“Be­tween gen­er­a­tions two and three, some­thing has to shift. You can’t do busi­ness the same way for 50 years.”

Inc. (USA) - - CONTENTS - PHO­TO­GRAPH BY RAMONA ROS­ALES

—EL­IZ­A­BETH REES, founder of Chas­ing Pa­per, a wall­pa­per startup hatched in­side her dad’s Mil­wau­kee-based print­ing plant

EL­IZ­A­BETH REES WAS 26 years old when he fi­nally popped the question. She had stud­ied jour­nal­ism in col­lege and was get­ting her de­gree in global com­mu­ni­ca­tions from the Amer­i­can Univer­sity of Paris when her par­ents flew to Europe from Mil­wau­kee and took their mid­dle child out for lunch. “Have you ever thought about join­ing the fam­ily busi­ness?” asked her dad, Mike Rees, who runs a 91-yearold Mid­west­ern print­ing com­pany. “No,” said El­iz­a­beth. “I never have.” As a child, El­iz­a­beth had only the dimmest no­tion of what went on at Ku­bin-Ni­chol­son, the grand-for­mat print­ing plant her dad and un­cle in­her­ited from their fa­ther, who died un­ex­pect­edly from cancer. They were 29 and 31, re­spec­tively. Grow­ing up, she made oc­ca­sional vis­its—her dad in­structed her on the evils of booze and cig­a­rettes, us­ing the bill­boards he was print­ing as teach­ing aids— but never imag­ined her­self work­ing there.

Mike saw in his daugh­ter, the sto­ry­teller of the fam­ily, a re­flec­tion of his fa­ther, who rose pa­tiently through the ranks at Ku­binNi­chol­son and even­tu­ally bought out the pre­vi­ous own­ers. At lunch that day in 2010, he of­fered El­iz­a­beth a job in the plant’s New York City sales of­fice, sell­ing bill­boards and bus wraps and point-of-sale dis­plays. It took a while for El­iz­a­beth to agree to do it; the op­tion to move to New York tipped the scales.

But the in­dus­try jar­gon and the boys’-club sales cul­ture made for a rough start. Then in 2013—two years into her new role— El­iz­a­beth de­cided to ex­per­i­ment. Look­ing for other ways to use Ku­bin-Ni­chol­son’s ad­vanced dig­i­tal printer, she did a run of modular wall­pa­per for the Man­hat­tan of­fice of a friend’s startup. Then, sud­denly, she was get­ting emails from her friend’s friends, ask­ing, “Where can I buy that?”

The re­sult was Chas­ing Pa­per, an e-com­merce com­pany that makes 2'x4' In­sta­gram-wor­thy re­mov­able wall­pa­per, and is Ku­bin-Ni­chol­son’s first startup. Af­ter the del­uge of re­quests, El­iz­a­beth pitched her fa­ther the con­cept: Stylish re­mov­able wall­pa­per, she ex­plained, was al­ready a thing, but there was a hole in the mar­ket. Ku­bin-Ni­chol­son’s dig­i­tal printer some­times sat idle, she ar­gued, and adding a few runs of new prod­uct would re­quire no re­train­ing, no new investment in pay­roll or ma­chin­ery, and no ad­di­tional sales staff. She could li­cense de­signs from hip artists and de­sign­ers, and sell the dec­o­rat­ing ac­ces­sory, which is made of a poly-fiber fab­ric, di­rectly to con­sumers on­line for $40 apiece.

Back in Mil­wau­kee, Mike’s man­agers were skep­ti­cal any­one would pay that much for eight square feet of printed fab­ric—a mas­sive mar­gin com­pared with the usual 20 per­cent they got sell­ing larger swaths of printed vinyl. But Mike was in­trigued by his daugh­ter’s propo­si­tion. He’d been want­ing to break into on­line re­tail, and had yet to find a way. Ku­bin-Ni­chol­son had an ex­ist­ing deal with Fat­head, a sports de­cal com­pany, which meant he could han­dle the back end—pro­duc­tion, pack­ag­ing, and ship­ment. It was the front end that baf­fled him— artist re­la­tions, so­cial me­dia, all that New York stuff. But that’s where he knew El­iz­a­beth would flour­ish. He gave her the ver­dict: Ku­binNi­chol­son would in­vest in the startup as a new division of the

com­pany, but this could not be a van­ity project for the owner’s daugh­ter. He told El­iz­a­beth she’d have to di­vide her time be­tween the sales of­fice and Chas­ing Pa­per, which would have its own P&L. “He made it clear it would stand or fall on its own,” she says.

Four years later, Chas­ing Pa­per is on track to hit $1 mil­lion in sales. El­iz­a­beth, still its only full-time em­ployee (even as she spends 10 per­cent of her time ser­vic­ing ac­counts for Ku­bin-Ni­chol­son and serv­ing on its board), runs the startup from a sub­let desk at an architecture firm in SoHo. She strad­dles two worlds— di­rect­ing photo shoots for the brand’s web­site and its wildly pop­u­lar In­sta­gram ac­count and meet­ing with de­sign­ers and il­lus­tra­tors; and over­see­ing her division’s pro­duc­tion back at the Mil­wau­kee plant. She re­cently per­suaded her dad to pur­chase two more high-end print­ers to meet de­mand from cus­tomers who want their wall­pa­per within 36 hours, which brings Ku­bin-Ni­chol­son’s to­tal investment in Chas­ing Pa­per to about $75,000.

But El­iz­a­beth is also find­ing her­self in a newly crowded field of di­rect com­peti­tors, and is antsy to ac­cel­er­ate the growth of her al­ready prof­itable startup. She’s try­ing to con­vince Mike that next year Ku­bin-Ni­chol­son should in­vest more in this division that still ac­counts for only a small part of the com­pany’s $15 mil­lion rev­enue. She tells him she needs to hire de­sign­ers, li­cense art­work, amp up on­line mar­ket­ing, and de­velop new prod­ucts. Mike is start­ing to come around. At 65, he knows his in­dus­try is fad­ing, and the only area of his com­pany with op­ti­mism and steady cash flow is the part his daugh­ter’s in charge of. Who knows, he won­ders— per­haps she’ll even take over the en­tire com­pany one day. “Spe­cialty decor,” says Mike. “That’s where we feel the growth will be. Where El­iz­a­beth and Chas­ing Pa­per are.”

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