LTS Podcast Ep. 1 - Who is DEMDACO?

Posted May 3rd 2023

Welcome to the very first episode of DEMDACO's Lift the Spirit podcast. In this episode you'll hear about how DEMDACO began, some of our key stories, and what we're hoping for in this podcast. This episode was recorded on January 18, 2023. 

Lift the Spirit a Podcast from DEMDACO - Episode 1

Jonathan Jones: [00:00:00] Hello, this is Jonathan Jones with DEMDACO and welcome to the very first Lift the Spirit Podcast.

And I'm joined by Aaron Heim, who is our senior copywriter, Aaron's been with DEMDACO about six months now. I've been with DEMDACO about 16 years, so what we're hoping to do with this podcast, In this first episode is tell you a little bit about DEMDACO. We're a gift company. We're headquartered in Kansas City.

So as we go through our episodes, we want to let people know who we are, what we're about, but really we want to dig into our purpose and mission. It's a great value to us as a company. We're very intentional about it and Aaron and I are just gonna have conversations. We'll talk about product we'll talk about colleagues, we'll talk about our culture a lot, and as we get further along in the episodes, we really want to focus on stories that lift the spirit, [00:01:00] stories that go beyond DEMDACO. Stories that focus on the kindness and goodness in the world that we believe are worth sharing.

But today, We want to talk about DEMDACO and I'm asking the question, or maybe Aaron's asking the question, who is DEMDACO? So I'm gonna turn it over to Aaron.

Aaron Heim: Well, thank you Jonathan. And also thank you for asking me to be a part of this. I'm, as you said, six months old here at the company and. I've known about the company for a long time and one of the things that has been the consistent constant is the culture and the lift the spirit mission.

That's one of the things that really appealed to me and having people I used to work with who now work here, it has been just such a breath of fresh air for me to be a part of this organization.

Jonathan Jones: Yeah, and I know you were doing some contract work with us before you started full-time. When I heard that you were transitioning to full-time, I got very excited.

And I tell people when you and I met, I think your, your first full day maybe we met in a coffee shop, and I tell [00:02:00] people that we quickly became long lost friends. And so having you join was an easy thing for me to, to ask because there's just a kindred spirit there.

Aaron Heim: Yeah. I, I've, I've had certain people come into my life and, and I feel the same way about that too.

It was sort of, kind of this instant when, when, you know that the conversation could go on for three hours, but you only have 45 minutes. How, that's how you know, you've met someone pretty special.

Jonathan Jones: So that's, that's, that's true. But people aren't here to hear about our bromance. That's true.

Aaron Heim: That's, that's gonna be a podcast in the future.

So, possibly, no, we I, I I think for me, this, I'm excited about this too because again, I'm only six months old here and I've heard a lot about the company's history from you. But I think this is gonna be a really great education, even for me on some things that I, I maybe didn't know or I thought I knew and they were, they were wrong.

But my first question is probably the most fundamental question of the, of the day here. So Jonathan Jones, who is DEMDACO?

Jonathan Jones: This May will be our 26th year. DEMDACO is a, a gift and decor home decor company here in Kansas City.[00:03:00] We're primarily a wholesaler. We have about. 12,000 rooftops, we call them, are individual stores that sell our product.

But that's everything from mom and pop gift shops, florist, hospital gift shops, to some national accounts. And it was founded what year? It was founded in 1997, and it was founded by Demi Lloyd and Dave Kiersznowski which is where the name came from. DEMDACO is Demi and Dave's company. The fancy word is called a portmanteau.

And it's there actually a lot of companies and organizations that use it, where they combine words or names to make a, a brand name and, and that's where the name comes from. And we found three local artists to partner with. Tammany Devine, Kathy Killip, and Susan Lordi. And so these three artists agreed to help develop product and the company started.

Aaron Heim: Why, why the gifts industry for, for Demi and Dave? Why, why not some other industry back in 26, [00:04:00] 26 years ago?

Jonathan Jones: Yeah, I've asked that question before and, and I, I think the answer is just, it, it's what they were familiar with. You know, they, again, have been involved in sourcing in Asia and that kind of, that process, there were some connections with artists.

So at the time it, it made sense in the early years. You know, the question is, what, what were the early years like our COO, Steve who's been from the company almost from the beginning. One time he said, you know, everyone likes to talk about the good old days and sometimes the good old days weren't so good.

And you know, those were some, some difficult times cuz you're learning a new business, it's a competitive space. You have to kind of find that secret sauce, you know, What's the magic and why some products take off and others don't. Dave tells a story that in 1999 he describes it as we were growing our expenses faster than we were growing our sales, but the company [00:05:00] hadn't closed the books yet. In January of 2000, Susan Marker, whose artist's name is Susan Lordi, launched her third line with DEMDACO, which was Willow Tree. And Willow Tree took off. I've heard of it. I've heard of people. I've heard of Willow Tree. Most people who have not heard of DEMDACO probably have heard of Willow Tree.

And it took off and it, it just really shaped who we were as a company. Because of that, we really didn't know the financial situation in 1999 where we were growing our expenses bigger than our sales. And I interviewed Dave one time and, and he said, how do we known. before Willow Tree launched, there might have been a decision to possibly consider, you know, do we, do we just kind of call it a day?

But Willow Tree took off so fast again, the industry hadn't seen anything like it, that we booked more sales [00:06:00] in January of 2000 than we had booked in the previous year, and that's when the company really began to take off, and we've grown a lot since then. I mean, again, we're, we're in our 26th year.

Aaron Heim: Where in in, I'll ask a, a question that just came to mind, if that's okay.

So where in Kansas City did the company start? And we're in a, we're in the headquarters now. But did it start in a different part of town? Did it, I assume it did I assume the building?

Jonathan Jones: Yes. So for those not familiar with Kansas City the state line, Kansas and Missouri State line goes right through the middle of the city, most of which is a road called State Line Road.

DEMDACO's always been on the Kansas side. Our distribution center for our first years was on the Missouri side, north of the river. We started out there's a mall in Overland Park, Kansas called Oak Park Mall, just north of Oak Park Mall there's kind of a light industrial area, not manufacturing, [00:07:00] but. You know, small businesses and we were there.

Then from there, we moved down to South Overland Park into what technically were storage units that were converted into offices. After that, as we continued to grow, there's a office complex near 163rd and Metcalf, which is in South Overland Park as well. And then in May, 2007, we moved into our current corporate offices in Leewood, Kansas.

Our distribution center is in Edgerton, Kansas, near the large intermodal shipping area. We're out there with a bunch of other warehouses companies that by name them you would know. And we've been there since 2014, and our warehouse is about 327,000 square feet.

Aaron Heim: I I know we're going to talk about Willow Tree specifically in a future podcast, but every, every home that I, most homes I go into, if I look around, I will find a, a willow tree figurine of some kind. And I'm not exaggerating when I say that I have a lot of people in my life who truly love what it [00:08:00] stands for. It's, it's, it's a very meaningful gift to get every day and on special occasions, things like that. What was the, what was the era like when that was just, oh my goodness. We've got something here.

Jonathan Jones: Yeah. I, I joined a few years after the launch. But I mean, there are stories where orders were coming in so fast. There are stories from the, the launch at the, the gift trade show in Atlanta where people were just crowded outside the showroom window cuz you couldn't get in and people were just yelling order or.

Aaron Heim: Like the New York Stock Exchange.

Jonathan Jones: Yeah. They, they, they were yelling product numbers back to their colleagues and they were writing them down. There were stories where we really, our systems weren't set up to handle that type of rush. And there were times where we would triple ship retail customers and we'd call and say, we're so sorry, we'd double shipped, your triple shipped you.

And they said, no, no, that's okay. It'll sell, it'll [00:09:00] sell. There are stories Jen, one of our colleagues who's still here. She and another colleague would come in the morning and pick up fax orders off the floor and fill up large trash, lawn trash bags just to put the faxes in and then sit down with the trash bag and, and start going through orders.

And so not only did it affect the company financially, I think it created a lot of what ifs or what about this or could this be? But the other thing that became clear, and I think this is not only are the originals that Sue sculpts just exquisite, you know, and, and she really captures form and is influenced by dance and nature.

One of the things that led to its success is we hadn't had a product yet and there really wasn't anything like it where the giver and or the receiver assigned [00:10:00] meaning to the gift. And we began to get letters and emails from people who had been given Willow Tree or gave a Willow Tree figure, and we began to realize that the same figure could be given in a time of great mourning because of a loss of life.

Or it could be given in a time of celebration, at a birth or a graduation or a wedding. And we realized, oh, it's not us who assign meaning to that. And over the years, I mean, we, we have received thousands and thousands, if not hundreds of thousands of emails and letters just telling us the story of the giving or the receiving behind that.

And, and it really began to shape us. It influenced. You know, why we existed influenced our mission, you know, in those early years we didn't start day one with our mission as Lift the Spirit, but I think that helped shape that. Oh, this is what we [00:11:00] do. Yes, we design and sell products. It's so, we are a for-profit business, but really what we're doing is helping people connect and, and we want to be there to lift people's spirits.

Aaron Heim: So I want to ask a little bit about culture if I could, because culture is one of the things that in all honesty, brought me here. And great culture comes from intent, right? You, you set out to stand for something and you hold to it and you make sure it sticks and it stays and it grows and it turns into something beautiful.

Can you talk about, real quick as we, I ask you what the culture's like today, how was that culture insistence upon? This is the culture we stand for, we lift the spirit and, and those kind of things. And I know we'll talk more about that at future podcasts, but.

Jonathan Jones: Yeah, so our culture's very important. It's, it's really why I'm here.

I have a unique title. My title is Cultural Conversation Leader. When I first started, I, I worked directly with Dave, who was [00:12:00] involved in the day-to-day at the time, and, and we were meeting about my title, and it was when I was hired. A couple days later he goes, I think this would be a good title for you, but the culture existed before I got here.

I'm not responsible for her culture. Culture's really. When someone says, where do you work and what's it like there? Your answer is your experience of the culture, Culture's just how things are. Every organization, every family, everything has a culture to it. If you grew up with siblings and your family tried to have somewhat of a consistent mealtime, my guess is people tended to sit in the same place at the table.

If you had siblings and you had a family vehicle, And you were the oldest. The culture was the oldest child gets to choose where they sit. The youngest child does not. I have four there's four kids in my family. I have two older brothers and a younger sister. My brothers and I sat in the backseat and I was in the middle with the hump in the floor [00:13:00] because it wasn't a front wheel drive car.

But every organization has a culture. It's just how it is. And, and I like to describe a culture is a lot like your lawn. You can choose to ignore it, but it's gonna do something all by itself and it won't be beautiful. And companies and organizations that want to have a beautiful culture, as you said it, it takes intention and it's, it's hard work.

It's why it's part of our mission statement. We strive to lift the spirits in each other and it's much more about communication, collaboration, building trust. You know, when I started here in 2006, and this was before the housing crisis. Anything that you read about culture in a magazine or something like that.

It was really, and, and most articles were centered around companies in Silicon Valley and how great the building was. And did you have an onsite chef and did you have a game room and did you have a room with llamas? You could pet just making that up, you know, but it was all about amenities and, and then after the housing crisis, [00:14:00] And we even had these discussions that it's great to have amenities and we do have a great corporate office.

It's a great space, but that's not what makes a great culture. They're, they're great if you have 'em. And I tell people, you know, you, you could be waiting in line at a food truck for the best barbecue in Kansas City, and if I'm making your work life miserable because we have a toxic culture. I don't care how great Kansas City Barbecue is, and it's great.

We are not gonna enjoy standing next to each other in the line. Okay? You and I could be in line for hot dogs and Kool-Aid, but if we have worked hard at building a great work culture. We've collaborated, we've built trust, we have accountability, and that, you know, at your core that I want to see you succeed and flourish.

Those hotdogs and koolaid are just fine. [00:15:00] That'd be great if there was barbecue, but that's not what makes a a great culture. So we're very intentional in how we hire. We're very intentional in training to development. We're very intentional in language and communication that we want to be sure in everything we do, or we lifting the spirit? And we don't have posters plastered all around the building that say, lift the spirit or pursuing business the way it ought to be.

But it comes up often. And we talk about it, is this how we ought to handle this situation? Or for our retailers when something goes wrong, how should we handle this? And we always want to be pursuing what is the right thing to do. And that's what really seeds and fertilizes a great culture. When people know that you are all on board. 

I do a lot of interviews and most everyone who applies, I, I spend time with them if, if I'm able to. Not really to ask them [00:16:00] questions and vet, but really to make sure that they have an understanding of our purpose and mission and that we're serious about it, but really to see what would they bring to that.

And, and I often say, what's the question about the company that you want, because we're committed to this. But I also say we fail every day. In some way, customer service, customer care departments exist because you failed in some way and customers or consumers are calling and saying, how will you fix this?

And, and so we understand that we fail, but we always want to be pursuing that. And that's what helps build the culture. And going back to the lawn illustration. If you grew up in a small town where there were no HOAs, or maybe you live where there's a no HOA, there's always that one house where they just let things go and it's not a beautiful thing to look at. And companies that are like that are often described as just financial, bottom line only. One [00:17:00] of my phrases that I, I'm not a fan of is the phrase at the end of the day, Because it's often used as a great disqualifier that, yeah, all this stuff is great, all this community involvement stuff is great, but at the end of the day, and, and I just feel like it negates a lot of good work.

And so one of the things that we state, and this is on our website and the about section, that we want to view business first and foremost as a human endeavor, not simply a financial endeavor. Now we're still a for-profit business. And when you make a statement like that, you set yourself up for some hard decisions that you have to make.

How do you balance being profitable, but yet being kind and fair? And it's easy for companies to go, Hey, it's, we're in it for us. So you know, too, too bad for you. But we don't want to be that kind of company. We've borrowed some language from a book called Leadership as An Art by Max DePree. He was the CEO of Herman Miller Office Furniture for many, many years.

And I'm gonna [00:18:00] summarize this quote, but in the book he says, companies should view profit like air. We don't live to breathe, but we need it to live. So we understand that we have to be profitable, but that's not why we exist.

Aaron Heim: I think you said and I may be botching what you said even last week at the Atlanta Gift Show was that our business, the profit of our business fuels our mission. I think that's how you articulated that to me. If I'm watching what you told me, I thought that was kind of a poignant way to say it as well.

Jonathan Jones: But again, part of our mission is to lift the spirit of consumers and there's a transaction involved in that particular part.

They are buying our product. But they're also buying our product because they have a need and they have a need to connect. But it does, it, it does fuel how we are around the office. Some of the things we're able to do, some of the, the benefits and amenities we, we are able to offer. Definitely funds our involvement in the community, either financial donations or product [00:19:00] donations.

And so it, it, it all rolls together, but we don't want to be an, at the end of the day company. And it's not that every day is enjoyable. I can guarantee you I could go talk to someone right now. And there was probably a decision made today with someone that didn't go the way they wanted it to. And that's just kind of part of life and business and, and really having an outward focus and a commitment and a stewardship to the goals of the company and realizing that.

It may not go your way every day. Right. And just kind of how you respond to that, but that helps shape the culture. Yeah. And eventually when most people are like that, it becomes that overgrown lawn. And so because we're intentional, we work really hard that when something is out of  step culturally, it's like when you can see that one weed in the yard, and again, we're not perfect, but it's just easier to identify and easier to deal with.

Aaron Heim: I think some of the [00:20:00] things that you've talked about for me, again, being here six months, I've told my wife on many occasions, I, the place I wanna work is I wanna be able to say my worst day here has been better than my best day someplace else. And I've been lucky enough to work at a couple of places now where that has been true.

And this is, this is by far the best culture I've been a part of. You said something else earlier though, I thought was kind of fun about not having any motivational posters up and not having any of those kind of things. There's beautiful art on the walls here. For me, and this may or may not make the final edit of the podcast, I'll just throw that in there, but I sort of equate it to my wife and I have a philosophy on pda, which is public displays of affection.

And there are a lot of people in love out there, but when you come across people who are very, very affectionate and public, almost overly. Her and I have a theory that they're trying to prove to everybody else that they're really [00:21:00] in love. And when you get, when you peel behind the curtain, it's, that's not the case.

My philosophy on that in, in the business side is that if you have to put motivational posters up on your walls and you have to do all this stuff, you probably have something fundamentally wrong with your culture.

Jonathan Jones: Yeah. I heard years ago that the minute you put something on up on a wall, it, it dies. And so we have talked in my early years, and again, this is hard.

It takes a lot of discipline. That we want our purpose and mission to be the air that we breathe. People want to buy from, people want to work with, people want to be vendors of companies that are pursuing business intuitively in a way that we go, oh, that's how it should be. And, and we all, we work hard to exceed that.

And, and again, it's, it's simple. It's just not easy. [00:22:00] Right. And it takes a lot of work. Yeah.

Aaron Heim:I think one of the things that I'm excited about is the future. I know what, I know some of the things I'm excited about, but I'd love to know you, having been here 16 years and seeing a lot of change in growth and.

 What are the things that you are excited about? Both for the company, culturally, all those kind of things?

Jonathan Jones: Yeah, I could answer that a number of different ways, but I think I'll start with, I'm, I'm excited about the, the team that we have. Again, we're intentional in hiring and I think we just have a, a great team.

I'm excited about the innovation. I would describe it as innovation space that we're in right now. Not that we haven't been innovative in the past, but there's just some things coming product-wise, but also some things that really are internal. And so some of the things that we have planned for colleagues from training and development and some experiences and events I'm, I'm excited about and I.

Again, been here for, for over [00:23:00] 16 years and, and I love working every day and I, I think it's just a great time to be at DEMDACO.

Aaron Heim: I would wholeheartedly agree.

Jonathan Jones: So this is our first episode. Again, we're, there's a lot that we want to talk about coming up. If you're listening, we're grateful for you joining us today.

Again, this is Jonathan Jones. I am the Cultural Conversation Leader here at DEMDACO, and I'm joined by Aaron Heim, who is our senior copywriter in Creative Services. And the question that we want to answer today is, who is DEMDACO? Kind of where we started who we are, what we're about. What matters to us and just how we, in the words of our mission, wanna look for ways that we can lift people's spirits.

And as we begin recording more episodes, that's our goal for this podcast. So thank you for listening.

Aaron Heim: Thank you.