Chasing her dreams
Elizabeth Rees, a third-generation member of a family in the printing business, found her niche by starting a separate company that has helped the family firm diversify its offerings.
Thanks to a new venture called Chasing Paper, consumers can decorate their homes with peel-and-stick removable wallpaper. The two-year-old company has revolutionized interior decorating for renters and commitment-phobes alike. It's also revolutionized its parent company, Kubin-Nicholson, an 89-year-old family business. Chasing Paper's young, entrepreneurial founder, Elizabeth Rees, proved to her father and his employees that embracing technology can open up new markets.
Elizabeth, 31, is a third-generation member of the family that owns Kubin-Nicholson. The Milwaukee-based company specializes in large-format printing—think billboards, bus wraps and the like—and had never marketed its services to consumers until Elizabeth, daughter of president Michael Rees, created a custom print job for a friend's office in New York City.
"It was a totally Kubin job," Elizabeth says. "I had been searching for oddball jobs to make extra money [for Kubin]. While it was printing, I thought, 'Wow, this is cool.' "
Making an impression
Although Elizabeth has been around ink her entire life, her college and graduate degrees—journalism and global communications, respectively—groomed her to create content, not print it. She spent her twenties traveling the world and working for National Geographic before settling in New York and joining Kubin-Nicholson as director of strategic development in 2011.
Mike Rees's first goal for Elizabeth when she started working for Kubin-Nicholson was for her simply to learn the business. She started in the company's New York sales office, working with major ad agencies such as Deutsch Inc. and McCann-Erickson on print jobs for major clients like Target, Kohl's and Frito-Lay.
All the Rees siblings spent a lot of time at the Kubin-Nicholson plant (including playing hide-and-seek among the giant paper rolls, according to their father), but only Elizabeth has chosen to make a career of it so far. Her sister Annie briefly worked with her on Chasing Paper, creating PR materials and helping to create buzz, but she has since joined a large Chicago-based public relations firm. The siblings' father speculates that Elizabeth's younger brother, Mike Jr., might be the next one to join. But Mike Jr., who graduated college with a degree in marketing three years ago, is now working for a ski company in Aspen, Colo. Another sister, Katie, is a nurse practitioner.
Mike Sr., 63, says he's been careful not push any of his children to enter the family business, taking his cues from the way his father, Thomas K. Rees Sr., raised him and his brothers. "He wanted us to follow our dreams," Mike recalls.
Kubin-Nicholson was founded as a silkscreen shop in 1926. Tom Sr., the firm's Chicago-based sales representative, became part owner and vice president of sales in 1971. He acquired the remainder of the company in 1980 but died just one year later, leaving his wife, Margaret, as owner, CEO and chair. She owned 51% of the company; the couple's four sons owned the rest. Tom Rees Jr. and Mike Rees bought out their other two brothers immediately. Tom became president; Mike was executive vice president of sales. An uncle, Neal Gilliatt—married to their father's sister—was a board member at the time but no longer is.
Upon his retirement in 2003, Tom Rees Jr. passed the reins to his brother Mike. At age 87, Margaret—known as Peg—still is active in the company. She, Mike and Elizabeth are Kubin-Nicholson's only board members. The company has 70 employees at its Milwaukee headquarters, plus approximately 20 in a satellite digital facility in Dallas, seven sales representatives around the country, and three independent sales reps in San Francisco who work on a contract basis.
When Elizabeth Rees joined the company she wasn't—and still isn't—ready to move back to Milwaukee from New York, though she says she's starting to think about it.
"New York is amazing and exciting, but it's a hard life," she says. She and Mike have had some limited discussion about the future and what her leadership role will be. Nothing's set in stone, but both admit they should probably talk about it a little more formally than they currently have.
"Dad knows I'm very busy with Chasing Paper, so he hasn't put any pressure on me," Elizabeth says. "Dad is very good at not putting pressure. We know we probably need to formalize things more—where Chasing Paper will go, and things on the Kubin side. There's nothing firm, but we continue to have conversations." Her father and grandmother, Peg, also have talked about the future of the two enterprises.
Elizabeth says the creation of Chasing Paper strengthened her connection to the family business. "I knew I loved working with my family; I love working with Dad and Grandma," she says. "I just didn't feel passionate about what I was selling. I thought it was a great product, but it wasn't my passion."
An idea is born
Chasing Paper's product can best be compared to a giant sticky note for the wall, rendered in modern graphic designs and colors. Unlike traditional wallpaper, there's no gluing it up or stripping and scraping to get it down. And, according to Elizabeth, it stays in place as long as you want it to—even in a damp environment like a bathroom.
Chasing Paper grew out of a favor Elizabeth did for a New York friend who asked for her help in transforming a new office space. She created a series of hot pink wraps to use on the support poles in the office, and the idea for Chasing Paper was born.
The hot pink wraps weren't removable. But the job got Elizabeth thinking about her friends' apartments—mostly high-ceilinged spaces with sterile white walls. Like most millennials, her friends couldn't afford great art, and as renters they were not free to paint the walls in the color of their choice or put up wallpaper to customize their space.
But what if there were wallpaper that would peel off without damaging the walls? Rees headed home to research her idea with Kubin-Nicholson's technical experts. She spent eight months studying papers, adhesives and inks, and learning how the giant presses operate.
Chasing Paper was launched as a separate division of Kubin-Nicholson, with Elizabeth as majority owner and her grandmother, parents and siblings as shareholders. Startup costs were very low, since Kubin-Nicholson had the infrastructure, Elizabeth says.
The entrepreneur recalls that the launch of Chasing Paper occurred on a Tuesday; the next day, the newborn business was mentioned on a major design blog. "Since then, I've been working seven days a week," Elizabeth says, "but I love it!"
Some of Kubin-Nicholson's longtime employees were skeptical and apprehensive about the new venture, says Nancy Munroe, the company's non-family director of client services and a mentor to Elizabeth. "They initially wondered if going down a different road was going to be ominous for their future, and worried that the new venture would take away resources from the parent company that's their bread and butter."
Chasing Paper's products are digitally printed, sold online instead of through traditional channels, and produced to order with no inventory in stock—factors that presented a lot of changes for employees to absorb. But their fears evaporated once they saw the presses churning and realized the new division meant a steady stream of work coming in. Like many printers and publishers, Kubin-Nicholson had taken a hit during the recession as advertising budgets were among the first expenses cut.
When she joined Kubin-Nicholson, Elizabeth Rees says her biggest task was to bring it into the 21st century. She began talking with her father about the broader capabilities of the company's resources and technology.
"The printing business is an old boys' club and tough to change," she says frankly. But through working with the major ad agencies, she realized that the future was in digital printing, and she didn't want her family's company to be last to the party.
"Most people at Kubin-Nicholson have been there 20, 30, 40 years," Elizabeth points out. "Change is hard, but necessary."
Indeed, says Munroe, the company that used to have a roomful of giant offset presses now has only one—but it has added ten digital presses.
"With digital, you can print one [item] or 50. With offset, you can't print just one; it's not cost-effective," Munroe explains. The advent of digital printing also has benefited the company's core businesses, like outdoor advertising, which now can be far more flexible and customizable. In the past, one billboard design printed for a client would be used nationwide; now the design can be customized for different cities.
All of Chasing Paper's designs are printed digitally, and having one uniform panel size makes the process a very efficient, says Munroe. Some of the designs raised eyebrows back in Milwaukee, Elizabeth reports—employees found them too loud and too weird.
"New York is very fast-moving," Elizabeth says, "but trends trickle down. For example, the chevron is over in New York, but in the rest of the country, it's still big and still happening. So we won't come out with new chevrons, but we still have it. I don't want to be on the tail end of a trend." One thing she has had to learn is to temper the impulse to go too fast. "In the Internet age, everybody wants it now," she says, "but Kubin-Nicholson is about quality. We do it as fast as we can, but we want it to be right."
At first, Elizabeth says, she took the employees' pushback personally; "It was hurtful, and I wanted to prove myself." But every new distributor or vendor she brings on board adds confidence, and she says people are starting to wonder if she will take over Kubin-Nicholson someday.
Technological advances have caused dramatic changes in the printing industry in the last seven or eight years, says Mike Rees. Several multibillion-dollar companies operate in the same space as Kubin-Nicholson, he notes.
"While it was initially challenging to create a new product, it really opens your eyes to what you can do with the equipment you have," Elizabeth says. Customers are happy to learn that Chasing Paper grew out of a third-generation company and that its products are made in America.
"Using the machines we have [to make something new] is a great way to look forward," says Munroe. "But we always wonder how to be unique enough and not get lost in a crowd."
So far, that doesn't seem to be a problem. Chasing Paper is enjoying a fast rise to success. Its website and social channels are separate from Kubin-Nicholson's, and the company's P&L also is separate. Chasing Paper hit and exceeded its sales goals for the second half of 2014 and the first half of 2015, says Mike Rees, who works the numbers with the company's CFO, Dave Schulz.
Mike grills Elizabeth regularly about her numbers. "She's more on the creative side," he says. "I trust that and go with her instincts, and she's very outgoing and engaging and very good at selling, but I always tell her to be aware of your P&L."
Grandmother Peg also keeps an eye on things. "She is always sending me articles and weighing in on new prints," says Elizabeth. "She has impeccable taste, so I value her opinion."
Elizabeth recently signed deals with Bloomingdale's to create an exclusive collection, and with contemporary home retailer West Elm to sell the Chasing Paper product through its stores, website and catalog.
As Chasing Paper's successes continue to mount, so do the challenges, Elizabeth reports. There's still plenty to keep her up at night.
"It used to be getting orders; how to get business. Now it's 'how do I do it all?' " she says with a laugh. "Now that we're making numbers and sales more easily, how can we scale it? How can we be a better vendor to existing clients? How do we increase brand awareness? How do we make things people want to buy?"
Elizabeth still runs Chasing Paper by herself out of her New York apartment, albeit with a lot of help from the team back at the Kubin-Nicholson plant. The company does not yet have a formal board.
She attributes her success to the support of her nuclear family and her "wonderful, wonderful boyfriend," Ivar Lien, who works in finance and helps her work through business problems. He even likes to weigh in on photo shoots, she says, as his Scandinavian heritage instilled a strong sense of design.
It will take more time for Kubin-Nicholson's employees to be as enthusiastic as she and her family are about the new venture, Elizabeth acknowledges.
"When I shared the Bloomingdale's news with the team, it was great to share, but I could tell it was scary for them and they were wondering if they'd be a part of it," she says. "How do I convey that it's an opportunity, not a threat? Dad, Grandma and I talk about it a lot, and it finally came down to looking at numbers.
"If the margins are there and margins are twice other products, you can't argue with that. At the end of the day, it's still ink on paper."
Hedda T. Schupak is an editor and analyst specializing in fine jewelry and luxury retailing.
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