Driven To Lead
How the industry’s youngest supplier president—a Millennial!—set her own course for success.
Mary Ellen Harden, president of Versailles, Kentucky-based Wall Street Greetings, LLC, (PPAI 469710) has always known she wanted to work in the greeting card industry. During her senior year at the University of Kentucky she learned about Wall Street Greetings and scheduled a meeting to visit the local card company.
“Tim [Voss, the co-owner of the company along with his wife, Laura] and I immediately connected when I passed his test, picking out the 10 bestselling cards from a mix of designs. The Vosses asked me to join their company upon graduation and started referring to me as ‘the triple threat’ because I was an artist with business and sales/marketing skills,” Harden says.
She started as manager of product development, then moved to director of marketing and art before being named president in 2013. “This year I celebrate my 10th year with the company,” she says.
Harden grew up in Lexington, Kentucky, the same city she lives in today; “home to Thoroughbred horse racing, bourbon and strong-willed women,” a club of which she is emphatically a member. Growing up with a psychologist mom and educator dad, she says that she and her sisters were “raised on topics of social interaction and self-improvement.”
Those early words of wisdom seem to have inspired the accomplished Harden, who, in addition to her leadership role at Wall Street Greetings, is also the mother of two girls, Rory, two and a half, and Betty, eight months, with her husband, Jay, a consultant at a software company. While her family is first on her list when she’s not at the office, enjoying time with friends over dinner or brunch is second. “I prioritize exercise, rest and getting outdoors. A day on the lake is my favorite way to relax,” she says.
Who or what has had the greatest influence on your career and why?
I once read a Vera Wang quote on the value of learning from someone already doing what you want to do. Tim and Laura Voss have been most influential in my success. They identified my potential from the first time we met, offering me, a recent college graduate, a job when there really was not an open position. I worked my way up in the company and after seven years was named president. In general, the Millennial instinct is to please and “collect gold stars,” but I feel I’ve learned much more from the challenging times, the failure points. You make a mistake, correct it, learn from it and move on.
What do you enjoy most about your work?
The creativity. I enjoy bringing ideas to life—whether that’s designing a bestselling card or an inside verse sentiment, or instituting a production strategy or a new-product launch. The start of every year is most exciting as I anticipate the opportunity that lies ahead.
What was your first job, and what lessons did you learn?
I worked in a gift boutique in downtown Lexington. I remember my first large sale: It was a piece of nice jewelry that sold for about $150. The owner praised my good work, but I remember thinking how easy it was to just be friendly and helpful. I didn’t realize I was “selling.” I stocked shelves of invitations and greeting cards and that allowed me to study the retail-card industry. Every receipt was hand signed with a “thank you”. For me that was an early lesson in good customer service.
What motivates you in business and in life?
A commitment to being my best self in order to impact others for good. I want to use my talents and circumstance to make a difference where I can. I am passionate about small businesses; the opportunities it can offer for individuals, families and communities. I am also motivated to be an example to young women looking for role models in leadership.
What is your greatest professional accomplishment?
After completing a presentation in college, I overheard one of my most accomplished professors make a side comment to a fellow student, predicting that I would run a company one day. I am competitive and driven; hearing that professor’s confidence in me set my course in action. When I became president, at just 29 years old, I smiled at my college self. I’m very proud to be a young woman leader.
What’s it like being one of the youngest (or the youngest?) presidents of an industry supplier, and what is your management style as a member of the Millennial generation?
It’s great! We work with some of the best distributors in the industry, and my age has never been an issue. If anything, it’s a benefit to be an innovative young leader. I’m also very fortunate to have a great support team, so I never hesitate to ask for help. I try to manage as I would want to be managed, giving everyone the opportunity to blast it out of the park with a winning idea or job well done. Leading by example, expecting efficient, productive work habits and teamwork brings success. I want my employees to feel fulfilled in their work and the impact they make.
Why are paper greeting cards so important in business, and how do they fit into a relationship management strategy in this digital age?
A greeting card is the simplest yet most meaningful gesture to show others their importance. The stories we gather from our customers about hearing from long-time clients, or securing large deals based on a return phone call after receiving a card, are testaments to their success. The digital age has only increased the popularity of card sending; the value of a handwritten note is on the rise. It is the most cost-efficient way to stay top of mind and show that you care.
Tell us about Wall Street Greetings’s commitment to the environment.
This question is very timely for us as we are launching a new line of customizable stationery and note cards that will provide funding to the National Forest Foundation. We have supported this cause for several years but feel compelled to do more. A portion of sales from these cards will go straight to the Foundation, which offers our buyers the opportunity to do good with their purchases. We expect this to be popular for bulk corporate orders; Fortune 500 firms are looking for these types of products. All of our cards and envelopes are U.S.-made on FSC-certified stocks with recycled content.
What are your plans for Wall Street Greetings this year and next?
To grow our distributor business, of course! We are focusing on new print technology, website capabilities and new product offerings to meet customer demands. We are outgrowing our office space, which is a good problem to have, so expansion is on the horizon.
Mary Ellen Harden’s Tips For Selling Greeting Cards
We’re surprised at how many distributors have overlooked the potential of greeting cards—an $8 billion industry. Most likely, your client is buying cards, but they don’t know they can do so from you.
- Just ask, “What are you doing for holiday cards?”
- Do not wait for October; start asking about holiday cards now.
- Every e-store should include a branded note card.
- Don’t carry a heavy sample book of cards; everything is electronic now.
For more helpful tips, visit www.wallstreetgreetings.com/distributors/.
Julie Richie is associate editor for PPB.