Wholly Owned Subsidiary of Taylor Corporation
Sales: $231 million (1997)
NAIC: 323119 Other Commercial Printing; 454110 Electronic Shopping and Mail-order Houses; 511191 Greeting Card Publishers; 511199 All Other Publishers
Current, Inc. sells social expression gifts, greeting cards, stationery, and a variety of related items by direct mail-order catalog and through the company’s web site. Current manufactures many gift items and prints all paper products at its facilities in Colorado Springs. Paper products include everyday note cards, greeting cards for every holiday and occasion, gift wrap, stationery, rolled address labels, and related stationery items. Gift items include toys, women’s and children’s clothing, household decorative items, and household gadgets. Current mails 35 million catalogs to about six million customers annually.
From a 1940s Cottage Industry to a Leader in Direct Mail-Order Marketing
Current, Inc. originated as Looart Press, a greeting card and stationery company started by Orin and Mariam Loo in 1947. A Swedish artist and lithographer, Orin worked at Hallmark Cards in Kansas City for ten years before moving his family to Colorado Springs for the cooler climate and a change. After a year as art director at a local stationery firm, Orin gathered his savings and borrowed $2,000 from his father-in-law to start his own company. He designed ten Christmas cards, which he displayed in a simple, black photo album from Wool worth’s and presented for sale to card shop owners in Colorado Springs. His second year in business Orin expanded the line to 17 card designs and generated $7,000 in sales. He also marketed Christmas cards to local companies and printed their names inside the cards.
The early years of the business were a constant struggle. The Loos operated the business from their home with a printing press in the basement. Orin used the family sunroom for an art studio and office and Mariam filled orders at the dining room table. Orin sought outside investment and finally managed to obtain a $5,000 bank loan to keep the business going. In 1950 Orin sold a 40 percent interest in the business to Danforth Killips, an investment banker in Evanston, Illinois.
Mariam started the mail-order end of the business in 1950 while trying to find a market for Orin’s boxed note paper, called Post-a-Notes. She decided to try promoting card and stationery sales as a fund-raising activity for nonprofit organizations by offering the products at a low wholesale rate. Mariam mailed product samples to more than 400 church groups, primarily women’s groups. The response was enthusiastic and the company’s mail-order business took shape. Mariam added deco-rated recipe cards and designs to the note paper, eventually developing four designs each. She used an outside printer and boxed the orders at home. The Loo children delivered the orders to the post office after school.
The stationery and direct mail-order businesses grew and by 1960 the Loos regained complete ownership of the company. The two operations continued to operate from the Loo home until 1960, when they relocated operations for the first time. The Loos’ two sons, Dusty and Gary, joined the company in 1962 and 1964, respectively. Current added new products, such as post cards, personalized stationery, calendars, posters, children’s storybooks and coloring books, as well as gift items and home decorations, with many items being produced by the company. Continued growth required two more moves, until the company settled into new headquarters on Stone Road in 1968. The company expanded that facility twice within three years, adding 45,000 square feet of space for manufacturing and ware-house facilities, including a four-color press for in-house production. The executive offices were relocated to the new addition and the original offices were used for an art studio and a data processing center. Current invested $765,000 in the facility upgrade and $500,000 on new equipment.
Renaming the Company in 1967
The structure of the company changed after Orin Loo retired in 1967. The two companies merged and the mail-order business took the name Current, Inc. Mariam chose the name for its implication of being contemporary. Looart Press became a holding company for the Current brand and mail-order business, forming two divisions, Looart Retail Products Division and Current Direct Mail Order Products. Eventually, the company dropped Looart and used only the Current name. The company also changed through the 1970 acquisition of American Stationery Company of Peru, Indiana. The addition of more than 40 direct mail-order products, including personalized stationery, Christmas cards, and related items, nearly doubled Current’s annual sales.
When Mariam retired in 1970, her children persuaded her to write a cookbook for the company’s mail-order catalog. Using her own family recipes, she wrote Mariam B. Loo’s Family Favorites. The cookbook sold more than 600,000 copies, prompting Mariam to write another cookbook. She rented a test kitchen from a local cooking teacher whom she hired to test recipes. After a visit to the test kitchens of Betty Crocker and Sunset magazine, Mariam added two more home economists and two more test kitchens where new recipes were created for more than a dozen more cookbooks over the next decade. The cookbooks featured economical, family cooking; titles included Meals of Many Lands, with recipes that children could prepare. Mariam also designed 17 recipe calendars.
By the late 1970s the company required additional operating space and constructed a new facility on Woodmen Road on 112 acres. Completed in 1979, by 1981 Current doubled the ware-house space. The company set up a fast and efficient order-filling system involving 4,000 feet of conveyer belts that transported shipping boxes to employees who filled the orders from computer-generated order forms.
The company grew dramatically in the early 1980s. In 1981 Current opened its first retail store in Phoenix, OWLS Stores, Inc.; the fourth store opened in the company’s home city, Colorado Springs, in 1985. Hoping to broaden its customer base beyond women over 30 with children, Current doubled its product offering in the 1984 Christmas catalog to more than 800 items, most of them produced by Current. New products involved license agreements to use Crayola and Cabbage Patch Kids themes. The company purchased a new six-color press, which printed more than 1.4 million sheets of various paper products each week. In 1986 Current began a successful new enterprise, selling checks to consumers by direct mail.
The company mailed six different full-color catalogs each year to more than six million customers. Current’s method of catalog distribution was based on the purchasing history of each customer. Low-volume customers received fewer catalogs each year than high-volume customers. The system also matched product offerings in each catalog to a customer’s product preferences. With more than 1,000 employees, Current filled more than three million orders per year, most just before Christmas when the company employed about 1,500 workers. With annual sales at more than $100 million, Current had become the largest direct mail marketer of greeting cards, stationery, gifts, and related products. Current’s unusually low prices, for a direct mail marketer, suggested unseen potential for other mail-order businesses.
New Ownership in the Late 1980s
The company continued its successful growth during its first years under new ownership. The Loo family sold Current to American Can in late 1986 for $114 million. Barely more than a year later, that company sold Current to Deluxe Check Printers for $180 million. Deluxe expected the market for checks to slow, being a mature business, and sought to diversify into similar businesses. Current, Inc. formed the Consumer Specialty Products Division at the company, renamed Deluxe Corporation.
During Current’s first full year under Deluxe, 1989, sales increased 18 percent to $187.7 million. During that year Current distributed 43 million catalogs to more than six million customers. In 1989 the company received 6.4 million customer orders, resulting in the shipment of more than 59 million units. Current produced about two-thirds of its product line, 2,000 different items, with all greeting cards, gift wrap, and other printed products produced in-house. In 1989 Current received an award from the Shop-at-Home Directory for overall customer satisfaction.
National economic matters challenged Current’s profitability. The company averted a potentially slow holiday shopping season as national recession threatened in 1990. Current reduced the minimum order from 16 units to 12 units and sought new customers through customer list rentals and newspaper advertising. The company also added new paper stock, new products, and new product designs. Sales increased 16 percent despite the recession. By 1991 and 1992 the recession quickened and sales growth dropped significantly, although overall sales did not decline. Income did decline, however, due to a postal increase in February 1991. The company reduced the size and weight of its catalogs as well as the number of catalogs mailed by fine-tuning its target marketing. Sales promotions also helped to increase revenues and unit sales.
Areas of growth included new specialty products, such as an unusual line of greeting cards, Say Anything Cards. School Matters featured teaching aids and classroom rewards. A major area of growth involved direct mail checks. Current was the largest supplier of direct mail checks, with more than 20 check styles, such as the popular Elvis check set introduced in 1993. In 1994, the company added a line of checks for small businesses.
The core of Current is the creative people who fill each page of our catalogs with warm, colorful greeting, note cards, gift wrap and stationery, address labels and gifts—many exclusively designed.
Deluxe’s ownership of Current affected Current in a variety of ways. Deluxe purchased Paper Direct, a direct mail marketer of paper and software to desktop publishers, and combined printing and order fulfillment operations with Current operations at the Woodmen facility. Sales at Current slowed while expenses rose, including the cost of paper and newspaper insert advertising, and a ten percent increase in postal rates. In an attempt to improve profitability, Deluxe initiated an employee buyout in February 1995, offering incentive packages to 550 salaried employees. Several hourly employees and 93 salaried employees, including two vice-presidents, accepted the buyout. A year later Deluxe laid off 26 employees at Current’s marketing department. Some manufacturing positions were eliminated when Deluxe discontinued production on unprofitable products, but losses continued.
Deluxe reported decreasing earnings for 1995, prompting the company to reevaluate its operations. In 1996, the Deluxe board approved the sale of Current’s “social expressions” mail-order business, as the company’s focus shifted to providing bank-related financial services. Deluxe intended to keep the direct mail check business, which continued to grow and complemented the company’s original check printing operations. Deluxe packaged Current with Paper Direct for sale, taking a $112 million write-off for the lower book value of these companies, based on an outside evaluation.
Deluxe received four unsatisfactory bids and took the companies off the market in early 1997. The difficulty in obtaining an attractive offer related to the inconsistent profitability of the two companies in recent years, primarily Paper Direct’s losses, and the overlap of Current’s check printing and social expressions operations in facilities and personnel. Deluxe began to separate the check printing and social expressions operations in preparation for a future sale, leaving Current with approximately 1,000 permanent employees, 1,250 when combined with Paper Direct employees. Deluxe took a $140 million write-down in October 1997, valuing Current for its assets only.
Current was in a kind of exile, as the parent company did not want to invest in Current but wanted it to remain profitable as an attractive purchase for another company. Jon Medved left the company as CEO and chairman in 1995, creating a void in leadership until Lee Meyer, a long-time Current employee, was appointed president of both Current and Paper Direct in July 1997. In the meantime sales dropped to $231 million for the two companies combined, a loss of $4.2 million. Although most of the sales originated with Current, all of the losses originated with Paper Direct. Meyer implemented several cost-cutting measures and improved sales. Profits improved at Current, but remained elusive at Paper Direct. After a potential sale of the two companies fell through in July 1998, Deluxe considered selling Paper Direct separately from Current, but faced the problem of overlap-ping operations in manufacturing and order entry.
Another New Parent Company in the Late 1990s
In December 1998, the Taylor Corporation purchased both Current’s social expressions business and Paper Direct. Deluxe retained Current’s check printing division, renamed Direct Checks Unlimited, and Current became the second largest company at the Taylor Corporation, a privately held company. Founded by Glen Taylor in 1975, the Taylor Corporation comprised more than 70 specialty printing and mail-order businesses located in North America, Europe, and Australia. Glen Taylor, who owned 87 percent of the company, was known for buying printing and direct mail companies with the potential to be made profitable. Each company operated under its own name and generated an estimated combined sales of $1 billion for the Taylor Corporation.
Based in North Mankato, Minnesota, Current’s new parent company brought new executive management to Current, with Mike Lloyd as president. Lloyd immediately initiated new cost controls, such as the layoff of 140 employees, including many who had been with the company for several years. Lloyd then had to establish positive relationships with the managers and employees who remained. He reinstated Current’s previous practice of quarterly manager meetings, beginning with a discussion in which managers determined core company values: trust, communication, accountability, clear focus, the value of people, and teamwork. Lloyd also instituted semi-annual meetings with employees and an open-door policy, encouraging employees to approach him with their concerns and comments. Lloyd moved his office to the main floor of company headquarters at Woodmen Road.
In August 1999 Taylor Corporation acquired Artistic Direct, Inc., formerly Artistic Greetings, and combined part of the company with Current. Artistic Direct’s main business involved rolled address labels sold through newspaper inserts. The combination of Artistic Direct and Current’s address label business made Current the second largest manufacturer of rolled address labels in the country. Taylor Corporation consolidated label operations with Current, creating 100 new jobs, and combined Artistic Direct’s mail-order business with another Taylor-owned company.
- Company founded as Looart Press by Orin and Mariam Loo.
- Mariam Loo offers stationery to churches for low wholesale price, launching direct mail-order business.
- Company moves to first location outside of Loo home.
- Permanent headquarters are completed.
- Mariam Loo writes first of several cookbooks.
- Company builds new facility, doubles space within two years.
- Current introduces check designs, available by mail-order.
- Deluxe Corporation purchases company.
- Deluxe acquires Paper Direct and combines certain operations with Current.
- Deluxe sells Current’s social expressions business to Taylor Corporation.
Lloyd implemented a number of strategies to improve business operations at Current. The company invested in Current’s Internet site, leading to an increase in customer orders, which accounted for five percent of 1999 sales. The company added new products, such as women’s and children’s clothing and children’s toys, to attract younger customers. A new line of greeting cards and gifts involved Christian themes. Current returned to the business of printing and distributing personalized checks, this time for other vendors. Capital improvements included a $500,000 rewire and upgrades to Current’s call center and structural improvements at the Woodmen Road headquarters. The company planned to build a 200,000-square-foot manufacturing center in Colorado Springs.
Lillian Vernon Corporation; Fingerhut Companies, Inc.
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