From Chicken Soup for the Entrepreneur's Soul

The Very Best

My grandfather’s earliest memories were of cold winter nights in David City, Nebraska, where he was born in 1891. Sometimes frost was so thick on the window of his unheated bedroom that a penny would freeze to the glass if he held it there long enough.

Food was scarce in their home; at times their family couldn’t even afford to buy a dime’s worth of butter for their cornbread. As my grandfather later recalled, his good appetite gave him extra drive to succeed. He wanted to eat regularly and had seen stretches when he couldn’t. Poverty, he said, provided him an advantage over people whose lives were more comfortable.

He and his two older brothers began working at early ages to help support the family. My grandfather was wonderfully resourceful. He made lemonade and sold it at the ballpark. When trains stopped in town, he was at the station peddling sandwiches. At age nine, he persuaded an agent with the California Perfume Company to let him sell cosmetics door-to-door.

His brothers eventually made enough money to buy a bookstore in Norfolk, Nebraska, and the whole family moved there. Norfolk was a tough town at the time, with saloons, gambling and gunfights. But there also was a market for the store’s books, magazines, cigars and candy.

One evening, a traveling cigar salesman dropped by the store. His enthusiasm for Kansas City’s “can-do” spirit convinced my grandfather the city would be an ideal place to start a business. At age eighteen, he was eager to make his mark, so he packed up his belongings, and on a cold January day in 1910 arrived at the Kansas City train station. He had little money—not even enough to take a horse-drawn cab to his lodging at the YMCA—but he had some grand plans.

Inside one of his bags were two shoeboxes full of picture postcards, and inside his head was a mail-order plan for distributing them. He stored his inventory under his bed, printed some invoices and started sending packets of a hundred cards to dealers throughout the Midwest. A few of the dealers kept the cards without paying. Some returned the unsolicited merchandise with an angry note. But about a third sent a check. Within a couple of months, he had cleared $200 and opened a checking account.

Despite this initial success, he was sure illustrated postcards were a passing fancy. He saw more of a market for the higher-quality valentines and Christmas cards mailed in envelopes. In 1912, after one of his brothers had joined him, greeting cards were added to the line.

Then disaster struck. An early-morning phone call brought news that the company’s entire inventory, for which they were heavily in debt, had been destroyed by fire. A message on one of the company’s cards seemed especially appropriate: “When you get to the end of your rope, tie a knot in it and hang on.” They hung on. With determination and luck, they were able to replace their inventory, float a loan and buy a small engraving firm. Before long, they had become manufacturers and were joined by their other brother.

The business begun in a shoebox has since grown into a multibillion-dollar company—Hallmark Cards, Inc.—and my grandfather, J. C. Hall, is regarded as the architect of an industry. Despite his great success, many honors and friendships with world leaders like Dwight Eisenhower and Winston Churchill, he never lost his plain-spoken common sense, nor his entrepreneurial spirit.

My earliest lessons in business came from visiting stores with him. In each shop, he would pay great attention to details and would point out what he felt was working and what wasn’t. His passion for new ideas and better ways of doing things helped Hallmark become a retail trendsetter, as well as the leader of the greeting card industry.

One of the company’s earliest innovations was the introduction of decorated gift wrap in 1917. Until then, gifts were wrapped in brown paper or colored tissue. But when the brothers ran out of stock right before Christmas, they quickly substituted some fancy decorated envelope linings from France. The decorated paper proved so popular they began designing and printing their own gift wrap.

Although the company’s name had been Hall Brothers almost from the start, my grandfather thought it sounded old-fashioned. He became intrigued with the term “hallmark” because it connoted quality and incorporated the family name. So in 1928, he directed that a “Hallmark card” be printed on the back of each greeting card. His next challenge was to get shoppers to turn over the cards and check the name—something several advertising agencies said they’d never do. He didn’t agree and wrote the company’s first advertisement himself. It appeared in The Ladies Home Journal in 1928.

In 1951, my grandfather turned to the new medium of television to sponsor a program—The Hallmark Hall of Fame—that would be a cut above standard TV fare so viewers would associate the Hallmark name with quality.

He said, “I’d rather make 8 million good impressions than 28 million bad ones” and always believed “Good taste is good business.” The company’s well-known slogan—”When you care enough to send the very best”—spoke volumes about his high standards. Over the years, he personally reviewed every greeting card design and sentiment. Not a one went to press without his “O.K.J.C.” imprimatur.

His never-ending search for improvement led to innovations in other areas. In the earliest years, merchants kept greeting cards in drawers and would pull them out for shoppers to view. My grandfather was sure sales would increase if customers could make their selection from open display racks—and he was right. The company introduced self-service displays in the late 1930s, and these became a staple not only for cards but for other products as well.

One of his most unusual ventures was in the area of land development. Troubled by the urban decay surrounding the company headquarters, he began quietly purchasing parcels of nearby land. His visionary thinking led him to enlist the aid of some of the country’s leading architects and planners, as well as his friend Walt Disney, who recently had opened Disneyland in California.

The plan was unveiled in January 1967. Hallmark would replace eighty-five acres of blight with a privately financed “city within a city,” combining offices, hotels, retail and residential space. In the years since, Crown Center became a national model for multiuse developments, as well as a popular Kansas City landmark, office address and tourist attraction. It is an ongoing reminder of J. C. Hall’s enormous impact on the city he called home.

By the time Crown Center was announced, my grandfather had stepped aside as CEO in favor of my dad, Donald J. Hall, who moved Hallmark from its entrepreneurial beginnings into a new phase of growth.

Much has changed over the years, but in many ways my grandfather’s vision and values still guide Hallmark Cards. Above all, he believed in hard work, integrity and excellence—or, as he put it, “Producing a first-class product that meets a real need is a much stronger motivation for success than getting rich.” I couldn’t agree more.

Donald J. Hall Jr.

EPILOGUE: Donald J. Hall Jr. is president and CEO of Hallmark Cards, Inc., a position he has held since 2002. His brother David E. Hall is president of the company’s Personal Expression Group.

Worldwide, Hallmark has more than 18,000 full-time employees. About 4,500 Hallmarkers work at the Kansas City headquarters, and 9,900 are associated full-time with the personal expression business. This includes some 800 artists, designers, stylists, writers, editors and photographers—one of the largest in-house creative staffs in the country.

Hallmark products are found in more than 43,000 retail outlets in the United States. About 5,600 are specialty stores—more than 4,000 of which are certified Hallmark Gold Crown® stores; another 30,000 are mass-merchandise retailers, including discount, food and drug stores. Hallmark publishes cards in more than thirty languages and distributes personal expression products in more than 100 countries.

Responsible corporate citizenship is an important part of Hallmark’s values. The company’s foundation supports human service, education, health and arts organizations in the communities in which Hallmark operates.

To learn more about Hallmark, visit

Dahlynn McKowen

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