The extraordinary talent of Mary Engelbreit, a now famous graphic artist and children's book illustrator, was obvious from an early age. As a young girl, Mary just wanted to draw pictures and moved into her first “studio”, a hastily vacated linen closet in the home where she grew up, when she was just 11 years old. “We jammed a desk and chair in there, and I'm sure it was 110 degrees”, she remembers. “But I would happily sit in that closet for hours at a time and draw pictures”.
Mary's road to becoming a professional illustrator was full of unexpected twists and turns. She went to work directly out of high school at an art supply store in St. Louis, Missouri. Over the next few years she worked for a small ad agency, accepted free-lance projects on the side, held independent showings of her own art, and even worked for a short time as an editorial cartoonist for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.
In these early years, Mary learned a lot and managed to make a modest living, but she was not satisfied “drawing to order” for free-lance clients. She knew that she did her best work when it was coming from her own head. What she truly wanted was to be a children's book illustrator.
KETC television visited Mary Engelbreit's art studios in St. Louis.
In 1977, newly wed and with enthusiastic encouragement from her husband, Phil Delano, she took her portfolio to New York City to try her luck at some well-known publishing houses. She received a “mild reception” from publishers and a suggestion from one art director that she try her hand illustrating greeting cards. “I was kind of crushed at the time”, she recalls. “It seemed like a real come-down from illustrating books”. But soon enough, Mary realized that the suggestion had merit. She found that the greeting card format played well into her style of illustration. Within months, she had made her first licensing deal by selling three card designs for USD 150 and signed a short-term contract with another greeting card company.
Once Mary had shifted her talent and energy to greeting cards, success came quickly. Several well-known card companies bought her designs, and sales were brisk. Mary Engelbreit has been grasping opportunities ever since. As her greeting card line grew in size and popularity, it drew attention from other companies who were anxious to license Mary's distinctive artwork on a wide range of products including calendars, T-shirts, mugs, gift books, rubber stamps, ceramic figurines and more.
However, “starting out in the licensing business is difficult”, Mary admits. “Producing and marketing designs is an enormous, expensive undertaking that I didn’t try until I was well known in the industry and had a partner with a lot of business experience and good contacts at the bank”. To launch her greeting card business, Mary borrowed USD 60,000 to cover the printing costs for 5,000 copies of each of the twenty designs she started out with. She then focused on drawing to increase her card collection to the more than 100 designs needed to needed to establish a legitimate line. Meanwhile her partner focused on the marketing and distribution side of the business, forming a network of sales representatives to promote Mary’s cards to shops throughout the country and running booths at relevant trade shows.
“We were successful, I think, because more and more people became familiar with my work and my name. My drawings were very different from anything else already on the market – giving me an edge.” Originality led to Mary’s success but it took time. “We paid our staff (a warehouse person and two secretaries), the local printer, and our reps, but we didn’t pay ourselves for a year and a half. In short, getting started from scratch is more than a MONUMENTAL, full-time task, and I needed income from another source all the while.”
Although the range of Mary Engelbreit licensed products has continued to grow robustly, Mary and her staff are careful to make sure the growth is smart and deliberate as well. They take extreme care in choosing only the best companies to work with and go to great lengths to make certain that Mary's artwork is reproduced as faithfully to her original work as possible.
Mary is well aware that her creative work is protected by copyright and recommends that artists retain all rights to their work and copyright each design in their name once they are printed. “Retaining my copyrights allows me the freedom to license the same image to multiple manufacturers. For example, my ‘Chair of Bowlies’ image has been licensed to reproduce everything from T-shirts and mugs to posters and stationery”, Mary explains.
“Licensing entitles artists with copyrighted artwork to be paid a royalty. A royalty is a percent based on the amount of product sold at wholesale to retailers. The beauty of licensing is that the manufacturer bears the risk and responsibility for actually making and distributing the products. The artists, in turn, have more time to draw!” she sums up.
In 1988, Mary Engelbreit enterprises filed their first trademark with the United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO), registering "Mary Engelbreit" as a service mark. Since then, Mary Engelbreit enterprises have filed over 30 trademarks including Mary Engelbreit® (registered for “licensing of copyrighted and trademarked custom graphic artwork for use in gifts and home furnishings”, “retail variety store services” and “flat paper goods, namely, stationary and social note cards”), Leading the artful life® (registered for “stationary and magazines in the field of interior decorating and design, home improvements, cooking, artwork and crafts, and gardening and/or landscape design”), and ME ink® (registered for “greeting cards”).
Over the years, Mary has developed a strong brand image for her artwork. The wide variety of licensing deals actively pursued by her company has enhanced brand growth and awareness through the manufacture and distribution of quality products bearing Mary’s artwork. This powerful and mutually beneficial partnership with her licensees allows Mary and her team to focus on creating more artwork to be applied to products of all shapes and sizes while the licensees take care of the manufacturing, distribution and sales of the products. Licensing is such a crucial part of Mary’s business that her product development department created a specific system to process licensing requests and approvals.
By 1986, Mary Engelbreit greeting cards had blossomed into a million-dollar-a-year business. She decided to license her cards to Sunrise Publications to free up more time for her art and to grow her business in other areas. In 1995, she brought on Greg Hoffmann, long time friend and legal counsel, as Chief Executive Officer to run the business. Mary Engelbreit Studios now has contracts with dozens of manufacturers who have produced more than 6,500 products in all, with more than USD 1 billion in lifetime retail sales. And in 2001, Mary saw her original dream come true when she signed a contract to illustrate children's books for publishing giant HarperCollins. Her debut book, "The Night Before Christmas," spent eleven weeks on the New York Times best-seller list.
Between 1996 and 2009, Mary was also editor-in-chief of the award-winning creative lifestyle magazine “Mary Engelbreit’s Home Companion” covering topics such as family life, food, decorating, craft projects, flea markets and collectibles.
Over the years, Mary Engelbreit has shared her good fortune with a range of charitable organizations and worthy causes close to her heart. An avid reader, Mary has always been dedicated to the promotion of literacy. In 2000, Mary launched a partnership with First Book, a nonprofit organization that delivers new books to low-income children. Her contribution of a commemorative poster for the organization's "Make a Difference Day" event was a key factor in enabling them to deliver 2 million books to literacy groups for low-income children in 2000.
In 2000 and 2002, Mary Engelbreit was honored with the “Best Art License of the Year” awards at the Annual LIMA Gala & Awards Ceremony for the International Licensing Industry Merchandisers' Association (LIMA). Also in the year 2000, she was listed as the second best-selling licensed property – second only to Winnie the Pooh.
Today, thousands of retailers sell Mary Engelbreit products to her countless fans, and Mary Engelbreit Studios continues to add new licensees and product categories. Nearly 30 years after that first trip to New York, Mary fulfilled her dream of illustrating children’s books, and is now one of a select few artists with three New York Times children’s best sellers. Though many people tried to discourage her through the years, “I believed in myself,” she says, “and now I’m living my dream.”
Mary Engelbreit’s story is an amazing business success made even more remarkable by the fact that it all began with a single-minded young girl who decided at age 11 that she was going to be an artist. While Mary Engelbreit Studios have grown into a global licensing and retail business, that same girl still sits at its core, grown up now, but still drawing her pictures with the same sense of wonder, imagination and enthusiasm.
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