Pumpkin Masters, Inc.
Pumpkin Masters, Inc.
Private Company Incorporated: 1986
Sales: $10 million (2001 est.)
NAIC: 339943 Marking Device Manufacturing; 339999 All Other Miscellaneous Manufacturing
Colorado-based Pumpkin Masters, Inc. is the nation’s leading producer of pumpkin carving kits and Halloween decorating products. Its products, available largely through mass retailers such as Target and Wal-Mart, include patterns, saws, candles, and candleholders. The company is 80 percent-owned by the publicly traded, Connecticut-based Security Capital Corporation, which also owns Possible Dreams (a seasonal giftware manufacturer) and Primrose (a preschool franchiser). In the early 2000s, Pumpkin Masters was focusing on bringing the pumpkin carving concept to a wider audience, particularly in Europe.
1983 Origins Based on a Family Tradition
Paul Bardeen was a safety engineer who loved Halloween, especially carving pumpkins. As Bardeen’s family grew, he looked for even safer ways to involve his children in his favorite holiday and favorite part of that holiday, carving pumpkins. He wanted to develop both an easier and safer way of making elaborate designs. Bardeen began experimenting with pattern making and devising small carving tools. His system consisted of using small saws and drill bits and, after trial and error, poking holes into a pumpkin from a pattern to transfer the design. Each year the pumpkins became more elaborate and were the envy of the neighborhood. Local newspapers often ran stories, accompanied by pictures of the Bardeens’ latest creations. In addition to his own children, Bardeen also taught the neighborhood children his techniques for carving pumpkins and eventually held demonstrations at schools and community centers.
John Bardeen fondly recalled carving pumpkins with his father, when he was growing up in Racine, Wisconsin. Bardeen graduated from the University of Wisconsin-Madison in 1968. He moved to Denver, Colorado, where he helped develop a building company, U.S. Tennis Court and Track Builders. Bardeen’s father died in 1983, and Bardeen and his four sisters—Dione, Janice, Pat, and Kathie—decided that a marketable pumpkin carving kit would be a nice tribute to their father’s enthusiasm and expertise.
The original Pumpkin Masters carving kit took three years to develop. During that time, Bardeen’s wife, Kea, retired from her law practice to help Bardeen launch the new company, Pumpkin Ltd., with headquarters in the Bardeen home.
Test-marketed in local grocery and craft stores, the kits originally retailed for $10 each, but the Bardeens quickly decided to scale back the kit’s contents and reduce its cost to around $5, a more reasonable price for a seasonal impulse item. Sales continued and even improved. The Bardeens were ready to serve a larger population.
Convincing the Public in the Mid-1980s
In fact, the Bardeens had the kits in stores across the United States within four years of their company’s inception. This was largely due to innovative marketing, as the company worked to convince people of the need for special pumpkin carving kits when they already had perfectly serviceable knives in their kitchen.
In their first year, 1986, Pumpkin Masters placed about 6,000 kits in a Denver grocery chain, some toy stores, and a few craft stores. That initial trial was successful, so the company hired a Chicago-based marketing firm, who had national sales representatives, and a large public relations firm to take the carving kits nationwide.
Based on the early success, the marketing firm predicted sales of 600,000 kits for 1987. Riding the enthusiasm, Pumpkin Masters obtained bank financing and letters of credit to have 235,000 kits made overseas. Unfortunately, the sales target was way off—only 50,000 kits were sold through the efforts of the marketing firm. The public relations firm also failed to produce excitement over the company. Thanks to the efforts of Pumpkin Masters, a total of 92,000 kits were sold in 1997, but the company owed the bank $250,000 and a Minnesota warehouse held 143,000 unsold kits, 10 percent of which were without saw blades.
Publicity Key to Success in the Late 1980s–90s
Bardeen, taking 1987 as a lesson to learn from, fired his marketing and public relation firms, and asked for and received an extension from the bank. Bardeen arranged for each carving kit to be inspected and hired his own sales representatives. In 1988, Bardeen received a call from a satisfied customer, who was also a public relations professional. She volunteered her services and, pointing out that “Monday Night Football” would be broadcasting on Halloween night that year, suggested Bardeen carve the likeness of the show’s announcers. The idea was sold to ABC, and Bardeen debuted his carvings on national television on October 31, 1988. The publicity resulting from the original “Monday Night Football” appearance led to other television appearances and the company carved pumpkins for shows such as “Wheel of Fortune,” “Seinfeld,” “Dateline NBC,” “ER,” “Monday Night Football,” “Home Improvement,” “The Rosie O’Donnell Show,” and the “Today” show. The promotions became a large part of the company’s business. By 1991, the success of the company prompted a move to larger facilities. In 1994, the name Pumpkin Masters was introduced as the trade name for Pumpkin Ltd. products.
By 1997, Pumpkin Masters had sold more than two million carving kits and was reporting sales of more than $7 million. In fact, the popularity of carving kits resulted in higher demand for and sales of pumpkins. By this time, Kea Bardeen was ready to retire, and John too began to scale back his involvement. They partnered with Security Capital Corporation, which obtained an 80 percent interest in Pumpkin Masters. Bardeen commented to Amy Berger in Income Opportunities: “Our partners don’t run the company on a day-to-day basis, but we take their input very seriously. Now Kea has money off the table for her retirement and I can still have a hand in Pumpkin Masters by contributing to promotions, public relations, marketing, product development and sourcing.”
Because of the company’s turnaround, Pumpkin Masters was a 1998 honoree in the Blue Chip Enterprise Initiative, which recognizes small businesses that overcome challenges to become successful. The company also was named a “Champion of Industry” in 1999 by MSNBC, for producing high-quality products that made pumpkin carving safer.
For Halloween 1998, Pumpkin Masters introduced new kits, with more intricate patterns and new carving tools. The kits retailed for $4.99 and also included an entry form for a national carving contest, with $10,000 in prizes. Children’s kits were available with simpler patters, plus the company offered painting kits, safety candles, and books of carving patterns.
Bardeen, noting that Halloween had become a major holiday, launched the Halloween Association in April 1998. The purpose of the association was stated as being “dedicated to promoting a positive image for Halloween and to protecting and enhancing the Halloween industry.” Bardeen’s main purpose for forming the Halloween Association was to build momentum and garner support for his pet idea, that of changing the celebration of Halloween from October 31 to the last Saturday of October. Bardeen’s arguments for changing the day of celebration for Halloween included: it would be safer for children, who would be trick-or-treating before the change to standard time; it would be better for children and teachers, as the celebration would not be on a school day; it would result in higher sales because of adult parties; it would be better for businesses, as employees would not leave early to take their children trick or treating. Bardeen remained active in the Halloween Association and continued to publicize his idea for moving the traditional date for the Halloween celebration. By the beginning of the 21st century, however, the idea had failed to catch on.
By the late 1990s, Halloween was second only to Christmas in terms of holiday sales and holiday decorating, and third in terms of parties, after New Year’s Eve and Super Bowl Sunday. In 1997, Halloween-related sales were $2.5 billion, with $1 billion in costumes sales, $950 million spent on candy, and $50 million worth of greeting cards sold. By 1999, Halloween was a $5 billion business. It was estimated that in 2000 more than 80 percent of U.S. children dressed up for Halloween and went trick or treating and/or to parties. About three-quarters of U.S. adults also took part in Halloween festivities.
Pumpkin Masters was aggressive in defending its patent rights, scrutinizing retail outlets for copycat products. In 1999, Pumpkin Masters filed a lawsuit against the Disney Store, claiming patent infringement. Specifically, Pumpkin Masters demanded that Disney stop selling the Pooh Halloween Carving Kit and Pooh and Pals Pumpkin Carving Kits. Prior to 1999, the company settled suits brought against Kmart Corporation and Kraft General Foods Inc.
The company’s mission is to make products that make celebrating Halloween easier, safer and more fun for all ages.
Expanding Beyond the United States in the Late 1990s
Pumpkin Masters had sold kits in Canada for years, and beginning in 1999, it began expanding its global focus to include Europe. The U.S. Halloween holiday was piquing interest in Europe (in France in particular), with adults celebrating by hosting masquerades or other dress-up festivities. (The concept of children’s trick-or-treat had yet to gain popularity.) The carving kits Pumpkin Masters began marketing in Europe featured instructions in English, French, German, Dutch, Portuguese, and Spanish. In France, Halloween sales amounted to about $100,000 in 1996, $200,000 in 1997, $5 million in 1998, and Halloween-related sales amounted to about $10 million in 1999. Pumpkin Masters prepared to take advantage of that trend, hopefully introducing the concept of carving pumpkins to Europeans.
In 1997 Kea Bardeen retired as president of Pumpkin Masters. Gay Burke, a former consultant to Pumpkin Masters, became the company’s new president and chief executive officer. Although divorced, both Kea and John Bardeen remained active in the company—she as a consultant and he in the public relations and marketing aspects of Pumpkin Masters.
After the terrorist attacks on the United States on September 11, 2001, Pumpkin Masters produced a line of patterns called “Lanterns of Liberty.” To encourage people to carve patriotic pumpkins, the company offered free downloadable patterns on their web site. Patterns included those of President George W. Bush, the statue of Liberty, the Liberty Bell, and the Stars and Stripes. Pumpkin Masters was looking to reflect and add to U.S. patriotism and was hoping that ten million homes would have patriotic pumpkins displayed along with traditionally carved pumpkins. For those who felt carving was beyond them, Pumpkin Masters urged Americans to decorate their pumpkins with red, white, and blue paint, stickers, foil, ribbons, and construction paper.
Pumpkin Masters looked to develop even easier ways to carve and decorate pumpkins, as well as more elaborate ways. Promotions through television shows remained the company’s main form of advertising and marketing. Looking to branch out beyond Halloween, Pumpkin Masters introduced Watermelon Carving Kits and Exceptional Easter Egg Decorating Kits. The company looked to expand the non-Halloween lines into even more kits for decorating.
In 2001 Pumpkin Masters products included: Pumpkin Carving Kit—the original kit, which includes a poker, two carving saws, a drill, ten patterns, and instructions; children’s line—kits made for use by children, including Kids Carving& Activity Kit, Kids Fright Lights, Trick-Or-Treat Lighted Safety Bucket, Kids Pumpkin Punch Out, Kids Paint& Patterns, and Kids Safe Pumpkin Light; new pumpkin decorating kits, including the Sculpting Kit, Pumpkin Punch Out, and Sparkling Pumpkin Jewels; accessories—pattern books, saws for cutting pumpkin tops, scoops to clean the inside of pumpkins, and candles and holders.
HMS Mfg Co.
- Paul Bardeen, pumpkin carving innovator, dies; Pumpkin Ltd. is formed by his children.
- The first pumpkin carving kit is introduced in Denver.
- A patent is filed for the pumpkin carving kit.
- National exposure on “Monday Night Football” results in higher sales.
- Pumpkin, Ltd. forms the Pumpkin Masters trade name.
- The company is an honoree for the Blue Chip Enterprise Initiative.
- Gay Burke becomes president and CEO.
- The company is recognized as a Champion of Industry by MSNBC.
- Pumpkin Masters begins selling carving kits in Europe.
- The company offers free Lanterns of Liberty patterns on its web site.
Berger, Amy, “Pumpkin Master Carves Out Big Profits,” Income Opportunities, October 1, 1998, p. 66.
Berta, Dina, “Coming Soon: Jacques-O’-Lanterns; Pumpkin Masters Expands into European Markets,” Denver Rocky Mountain News, October 15, 1999, p. 2B.
——, “Firm Sues Disney, Others Over Pumpkin-Carving Kits,” Denver Rocky Mountain News, October 15, 1999, p. 2B.
Brown, Suzanne S., “Carving a Halloween Niche,” Denver Post, October 29, 2001, p. F-01.
Hajewski, Doris, “Selling Points Column,” Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, March 11, 1998, p. 3.
“Halloween Kits,” MMR, March 9, 1998, p. 14.
Landwehr, Rebecca, “Scare Tactics That Work; Halloween Lasts All Year for Some Denver Business,” Denver Business Journal, October 8, 1999, p. 3A.
Love, Thomas, “Creating a Demand for a New Product,” Nation’s Business, August 1998, p. 11.
“Move Afoot to Carve Out Saturday for Halloween,” Denver Post, October 20, 1998, p. C-05.
Pollack, Judann, “From Toaster Strudel to McD’s Costumes, Halloween Is Howling,” Advertising Age, September 14, 1998, p. 4.
Proctor, Cathy, “Reaping Profits from Pumpkins,” Denver Business Journal, October 27, 2000, p. 1
—Lisa Musolf Karl