Cataloger Garnet Hill thrives in North Country

When photographer Tara Harnett returned to the North Country after college, she didn’t expect to build an exciting career there. But today she is photography studio manager for Garnet Hill, an apparel and home furnishings catalog company based in Franconia.

“I do it all,” Harnett said. “I line up freelancers, produce the shoots and work closely with the merchandising and catalog production departments.” The product shoots are done locally, while live model shoots are set up and shot in New York and Los Angeles.

Founded in 1976 by Grant and Pegge Dowse, Garnet Hill considers itself the “original natural fibers” catalog. Its first products were imported cotton flannel sheets, discovered by the couple on a backpacking trip to Europe. The home-based operation gradually grew to include clothing and other home furnishing items, many produced by local companies. Consumers interested in “natural” products were their customer base.

Today, Garnet Hill’s clientele has shifted from “crunchy granolas” to affluent Connecticut soccer moms.

“Our target customer is discerning,” said Russ Gaitskill, the company’s president. “She cares about value, but she is not label-conscious or into high fashion. She wants a certain look.”

In 1985, the Dowses died in a Whitefield plane crash while returning from a photo shoot. The Hamblin family purchased the company, and in 1999, Ohio-based Cornerstone Brands Inc., a division of IAC Retailing, bought them out.

A period of expansion soon followed, with all functions except warehousing remaining in Franconia. “We’ve doubled in the past five years,” Gaitskill said.

With 254 employees, Garnet Hill is one of the area’s largest employers. Many positions are professional: product and catalog design, merchandising, marketing and Web site administration. “We try to promote from within and hire locally,” Gaitskill said, although the present staff hails from 32 states and five countries, he said.

But Gaitskill reported some positions have been open for two years because employees with specialized skills are not readily available in the region. A robust internship program helps the company “grow its own.” Last year 10 paid internships in design, marketing, merchandising, public relations and inventory management were available. Since 2000, seven interns have joined the company as full-time employees.

Intensive process

Tara Hartnett was Garnet Hill’s first intern. She worked in merchandising and catalog design, and then became a part-time photo assistant. When the studio manager job became available, she jumped at the chance.

One of her recent projects involved helping to design a new 7,800-square-foot studio in Bethlehem (see sidebar).

“We’ll be able to set up four shoots at a time,” she said. “Three walls of windows will provide plenty of natural light.”

The company’s catalog process also provides a substantial amount of work for freelancers. Stylists are brought in to create a bedroom layout, drape clothing or arrange shoes or jewelry. Niche photographers shoot the product under the guidance of Garnet Hill art directors. Harnett coordinates their scheduling months before a catalog, or “drop,” is printed.

More than 30 glossy Garnet Hill catalogs will be mailed this year, the final step in a tight, quality-focused progression.

The design process is an intensive 18-month cycle. Inspiration starts with trips to Europe to discover the newest styles, colors and motifs. Once a season’s clothing and home furnishings lines have been designed, the merchandising department takes the baton. They source and contract materials and production and purchase merchandise for resale. Rigorous control is exercised from sample stage to production run.

The same passion for impeccable operations shows in the customer service department.

Far from the common call center nightmare of poorly trained, transient staff, Garnet Hill prides itself on education, empowerment and longevity of service.

“We train customer service representatives for three weeks before they take a call,” said Betty Moody, customer care vice president and a 20-year employee.

Open from 7 a.m. to midnight seven days a week, the call center offers flexible scheduling, with “mother’s hours,” part-time positions and night shifts. The average tenure is over six years in an industry that usually measures the length of an employee’s stay in months.

The 63-seat center handles up to 6,000 calls a day during the Christmas season. Length of call and wait times are logged, but representatives are encouraged to stay on as long as necessary. They often make trips to nearby racks of goods to answer questions about fabric, size or color. Service reps are encouraged to solve customer complaints or concerns on their own. For example, one rep offered gift coupons as compensation for a wrong delivery, to be sent overnight with the correct order.

Ramping up the company’s Web site (Web sales now account for 58 percent of revenues) has added new duties, with some reps responsible for live chat and answering e-mails.

Garnet Hill’s image of quality and quiet good taste, an upscale blend of Martha Stewart elegance and L.L. Bean sensibility, is hitting a sweet spot with customers. Over 1.1 million packages are shipped each year. The company’s strategy is to increase “wallet share” from existing customers by offering more options.

“We’ve built a lifestyle brand while maintaining a lifestyle business,” Gaitskill said. “We’re very proud of what we’ve done.”