When it comes to professionals within the creative industries, Gail Czech has set herself apart as a titan. Boasting a career spanning 30 years, Gail discussed the changes she’s witnessed since her journey began and where she believes the industry is headed.
AFCI: How did your career in the craft industry begin?
GC: In the 80’s, I was a Girl Scout leader and a Boy Scout leader, and I couldn't find any venue for crafts. Nobody was selling anything, so I couldn’t teach these kids to craft. So, I opened a craft store and, along the way, I found various vendors. When I sold the craft store, because we were moving out of state, I wanted to go to work and stay in that industry. I went to work for a distributor, and I became pretty successful.
AFCI: Can you talk a little bit about your career progression and how you came to start your own business?
GC: I moved up to be a vice president of sales and continued through the ranks. Then, I became chairman of the board of the industry, and the industry at that time was probably about $20 million. It was a decent size. It got to the point where I knew everybody and everybody knew me. The craft industry then started to become a little more sophisticated. There was a large company in Boston that opened, and we called them the “Suits”, because in the craft industry, it was mostly mom and pops in their everyday clothes, and these guys came in wearing suits. They knew what they were doing.
They called me and said, “You know, we're looking for a product development person, who do you know?”, and so I gave them a few names, and they hired someone back in the early 80’s at $80,000. That was big money back then. And all of a sudden, I thought, everybody is calling me trying to find somebody to hire. I had an “aha” moment and saw an opportunity to open a company.
So, I did my due diligence, and I opened my company 30 years ago and focused primarily in arts and crafts, and in the craft industry. I've been chairman of the board; I've served on many boards; I've served on committees; I’ve swept floors. I think my crowning glory is in the last 10 years where I started a group called “the old farts” group, which was comprised mostly of presidents people that were knowledgeable in the industry.
AFCI: In what ways has the industry changed over the course of your career?
GC: Over the years, the industry has grown. It has changed mentally. When I started out, it was mostly hobbies, toys, boats, motorized boats and cars and that kind of thing. It evolved more into crafts and they became their own industry. It's been very, very rewarding because this is where true inspiration starts. When you see the mom and pops come in and start their own company with something new and innovative, whether it be macramé or beading, or what have you, it's these mom and pops that have brought this industry to where it is today.
Then came the Michaels, Joanne's, the major companies, and what they do is they go to the shows, and see these great new innovative products and then knock them off. Or, they go to the smaller companies and say, “You're either going to sell to us this product at your price, or we're going to do it ourselves.” And, that's what's happened. Over the years, that's what we have seen evolve. The industry has grown to over $32 billion today, and the designers are the ones that really brought this industry up.
I think what I've seen happen now is that these larger corporations run the market, and so a lot of the innovation isn't there anymore. They've hired their own innovative people for their own product development. But again, they're very much focused on bottom line price. More than innovation, it's all about the bottom line. It’s not that they haven't brought innovation; they have, but they haven't been able to create the excitement that used to be when there were traveling teams from various distributors and manufacturers, teaching people how to use those products out in the marketplace. That isn't happening anymore.
They used to have traveling teams all over the US and it just was amazing to see the creativity that evolved out of it. But, I will say that the craft industry is alive because of the Internet. Most of those mom and pops now have their own online products as well as Michaels and everybody else. I will tell you when you want innovation, you go you look at Etsy; you look at some of the smaller mom and pops and that's where you're going to find the innovative products.
AFCI: How has the Internet influenced the industry and the ability to sell product?
GC: Sadly, unless you go online and really are dedicated to your online presence, you're not going to be exposed. I go into Michael’s all the time, and I can only find what they want me to find. I think it's great that Michaels and the other large stores are out there because without them, we would have nothing. So, I don't disparage them. They do a great job. But, they don't teach. There's no innovation there. And that, I think, is where I see the excitement and the camaraderie from the industry from the beginning starting to fade. Designer trade shows are now full of designers and bloggers, but the small mom and pop and the true innovators aren't there anymore.
I personally see that our industry has got to move from trade shows to consumer shows, because that's what we're all about: the consumer. In this day and age, you can see what’s exciting your customer. I honestly see the future going to the consumer, because once you see what your customer wants, that's what you need to focus on.
AFCI: What are you most grateful for and what are some highlights of your career?
GC: It's been an absolutely wonderful career, and I have been very, very, very blessed, and I have been able to touch lives and watch the industry evolve and change. I won't tell you change isn’t hard; change is hard in anything. But if you don't plan for the future, there is no future. If you don't try and make yourself grow, there is no future. And yes, that's in business too. And I hate to say it, but at my age, and I'm 78, if I don't look forward to something, the end is near. You've got to constantly challenge yourself. Again, I think even with Michael’s and Joanne's, they have to challenge themselves constantly.
The highlight of my career is being blessed to be in industry that gave more to me than I gave to it. The highlights are the people, the deep caring, the innovation. All of those things combined. I've been blessed. You know, I keep saying I've been on many, many boards; you get back more than you ever get, and that's what this industry has done for me. It has given me more than I've ever given. I have deep friendships, knowledge of product, knowledge of how it all works in China. I have more knowledge. I've been able to share that knowledge and help mentor and guide. But along the way, I've been mentored and guided throughout. I've just been blessed to have been able to be in this industry as long as I have.
AFCI wishes Gail all the best as she closes one chapter and opens the next. The creative industries are better for her contributions and dedication to preserving creativity.