desire to be $30 million or $40 or $50. As long as our profit margins our growing, that’s the most important thing in our business. We have profit-sharing, so 10 percent of our profits go to our employees. We want to continue to grow our bottom line.

Q — How did y’all meet?
A — Doug:
In college. We were both art majors at (the University of Southern Mississippi). We grew up in Clinton, but we didn’t know each other. We met (at a fraternity-sorority swap.) Then we became cheerleader partners. I walked on to play football at Southern and decided I was tired of it. Susan said, “We need some big, strong guys for cheerleading.” We had a blast.

Q — How did y’all start selling products?

A — Susan: We were painting pigs and chickens on scraps of wood we found, doing flea markets. That’s how we were making a little extra money off the side to pay the light bill.

Q — How did Country Originals, now called Kalalou, develop?
A — Susan:
We went to Jamaica on vacation with our friends. It was one of those cheap ones — $500, included your air fare and your hotel. But when we saw these baskets in Jamaica, Doug wanted to go back. He said, “We could sell these things.” I said, “We don’t have enough money to go back.” He said, “That’s why I was thinking about going by myself.” So we took all the money out of the savings, $1,500 – that was it to our name – and he went back to Jamaica all by himself and arranged for our very first shipment of baskets. And they came in and we sold that first container load of baskets (probably 3,000 or 4,000) in four weekend flea markets.

Doug: We dyed them all different colors. For a couple years we were known as “the basket people.”

Susan: Miracle No. 1 was Jamaica let Doug have the baskets with 30 days to pay. Nobody does that today. The baskets came to us basically with no money down – which was good because we had no money – but the ocean freight wanted their $2,000 for freight. We paid that freight bill with our American Express card (in a cash advance which was due back in 30 days). Within 30 days we paid them off and called Jamaica and ordered another container.

Q — Were you afraid that if you didn’t sell the baskets you’d really be in trouble?
A — Doug:
We never doubted it. I think if we had thought about it too much, we never would have done anything. Susan and I have said this all our business life: If it feels good, do it.

Q — How much do you work?
A — Susan:
24/7.

Doug: I have no hobbies. This is mine. I love my work. … One of the reasons, too, I personally work so much is we do so much business on the other side of the world.

Q — Hobbies?
A — Susan:
I’m a foxhunter. That’s my main hobby, and it only lasts from September through March. (I hunt) mostly in Canton. It’s really just like old world England.

We wear the black, velvet hard hats and the black and red jackets.

Q — Advice to entrepreneurs?
A — Doug:
Susan always says if you’re thinking about doing something, don’t quit your day job. Make sure you have your act together before you take a step off the ledge, and I agree with that 100 percent. But when it’s time don’t think a whole lot about it. Go for it. If it feels good, do it.

Susan: I think there are true entrepreneurs and then there are people who just want to be entrepreneurs. There’s a big difference. If you’re a true entrepreneur, there’s something in your gut you’re going after, and you just don’t see any other avenue but success. There’s that goal you’re after. There’s something there that is inside you that you know how to do so well. What we did 25 years ago was something we knew how to do so well, which was sell baskets at flea markets.

Doug: It really and truly is all about hard work. You better enjoy what you do.

More on Doug & Susan:
Favorite/recently watched movies:
Doug:
“Pulp Fiction”
Susan: Anything on an overseas flight

Favorite Foods:
Doug:
Strawberry cake at Newk’s
Susan: Italian

Favorite books:
Doug:
“Growing a Business” by Paul Hawken
Susan: Foxhunting books by Mississippi author Allison Crews

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