By Michelle Prather
Comedians often target the South as redneck heaven, but Deborah R. and Jim Ford Jr., owners of Entrepreneur's Hot 100 No. 35-ranked Grits Inc. in Birmingham, Alabama, make it their business to create a positive image of the place they call home. Their affection for Southern traditions has blossomed into success worth millions.
The husband-and-wife team found its niche in the gift and apparel industries by putting phrases that exemplify Southern traditions and upbringing (such as "Southern Girls Don't Sweat-They Glisten") on mugs, wine glasses, pillows, apparel and more. Their story dates back to August 1995, when native Alabaman Deborah, now 45, screen-printed a phrase she's heard most of her life, "Grits: Girls Raised In The South," onto her volleyball players' T-shirts at the junior high school where she taught and coached. A few months later, she met Jim, now 47, who saw dollar signs in the catch phrase. With an extensive background in sales and marketing, he told his soon-to-be-wife he thought she was sitting on a gold mine. Deborah then applied to trademark the "Grits" phrase and thought up 25 more Southern sayings, such as "PMS: Precious Moody Southerners" and "Southern Girls Know That Friends Are Forevah."
When they sold $65,000 worth of embroidered goods, such as T-shirts, sweatshirts and hats, at the Atlanta Apparel Mart's July Gift Show in 1996, the now-married couple decided to quit their jobs and take on Grits full time. "At the next show, we did more than $100,000, and at the next show, we did more than $150,000," says Jim.
The days of relying only on trade shows for visibility are long gone. No strangers to the word "expansion," the Fords have increased their warehouse space three times, and for good reason: They now have 1,620 active accounts, including Lebanon, Tennessee-based restaurant chain Cracker Barrel and 500 Hallmark stores. And this year's Atlanta Gift Mart will see the premiere of a voice chip-enhanced book and stuffed animal series geared toward youngsters.
Success didn't come without some hurdles, however: The Fords encountered theft early on-$50,000 worth of merchandise was stolen from one of their warehouses-and their $4 million-plus sales figures for 1997 could have been close to $5 million if they hadn't suffered an $800,000 loss in revenue due to vendor shipping delays. But a booming business makes it easier to recover. Jim attributes their overwhelming success to their distribution network, the strength of their trademark, their devoted staff and recent CFO addition Doug Johnson.
With Deborah's flair for color, style and catchy sayings, and Jim's knack for running a business, these dynamos are making millions embracing-and marketing-the South. The Fords project sales of $8 million for 1998 and hope to expand nationwide.