Axial's Growth 100 : Gary Morrison

Gary Morrison

CEO, AR-EN Party Printers

Getting Personal

The first iteration of AR-EN Party Printers came into existence at a local synagogue, where now CEO Gary Morrison’s mother was the stationary chairwoman. If there was a wedding or bar mitzvah, you could get tax-deductible personalized napkins from Annette Morrison.

One of the companies she ordered from on a regular basis was RN Gold Stampers. It was a small local business run by a husband and wife. When the husband passed away, his widow came to Annette Morrison and offered to sell her the company. In 1979, Annette and a friend, Elaine Powell, scraped together $15,000 to buy the company. They added an “A” and an “E” to the name and grew the business to $400,000 in around 10 years.

All the while, Gary was working in advertising and knew little to nothing about his mom’s business. Looking for a career change around 1993, he came on board. “For the first six months my mom said don’t touch anything,” says Gary. “After six months, the business was basically failing and I said to her, this is what I think you need to do to turn this business around.”

In 1994 AE-RN rolled out a new line of printing options and the business took off. Today, it’s a multi-million dollar business with 65 employees.

Moving Online

In 2003, Gary started to realize that the rise of the internet would change everything about how they did business. His first idea was to be able to show customers real-time online previews of what they were ordering. “No one was doing it at that time,” he says.

Even though the industry has since become cluttered with online players such as Shutterfly, Gary says they still compete. “We were the first person to climb Mount Everest in terms of party supplies.” 

They still believe in the personal approach, and work often with wedding planners and events coordinators with big budgets. He doesn’t believe the wholly online model can satisfy picky customers who need to get everything just right for their clients. “We have a design kit that’s hand-sewn and hand-embroidered and portable.” 

Today they also have a portal for their dealers to log into. Gary says about 95% of their orders come from online. “I think we have a fair share of the market but the internet is the Wild Wild West,” he says. “You can’t sit on your laurels.”

Gary says they are getting ready to spend a huge amount of money on a website makeover. “We did one two years ago and sales went up over 100%.”

A Personal Touch

Gary sees his business as art, not science. “Every order we do is different,” he says. AE-RN has 50 colors of napkins, 50 colors of foil, 110 colors of paper, and can work with hundreds of thousands of items. Even so, he still wants every single one to be touched, looked at and signed off on. “That bride is immediately looking for one tiny flaw.” The majority of his business is weddings and anniversaries.

With that mentality, it’s important to staff great people with an eye for excellence. “On the manufacturing side, I pay $15 an hour,” Gary says. “That’s a living wage, not minimum wage.”

AR-EN added 15 new employees in 2014 and made some strategic operations decisions including outsourcing human resources operations to an outside firm.

Gary’s big focus in 2016 will be the amount of money he spends on the internet. He’s looking to invest in new technologies, additional equipment, and upgraded processes. “If I want to stay average I have to do whatever it takes,” he says. “Just to keep up with the Joneses.”