Joyce (JC) Hall (1891 – 1982)

Finding Success in the Ashes of Fate

Joyce Hall was born in David City, Nebraska in 1891.  From early on Joyce, who went by JC, was a natural salesman and entrepreneur.  He started out his career of selling at the sprite young age of eight!  What was he selling? Cosmetics and perfume for the California Perfume Company, which would later become Avon!

When JC was 10 the family moved to Norfolk, Nebraska and his two older brothers bought a bookstore that sold stationary.  While working for his brothers a Chicago salesman convinced JC they should sell postcards.  JC invested $170 for inventory (and convinced each of his brothers to match his investment) and they started the Norfolk Post Card Company, importing foreign postcards and selling them to local merchants.

By the time he graduated from high school, JC had saved up $3,500!  That’s about $113,000 today. Soon thereafter, ready to strike out on his own he moved 300 miles south to the relative metropolis of Kansas City, KS. There, while studying law at night he sold the postcards he had brought with him in two shoeboxes.  His business flourished and by 1913 he was successful enough that he not only hired an employee, but his brother and mother moved to Kansas City to help. He and Rollie, his brother, formed a new company, Hall Brothers, which, in addition to post cards, sold greeting cards under their own brand.  It was here that they started selling Valentine’s Day cards as well as other holiday cards. 

Two years later, in 1915 fate would step in and deal the Hall Brothers a cruel blow when a fire destroyed all of their inventory and left them $17.000 in debt. But sometimes in disaster we find the seed to success, and that was the case here.  After their primary supplier cut the brothers off they had little choice but to design cards of their own.  In 1916 they purchased a small printing company and started selling their own cards.  In doing so they came to recognize that there was a market for more attractive and personalized cards than was currently available.

Hall Brothers cards became quite popular and World War I was a boon as families would buy cards to send to their sons and husbands and fathers fighting in Europe.  By 1922 the company was employing 120 people and added Rollie’s idea of selling gifts. The next year the company began selling “Hallmark” cards nationally. 

In traveling the country JC noticed that greeting cards were often poorly displayed, sometimes hidden and rarely engaged the customer.  He decided to do something about and developed the Eye-Vision Display Fixture, the forerunner of today’s common greeting card displays with their bright colors, stacked displays and wide variety of cards.  It turned out that when customers could see cards, they bought them as Hallmark’s sales took off. 

JC took pride in the fact that Hallmark always tried to support his employees and when the great depression struck, took pride in not having to lay off staff despite a significant decline in business.  Indeed this was in significant part due to employees twice voting for a 10% wage cut when things were tough.  Hall reversed the pay cut as soon as the difficulties passed. 

Hall was always thinking about marketing.  He was the first to use Disney’s characters in greeting cards – The Three Little Pigs – and pioneered the use of radio sponsorship for greeting cards. World War II would do as the Great War did and Hallmark thrived as families sent cards to their loved ones overseas.  JC made the case to Washington that greeting cards sent to soldiers were so important in keeping them connected with family and morale high, both at home and on the front lines that Hallmark was exempt from quotas that were imposed across the country. 

After the war the company would embark on a road that it still travels on today… TV sponsorship.  In 1951 it would air Hallmark Hall of Fame, the fist network sponsored show to be broadcast in color.  By 1953 Hallmark had 150 artists on staff and was printing over a million and a half cards every day and the next year the name was officially changed from Hall Brothers to Hallmark.

As focused on business as Joyce Hall was, he was always aware of the community around him. While running the company he always focused on taking care of his employees – most of whom were women – from low-cost nutritional lunches, to a persona service department to employee stock ownership, Hallmark employees were generally quite happy and turnover was always low.  Beyond his company, JC focused on his community, spending millions of dollars supporting Kansas City charities as well as spearheading the development of the city’s Crown Center, a $400-million city-within-a-city development that he hoped would drive economic and cultural energy to the downtown area. His work garnered for him election to Fortune’s Hall of Fame for Business Leadership in 1977. 

JC remained at the helm of the company he founded until 1966, when he gave up the leadership to his son, Donald, although he would remain on the Board of Directors until he passed away in 1982 at the age of 91, having lived the up to what might have been his defining coda: “Producing a first-class product that is a real need is a much stronger motivation for success than getting rich.”  JC Hall built a business the way so many great entrepreneurs did, by selling to consumers something they didn’t even know they wanted, but somewhere in the back of their minds they knew they needed. And he did it while taking care of not only his customers but his employees and his community too. Now that’s a legacy worth leaving.

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