If you have bought old-fashioned bells and glass balls tied up with ribbons, funny-faced, glittery snowmen and clowns, or cottages and pastel-hued houses covered with a dusting of sparkly snow, you may have purchased one of Cody Foster's pieces.
Foster, a 1993 Valentine, Neb., High School graduate, was influenced by a crafter grandmother and started creating handmade items for craft fairs while he was still in high school.
Now he runs a business in his hometown that grosses at least $3 million a year.
And he no longer tries to make his lines of products by hand in Valentine. Now he concentrates on designing them — with Larry Buller in the case of the village structures — and has them created by people in China, India, Nepal and the Philippines.
“They're the true artisans,” he said.
His facility in Valentine has become more of a quality assurance center from which he ships the merchandise to his retail clients.
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Surprisingly, it is easier to find his ornaments, houses and knickknacks in other states or online than in a Nebraska store. Tiffany's sells them. So do Bergdorf Goodman and Anthropologie.
Shoppers can find pieces for sale locally at the Afternoon, but “I sell a lot on the coasts,” Foster said.
When Foster was in high school, he would hit weekend fairs to sell his work. But at about the same time he graduated, a friend suggested that he start selling to stores. So instead of going to college, he became a wholesaler of nostalgic, finely crafted objects under the company name Backporch Friends American Folk Art.
“I put off school, and I still think it was a good decision,” he said, adding that someday he'd still like to go to college.
But looking back, he is surprised that he was so successful and doubts he would have the nerve to jump into starting his business today the way he did in 1993.
“I was young enough to find it all exciting,” he said. “It helped that I was naive. At 19 years old, I didn't know better. Today it would be scarier.”
In 2005 he changed the name of his company to Cody Foster and Co. That also was when he switched to mostly importing his goods. “It just got too difficult to keep up the handmade end.”
But he still tries to keep it simple, even with foreign production.
“I work with small groups of artisans,” he said. “They pay attention to detail, and the quality remains good. It's easy to work with them.”
He has made contact with these small production groups through the big gift shows he attends and through other vendors. He also credits his company manager, Brent Swim, with doing a great job in researching and spotting new talent.
Cody Foster and Co. is small — 15 permanent employees and around 10 part-time workers for the hectic times before Halloween and Christmas — but it's a fairly good size business for Valentine. It also employs some of his family members. His mother, Diane, is a partner in the company and his sister, Andrea Andre, works with him.
Since the bulk of his holiday merchandise was shipped out in July and August, he's currently working on his designs for spring and summer, which include home decor items and Easter decorations. He always has to look ahead, he said.
He's also kicking around new ideas, such as possibly opening a retail store for his products, perhaps in Lincoln or Omaha.
But what he designs and what his company sells, isn't going to change much. He'll continue to do what has been successful.
“I like quirky,” he said. “We'll keep trying to make nontraditional things.”
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