"A Repurposeful Life"

Susan Dickenson -- Home Accents Today, 9/22/2010 10:44:19 AM

WHEN THEY'RE NOT setting up showrooms, developing new products, planning their next adventure, or helping the less fortunate, Kalalou owners Susan and Doug Williams retreat to the place they've called home for 30 years - a small house on a lake in Mississippi. They share the lake with neighbors and best friends Andy and Debbie Kilpatrick.

They also share, with the Kilpatricks, memories from a trip the two couples took to Jamaica in 1984. It was there, while shopping for souvenirs, that Susan found a $2 basket just like one she'd purchased -- for $40 -- back home. The two couples carried as many baskets back to Mississippi as the plane would allow, and watched them vanish in the Williams' weekend flea market booth. The next shipment of baskets came via container, and sold out in three weekends.

The flea market business continued until about 1986 when, one day, Susan found design inspiration in the basket's spheroidal shape - to her, it resembled a watermelon. Her idea was sent to Jamaica, along with kegs of green, red and black Rit dye. Not long after, people were standing in line to buy watermelon baskets at the Williams' booth. This time, however, the booth wasn't at the flea market but at the Dallas Wholesale Show where the Williams debuted their product under the banner of their newly named company, Country Originals.

Country Originals quickly expanded and during its first decade was listed twice on Inc. Magazine's list of the "500 Fastest Growing Privately Held Companies" and profiled as an American success story in Entrepreneur Ma Susan and Doug Williams in Kalalou's Atlanta showroom. The one-of-a-kind angel, designed and assembled in house, is made of latex flowers (as is Susan's "corsage"), one of the company's most successful introductions this year. gazine. Today the company does business in nine countries, and ships accessories, gifts and home decor to 10,000 retail stores nationwide from a 100,000-sq.-ft. distribution warehouse in Jackson.

Two years ago the Williams decided some changes were in order. They began with a new name, Kalalou, a word of Creole origin that refers to a stew of many ingredients and spices, ideally prepared and enjoyed with family and friends. That they made the right choice is evidenced by a visit to any Kalalou showroom where the "ingredients" include colors, textures, whimsy, artisans, recycled materials, different countries, repurposed objects and lots of imagination.

"We were giving the company a new look -- gutting showrooms, new product designs -- and the old name ‘Country Originals' just kept getting in the way and didn't seem to represent the new vibe," Susan explained. "The young group in our company thought it was time and felt that it would help sales - and they were right. Trust me, it wasn't easy for Doug and me... like saying good-bye to a very old friend. ‘Kalalou... a whole new Country Originals' is the slogan we have been using for the past year and a half. Soon we will drop the ‘whole new Country Originals' part and just become Kalalou."

Along with the name change, showroom overhauls and new product offerings, the company also embarked on a new sales strategy spearheaded by Vice President of Sales Austin Bunch, who joined the company at the beginning of 2009. By the end of the year, Kalalou was experiencing record-breaking shows.

Susan and Doug Williams in Kalalou's Atlanta showroom. The one-of-a-kind angel,  designed and assembled in house, is made of latex flowers (as is Susan's "corsage"), one  of the company's most successful introductions this year.

Susan and Doug Williams in Kalalou's Atlanta showroom. The one-of-a-kind angel, 
designed and assembled in house, is made of latex flowers (as is Susan's "corsage"), one 
of the company's most successful introductions this year.

Despite the economic challenges of the past two years, 2009 was the company's biggest sales year in its 24-year-history, and there's no sign of a reversal anytime soon. "If the current pattern continues," Susan said, "2010 will surpass 2009 by 40%. Doug says, ‘Ignore economic forecasts and forge your own path.'"

Over the years, the Williams have also forged paths in the countries in which they do business by giving back through the Doug and Susan's Kids Foundation which they started 20 years ago to provide medical care, Susan and Doug with some of their "kids" in Colombia. education, food and shelter for children in Haiti, Colombia, Honduras, and Mississippi.

Years ago in Colombia, for example, the Williams befriended a young boy they nicknamed "Tom Sawyer" and his family of seven siblings, mother and grandfather, all of whom shared a two-room mud floor house with no plumbing. Food and clothing supplies were limited, funds were scarce, and a $10 per child fee kept the children from attending school. Doug and Susan found the mother to be an expert at crocheting, so Kalalou contracted to buy as many purses as she could make. The project grew to include the sister-in-law and other mothers. Today the family lives in a three-bedroom house with electricity and running water, and "Tom Sawyer" will graduate high school next year. "We are still responsible for all of the children's educations, even if they decide to go to college," Doug said.

Some of the DSKF's projects are funded through the sale of Kalalou products, such as Sister Clara's Cross which helps fund a free clinic in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, and the Sabana Grande Kids Hooks, which help feed, care for and educate village children through the Atuto Kids Project in Honduras. The foundation also accepts donations and the Williams cover all administrative costs, so any amount given goes 100% to the kids.

Earlier this year, in the aftermath of the January earthquake, the foundation organized an ef The Williams' (and Kalalou's) story is documented in video on their website. Click on the photo above for the link. fort to send care packages to Haiti. "We have been doing business in Haiti for over 20 years and have a charitable project there as well (Sister Clara's Clinic). It was difficult to get supplies to Haiti early on, so we sent money first to all of the employees we have worked with and consider family." The Williams then solicited donations for, funded, assembled and packed a container of individual care packages of emergency and household necessities, designed to be easily handed off directly to the people who needed them without any government interception. The packages were shipped in a 40-foot container along with medical supplies and other necessities to Port-au-Prince where they were distributed at the factory they have worked with for 22 years.

Kalalou and the DSKF have also been recognized for their work closer to home. They've received a Super Achievers award from the Chamber of Commerce, were celebrated by Oprah Winfrey for funding and building one of her Angel Network's Habitat for Humanity houses in Jackson, and were honored with the Tozzoli Business Leadership Award from the Mississippi World Trade Center Assn.

Susan and Doug with some of their "kids" in Colombia.

Susan and Doug with some of their "kids" in Colombia.

Prior to being interviewed by Home Accents Today, the Williams had spent ten days setting up the Dallas and Atlanta showrooms, "Twelve hour days without a break in between, and loving every minute of it," Doug said.

What are your roles in the company? Doug is president, Susan is vice president. We don't know what those titles really mean. We still do a bit of everything. Our main job is product development, traveling to have those designs made, catalog production and showroom design. We have gotten back into physically setting up our showrooms with our "dream team."

How have you seen the company/industry change over the years? When you've been in business for 24 years you see trends come and go and then they come back again. The young people in our company pick up old Country Originals catalogs and point to old products and say "You should bring that back."

Highlight of your careers thus far: Not only just still being in business, but having the biggest year in our 24-year history in 2009. Also, there are many incredible stories we could tell because of our travels for the business but, in short, we've been in earthquakes, floods, coups, have seen many less-traveled countries, and even climbed Kilimanjaro... yes, we summited!

Biggest challenge you face on a daily basis: Juggling the shipping of inventory from the many vendors we use all over the world.

Do you have use Kalalou products to decorate your own home? Of course, along with many one-of-a-kind items we find in our travels.

What are some of your favorites? We cannot live without the glass hurricanes with metal candle insert we've been selling in our catalog for 20 years. We have a rustic console from our wood collection out of India and love the Guanacaste wood (slice of a giant tree trunk) coffee table that was given to us as a gift by our Honduran manufacturer. Our most cherished items are our Haitian paintings.

Where did each of you grow up? Clinton, Miss., but we didn't meet until college at the University of Southern Mississippi from which we both graduated with bachelors of arts.

Hobbies/special interests: Susan -- fox hunting. Doug -- work.

What did you want to be when you were growing up? Susan -- a jockey. Doug -- like my grandfather, who always had a pocket full of money.

How did you earn your very first paycheck? Susan -- selling watermelons. Doug --cleaning toilets for my grandfather's janitorial business.

The three words that best describe me are... Susan -- energetic, healthy, happy. Doug --Loves to work.

Your secret indulgence: Susan -- smelling my horse's neck. Doug -- Reviewing my inventory status report with a glass of wine or three on my back porch.

I wish I knew how to... Susan -- operate every program on my Apple computer. Doug -- drink three glasses of wine WITHOUT reading my inventory status report!