Busy Elves

By Hannah Wallace November 30, 2004

It's beginning to look a lot like Christmas at Sarasota-based Rudolph and Me, Inc., which has quadrupled its wholesale sales of personalized holiday ornaments since Susan and Joseph Brielmann started the company in 2002.

The Brielmanns now sell hundreds of thousands of brightly painted resin ornaments through a nationwide network of retailers, primarily Christmas specialty stores and nearly 700 mall carts and kiosks. A customer selects one of some 450 different designs that are in distribution and, while he waits, the ornament is personalized-little Bobby's name on a surfboard ornament, Grandma Edith's name on Mrs. Claus, and so on. The ornaments wholesale for between $3 and $3.50, and retail between $8.95 and $12.95.

At the height of season Rudolph and Me employs 20 to 25 busy elves, either in design or shipping, including a half dozen Ringling School of Art students and grads. The ornaments are manufactured in China. Independent contractors handle sales and marketing.

Susan Brielmann, who is the main designer, says that because the ornaments commemorate lifecycle events, "people who get started, get hooked. It's become a wonderful, sentimental family event. Each year they'll come into the shop and say, 'My kid's into soccer this year or my daughter's into ballet.'" The most popular sellers, says Brielmann, are the family ornaments that depict mom, dad and the kids as highly stylized polar bears and reindeer.

The Brielmanns started designing the Christmas 2005 line last June. Hobbies, professions, sports and baby ideas are all part of the mix. "I have a very vivid imagination," says Susan Brielmann, who was an interior designer in New York before she went into business with her husband. "I have five years worth of ideas in my head."

The couple retired to Sarasota in 2001 after running, then selling a similar company in New York. "Retirement lasted about nine months," says Susan Brielmann. "One morning, we were walking on the beach and my husband said, 'Let's start a little business. We'll get a little warehouse and have the phone number roll over to our cell phone. Then when we sell something, we'll run over and pack it up and ship it.' And I fell for it."

In January, Rudolph and Me will move into a 15,000-square-foot warehouse in Centre Park at Whitfield Avenue and U.S. 301.

By Christmas, "I need a foot massage," she laughs. "We're working crazy hours again, but we love it. And we do enjoy the season through our customers."

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