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Jim Thornton

Crafting a New Niche

By: Carolyn Campbell

December 1, 2008

The first summer Jim Thornton served as president of Provo Craft and Novelty, Inc., he invited his senior team to observe 2,000 company employees having a picnic at Provo Canyon park because, he says, his work begins with people. “Every day, as I make crucial decisions for this company, I am reminded of the people who rely on me to make good, prudent decisions that impact their lives,” says Thorton. “The responsibility that I feel to our employees and their families is absolutely paramount to me. I have tried to surround myself with other great leaders who share this view.” During Thornton’s three-year presidency, Provo Craft’s revenue has doubled in size and the company’s profits have increased by 500 percent with approximately $250 million in sales. The company started in 1963 as a single retail store in Provo that sold typical craft items such as paper and stickers. By 1985, it was a $2.5 million enterprise. “Despite its size, the company was like a startup,” Thornton recalls. “I knew that we needed to evolve into something other than craft.” The company now markets highly sophisticated consumer electronic products and is considered one of the top 20 tool and technology brands, says Thornton. Provo Craft, which owns the Roberts Arts & Crafts chain, now distributes more than 6,000 proprietary and more than 20,000 non-proprietary, craft and hobbyist products to retailers worldwide. Thorton advises other companies to come up with a value proposition for their product or service that puts them in a category all their own. “It’s not good enough to try to be bigger than the next, particularly when goods buy into the transition to technology,” he says. “We could make digital cameras or printers, but didn’t want to be Kodak. Instead we focused on products where there wasn’t competition. I don’t think better is good enough—you have to be different.” Thornton attributes Provo Craft’s success to people around him, many of whom he recruited from household name companies such as Honeywell, Intel and Rubbermaid. “People are the most important aspect to me as a leader of an evolving business,” he says. “At the major threshold of every decision, if you think about the impact your choices are having on the people you are responsible for, you will make good choices.” He also visualizes the company becoming a half-billion dollar enterprise within the next five years as it becomes one of the top technology brands. And he plans to continue investing in people to help make those goals possible. “In looking at the impact today’s economy is having on consumer products and retail firms, most leaders think it is time to hunker down,” says Thornton. “The first place people start is payroll and slashing head count in order to be smart and judicious with resources. I think that now is the time to invest in leadership that can bring a solution.” Thornton is putting his beliefs to action. When Executive Administrator Cindy Wilson told Thorton that the company planned to commemorate its best financial month ever by distributing ice cream to its employees, Thorton told her to give everyone a $100 bonus as well. “Jim turned our ice cream celebration into one of happiest days I’ve ever seen at Provo Craft,” she says.

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