My How They Have Grown!


Kathy Phillips, owner of Primitives by Kathy reflects on 20 years of business success, which began at a trade show with one product that her customers loved.

Twenty years ago, Kathy Phillips attended her first trade event eager to show off her one product at that time – a candle box.

“I never could have predicted the number of orders,” she recalled.

This year, her company, Primitives by Kathy, located in Lancaster, PA is celebrating its 20th anniversary.

These days, her catalogs alone fill 700 pages, featuring nearly 8,000 products. The company has 150 employees and permanent showrooms in Atlanta, Dallas and Las Vegas – a true American success story!

“Twenty years went by so quickly, we are so thankful for our customers who have trusted us to create the products that have filled their shelves for all of these years,” Phillips said. “There is so much new we are celebrating, but the center of why we do what we do has remained the same – it is all about the customer!

In 2015, Primitives by Kathy was recognized as one of the fastest growing women-owned companies in the world.

One of the fundamental reasons for the success and differentiation of the company, Phillips believes, is that before she was CEO, she was running an art studio she started in partnership with her mother for 10 years beforehand.

“That direct experience of being in our customers’ shoes and understanding their challenges and needs regarding product mix and running a successful operation has provided a valuable perspective for how we do business,” Phillips said. “It is definitely a perspective that has influenced our customer service and practices.”

The company also has a team of experts that work each day to bring the best in service and product design, she added. “In addition, we have our talented artists that lend their own individual and original style to our collections creating a product mix that offers an evolving variety but still possesses common elements that tie everything together to create engaging product stories.”

Phillips’ big-picture goal is always to design products that are ahead of trend, well designed and offered to customers at a marketable price.

“It was the ability to create an original product that resonated with customers that spurred Primitives by Kathy into existence and we have been evolving and growing ever since,” she said. “We always lead with creativity and innovation in our design to offer customers a variety of product stories to choose from and intermix.

“The creativity poured into a new design is balanced by research on materials, price point and marketability,” she explained. “This full-circle approach to product development ensures not only an attractive and on-trend design that looks great on shelves – but a profitable and highly saleable product that benefits a retailer’s bottom line.”

Just like other firms, Primitives by Kathy has faced challenges particular in 2008, Phillips revealed “During the recession our sales took a dip, like most businesses that year – and we had to get very lean. As difficult as that was, I couldn’t dwell on it and let it paralyze our efforts – I had to remain positive and persevere.

“This was a major turning point for Primitives by Kathy, we had to adapt to the change in the economy and personally – I had to determine where the biggest return on investment of my time was and focus my efforts and strengths where I brought the most value.

“The challenges of the slow economy helped sharpen our focus not only as a company, but me as a leader to determine the best direction for Primitives by Kathy to go – and the most effective path to get there,” she said.

In terms of offering advice now to emerging companies, Phillip offers a few tips:

  • Remember why you started. One of my favorite quotes is “There is no elevator to success – you have to take the stairs – it is not always going to be easy.
  • Also, don’t be afraid to step out of your comfort zone. If you’re passionate about something – take the risk, don’t regret the chances that you didn’t take. You never lose – you either win, or you learn.

The way Phillips finds her reward and motivation has been consistent from the start.

“Knowing that I am contributing to the success of a shop owner means the world,” she said. “It inspired the entire team to bring the best to market and keep reaching higher. Beyond that, the fact that through our growth we have been able to make an even greater impact on the local organizations who helped us get to where we are today has been incredibly rewarding. The more we grow, the more we can give.”

In fact, at the heart of Primitives by Kathy is the core value of giving back.

“When the first product I created and offered for sale at my first show resulted in more orders than I could fulfill myself, I turned to the wonderful people at Goodwill Services to help me fulfill my order – it was then that a valuable partnership was formed and I am so thankful,” Phillips said. “I make generosity a part of our growth strategy. The personal notes I receive from organizations, customers and employees we have served drive me.

“We drive this message to our employees and invite them to participate in charitable events through the year with local organizations,” she added. “We call it our ‘Family Fun Day’ Program, which provides employees with opportunities to volunteer with local organizations, and thank them with a day off to spend with their family. It is important to make it easy to volunteer and be engaged in the community – it is a great program and connects to our core philanthropic value to each member of our team.”

Phillips sees a bright future. “Every day we are inspired by something around us that could spark an idea – there is a lot of positive energy and excitement surrounding the next 5 years,” she concluded.