Meet Laura Johnson
Meet Laura Johnson This Tallahassee tycoon has turned touches of whimsy into a multi-million-dollar business by Rosanne Dunkelberger
After her third daughter was born in 1995, Laura Johnson continued a tradition and pressed little Sarah Parker’s handprints into some clay.
“I drove over to the old timey pottery studio on Tharpe Street and had her fire them for me,” Johnson recalls. “While I was in there, I saw these plates — greenware …. I bought six and I took them home, sat in my dining room and painted my three daughters’ names. My sister has three girls and I painted their names on (the other three). And I took them back, fired ’em and gave (the plates) to them for Christmas.”
A girlfriend who saw her holiday table set with the cheerful, colorful plates with names hand-painted in a funky font told Laura she wanted to order three. “I said, ‘I’m not even making them yet.’ She said, ‘Just make them, I’ll buy them.’ ”
At the time, Johnson was already selling dyed and painted clothing — a line she called Coton Colors — at a local store, so she just added the plates to her offerings. Painting pottery in her garage, Johnson also sold pieces in other stores in the region. Within a year, she dropped the clothing line, opened a studio, recruited her family — mother, father and sister — and, with their help, went to market in Atlanta and sold ’em like crazy.
And so, the polka dot pottery juggernaut that is Coton Colors began.
From those half dozen personalized plates, Johnson’s Tallahassee-based business has grown to a line that includes about 1,100 different items sold in 3,000 outlets. Pottery pieces — platters, plates, bowls, plaques — and painted glass ornaments are the heart of the line. The products have a distinctive look, most with bold stripes or polka dots and motifs that are simple and childlike. She has branched out and put her whimsical touch on wood and melamine as well as resin figurines. Coton Colors is licensed to create products with the insignias of 45 different colleges and has just launched a line of sorority items.
Coton Colors also sells products from its own website (cotton-colors.com) as well as two retail storefronts, one run by Johnson’s sister in Tampa, where most of the company’s ornaments are shipped from, the other run by her mother in Tallahassee. Her father is the company’s CFO.
The bulk of the company’s operations are based in a pair of warehouses on the outskirts of Tallahassee. Johnson says the company has “40-some-odd” employees, including 12 sales representatives throughout the Southeast. The number grows between September and December, when the company does about 40 percent of its annual business.
From 2008 to 2010, the company’s sales doubled to $6.5 million. The plan, she says, is to top $10 million in two years. “When CPAs look at that, they freak out; they’re amazed,” by the company’s success in the midst of recession, says Johnson.
What drove that explosive growth, she says, was a decision made in the mid-2000s to move the production operation to China. In the beginning, the pottery making and painting was done in Tallahassee by a slew of high school and college girls, some of whom continue to work in Coton Colors’ headquarters today.
“The production (process) was aging, it just wasn’t my love,” Johnson explains. “I picked the hardest product in the world to make well. Plus, to get the price right and to get the quality good; it’s very difficult.” Even adding the cost of shipping products halfway around the world, the price of a similar product created here would be double that of a Chinese-made one.
Still, Johnson’s decision wasn’t all that deliberative and it wasn’t all that easy.
Johnson says when selling her wares at wholesale markets — they have permanent booths at markets in Atlanta and Dallas — she was constantly approached by people encouraging her to let them take over the manufacturing process. Because she was busy at market and even busier once she returned to Tallahassee creating products to fill orders, Johnson says she never had time to seriously consider outsourcing manufacture of her products.
Her sister met and liked one man who asked if he could stop by on his way to taking his family to Disney World — in December. “There’s 550 platters I have to do for Neiman Marcus and I was like ‘What? No!’ He shows up in this little teeny compact car with his two daughters and his wife and he sat there in our little studio and my dad and I, we grilled him.” He told her, “I take all this problem away from you,” she recalls, and he drove away with her products strapped to the top of his car with bungee cords. “I’m like sure, right (but) he gave us wonderful samples. We flew out to meet him (in China). We toured the whole factory. We (started) with one container and he has been with us ever since, and he’s done a fabulous job.
“At the time it was a hard transition for us.
I didn’t want to give it up,” Johnson says.
“I was terrified. (Quality) is so important to us and we didn’t want to sacrifice anything … now it’s like old hat.”
At the time, Johnson also realized her creative options were limited by staying with the original Tallahassee operation. “There was just no way we could continue the growth that we wanted,” she explains. “Now we can really officially design and do the things that we do best. (Before) I would be so busy in production, I could never do wood. I could never do resin. I could never do paper mache. I could never do melamine. We couldn’t have our wire or tree displays without that source.”
When she was manufacturing pottery in Tallahassee, there was also breakage and packaging problems. “Now it comes perfectly packed and we label it and send it out,” she says. “They know what they’re doing. They’ve got it down. They’re the experts at that.”
Her Chinese manufacturers call her creations “easy, not-so-easy” to make. “It’s very unforgiving because it is very solidly painted, it’s very hand-painted. Although it’s very simple … if you have any problem with the background, it shows, and if there’s anything off it’s very difficult to cover it once it goes through the firing.”
To assure herself of the working conditions and the quality of the Coton Colors products, Johnson, her sister and staffers travel to China twice a year and visit about a dozen factories, some in far-flung locales.
Before her first trip, “I expected it to be machines producing things. But take a picture of their factory and take a picture of our factory and it’s very similar; people working around the table painting by hand, kilns — much larger than we have — more people, but it’s all based on (being) handmade. They talk in Chinese and I talk in English and we commiserate about the same problems: easy, not-so-easy.”
The main challenge of overseas manufacturing is managing inventory. In the past, there was never enough and it was hard to keep up with orders. “Now the trick is not to have too much,” she says. It takes about a year to develop a new product and even existing items need about 120 days to be delivered. Products are sent via shipping container, and Johnson says they will receive about one a week during their busy season.
Coton Colors’ signature style has its imitators — “Which is the ultimate compliment, right?” Johnson says with a touch of chagrin. She admits copycats are “a little frustrating,” but believes her work stands out because of the continuously changing designs and the quality of the products. “We’ve never succumbed to the cheap,” she says. “When we source, we only source with the finest and they are trained well by us and they do a fine job for us. We could do this a whole lot cheaper, but we can’t bring ourselves to do it. We never compromise.”
Coton Colors products are found mostly in stores throughout the Southeast (although the company’s No. 1 wholesaler is in Ohio). “We are growing organically. What we have found is that … if we concentrate somewhere, we are going to sell it,” she says.
Part of the Coton Colors success story is their support of companies that carry their products. “We put a lot of time and effort into helping them grow, giving them marketing support and advertising and workshops.” Their products are appealing to collectors in a fashion similar to Vera Bradley or Pandora beads — some products “retire,” while new ones are promoted and anxiously anticipated. Dealers are ranked based on their purchases as Partner, Preferred or Premier, with those at the top level being offered exclusive products for their customers.
Coton Colors also focuses on a good working environment for its employees, Johnson says. “I spend a lot of time in this office and so do a lot of people who (work) here. It doesn’t have to be a dungeon or a jail; we do try to have fun.” She is also a believer in sharing during profitable years (which has happened for the past five years). “Everybody enjoys a bonus, no matter who they are and what they do.”
Management has its eyes on expansion into new markets, as well as branding a Coton Colors lifestyle.
To that end, Johnson and her friend, Susie Murray, coauthored what they plan to be the first of four cookbooks. Published last November, the book includes recipes and stories promoting casual, easygoing entertaining. The book is also supported by an interactive website, blog and additional products. In January, the company launched a new line of kitchenware, including dinner plates, mixing bowls, measuring spoons and utensils.
“This brand can expand to a little bit more contemporary flair, a little bit more muted flair and you’ll see as we mature that … we’re just holding back,” she says.