‘Language of color’ is international

Caspari reduces costs, thanks to a new distribution center in Suffolk

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Print this page by Martha Steger

The exterior appearance of warehouses might not matter to some distributors, but it did to a publisher of high-end printed products that recently moved its distribution center to Suffolk.  Lisa Milbank, president of Caspari Inc., says, “One of the reasons we liked the warehouse was that it is in a very good area, beautifully planted, with a brick façade.”

In the past 14 months, Caspari — known for its fine-arts-designed products ― has shipped millions of paper plates, napkins, guest towels, gift-wraps and playing cards around the world from the 60,762-square-foot distribution center in the Virginia Regional Commerce Park.  When it arrived in January 2011, the company was the first tenant in the park, located on Pruden Boulevard near the intersection of routes 460 and 58. 

The distribution center immediately accounted for “roughly 98 percent of our distribution,” says Milbank.  At the end of 2012, the center was gearing up shipment of a completely new Caspari product line, carrying designs by Milton Glaser (of “I love New York” logo fame). The product line began selling in January at high-end department stores and independent retail outlets nationwide as well as in Europe.

“The [Port of Virginia] was a key factor in the decision to move to Suffolk,” Milbank says, speaking from her Charlottesville design office. It moved from the company’s Seymour, Conn., operations center in 2009. “We decreased our transportation costs as well as saved in the amount of time it takes to clear goods once the ships arrive in port.  The Port of Hampton Roads is extremely efficient and less expensive for receiving containers than New York Harbor.”

Milbank recalls that the company considered sites in several communities. “Our decision to move the corporate design office to Charlottesville was a separate decision from that of Suffolk, but the two decisions were not unrelated.”  Caspari employs 24 people in Suffolk and 22 in Charlottesville.

The company was founded in 1945 by H. George Caspari, a German-American businessman who died in 1981. Douglas Stevens acquired the company in 1977 and is CEO of the privately held business. The company still follows the model set by Caspari.
When Caspari began working with a Danish printer on Christmas cards for export after World War II, he realized the potential for other areas of the stationery business to spread revenue throughout the year.

“Denmark was the original international connection for Caspari and has been part of the company from its inception.  The printing quality insisted upon by Mr. Caspari — with his strong museum connections — extends to every product line we produce,” says Milbank.
She and Stevens travel extensively checking on product production. In addition to plates, gift-wraps and custom cards made in various U.S. locations, greeting cards are printed in Switzerland, napkins are produced in Germany and playing cards are made in Belgium.

Asked about competition in the higher-end stationery business, Milbank says, “No one else does what we do.  We’re like a tiny ant compared to Hallmark.  We don’t do any discounting and don’t build big margins into our pricing.” 

That practice proved problematic during the recent recession.  Department stores looked at margins and turned to discounting. “We continue to sell to high-end department stores — Bloomingdale’s, Neiman-Marcus, Harrods, Gump’s —and we’ve always sold to museum shops and high-end independent stores. 

“What we’ve added since the recession are high-end food stores such as Balducci’s [the former Sutton Place Gourmet in Alexandria] and Foods of All Nations [on Ivy Road in Charlottesville] because we found our consumers were going there.  We look to our loyal, vocal consumers to inform us — via our sales force — on new direction.’’

As far as traveling, the Caspari executives have “pretty much been all over the place.  When you get to a major city, it’s important to see not just the inner city but the neighborhoods and outlying towns as well.  When Doug and I are looking for locations for a warehouse, we look at areas where people live and where we feel comfortable,” says Milbank.

Even though she and Stevens don’t speak any foreign languages, they haven’t found that to be a problem in working overseas.  “We know the language of color in every language,” she says.

Although Denmark has been part of Caspari’s network since the company’s founding, it didn’t open its first retail store until 2001— in Paris.  It opened its second retail outlet in 2005 in Charlottesville, where Milbank and her parents have homes.  These two sites remain the only two Caspari retail stores worldwide. 

Though the European sovereign-debt turmoil includes Denmark, the Danish economy performs well in regulatory efficiency and transparency. The diverse economy’s largest exports include machinery, instruments and food products.

Lisa Milbank, president of Caspari Inc., says she and CEO Douglas Stevens gravitate to Denmark’s small towns, even though “Copenhagen is an incredible capital city with so many museums and a great sense of style.”  Three towns they especially like include Koge — a market town since the late 13th century; Roskilde — dating from the 980s, the Viking Age; and Helsingor — home of Kronborg Castle, made famous as Elsinore in Shakespeare’s Macbeth.

Milbank says the coastal shipping center of Suffolk reminds her of Denmark because of its quality of life. CNN Money Magazine in 2010 recognized Suffolk as one of the “Top 100 Small Cities to Live,” and last year the magazine tabbed the city No. 9 in its “Best Places To Live National Top 25” list based on the availability of jobs. The mayor’s annual report cited “a 43 percent jump in jobs from 2000 to 2011.”

Suffolk has come a long way since Planters Peanuts proclaimed the city the “Peanut Capital of the World”  in 1941, using “Mr. Peanut” to attract visitors. From special events at the Suffolk Center for Cultural Arts to tandem skydiving at the Executive Airport, the city offers a wide choice of activities, including events at the Great Dismal Swamp Wildlife Refuge.

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