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Counselor Senior Editor Michele Bell's slanted view of the world.

Meet Lion Circle, the Supplier Family Business of the Year!

Filed under: ASI Shows, Editorial, Fun, Interviews, Travel

Hi Everyone!

Carollo FamilyIn my last blog post, I shared with you the full version of the article I wrote on Brown & Bigelow’s Cindy Jorgenson, this year’s Counselor Woman of Distinction. Well, this time around, I’m sharing the full article on this year’s Supplier Family Business, Lion Circle. The Chicago-based company is owned by the Carollo family, and Rich, of course, is the second-generation sibling you all know. Hands up: Is there anyone in the industry who doesn’t love hanging out with the gregarious Mr. Carollo? I tell him he’s like my brother from another mother (to which he retorts that I’m his “sister from another mister”), despite the fact that we only met two years ago at the SAAC Show. But oh, what a meeting it was. I had e-mailed him to ask if we could get together so I could interview him for a Counselor article… What followed was an impromptu mini bar tour bender, which was an epic meeting of the minds second only to when Janis Joplin encountered Jim Morrison for the first time. When those two Dionysian heathens met, Janis threw a bottle of bourbon at the Lizard King for being a degenerate disgrace. In our case, Rich ended the night by saying goodbye to me in his own special way — hurling a green wax apple at my head. I’ve adored him ever since…

The company that Rich and his family run is truly one of the best in the business, not the least of which is because every year for the last seven it’s dominated the “Fan” product category in the Counselor Distributor Choice Awards and its products are Made in the USA. Love that, and love the gracious Carollo clan even more.

Cheers to the Carollos for deservedly winning this year’s Counselor Supplier Family Business of the Year award, and read on for the unabridged article I wrote about them in August’s Counselor.

– M

It’s the classic tale of the American Dream, which is fitting, knowing that Lion Circle is one of the few suppliers in the industry whose products are manufactured in the U.S.

In 1963, straight from the U.S. Army, Phil Carollo started out in the shipping department of Lion Match Corporation of America. He understood early on in the job that it was more cost effective to ship to multiple drop points along the way, saving the company money and becoming more efficient for clients. This basic shipping philosophy would make him the top salesperson for the company in less than three years, even though he wasn’t in the sales department. When the owner was ready to sell the business and retire in 1975, Phil was reluctant to purchase the business. He had four small children all under the age of eight at home and no spare funds to buy into a business of this magnitude. But the owner loved Phil’s tenacity and assisted in finding a partner to help shoulder the debt.

Cut to 1984 when Phil – now the company’s sole owner – changed its name to Lion Circle, and saw he first of his four children, Philip Jr. (Jay) come aboard full time. Like his father, Jay also started in the shipping department, learning the business from the ground up. They were focused on becoming more efficient and decided to invest in some paper lamination equipment to provide a different type of matchbook to their customers. Jack was the next to join in the shipping department full time – an area he now oversees, with Jo-Ann and Rich coming to work during the school breaks over the summers, between high school and college.

But by 1988, the match business was declining, due to anti-smoking campaigns. Almost by divine intervention, Phil had gone to Mass and noticed the old church fans in the pews. At the end of the service, he had a new plan of what he could do with his existing equipment. In a stroke of perfect timing, the Wall Street Journal ran an article on the reintroduction of church fans as an advertising vehicle just a few weeks later.

Today, Rich – the gregarious Carollo sibling everyone knows in the industry and who was on Counselor’s Hot List in 2012 – leads the day to day operations within the organization with oversight from Phil. Jo-Ann now spearheads the company’s internal operations, human resources and financial responsibilities. Currently, all four of Phil Carollo’s adult children are working in the family business full time.

“The best part of the business is having all my children working with me,” says Phil, the patriarch. “I’ve watched them all grow in different directions, but each of them has something to contribute to the business that’s been such a significant part of my life.” And the toughest part? “Having all my children working with me,” he laughs. “Sometimes it’s hard to get us all focused on the same page. Also, we spend a lot of time together during work and after hours. Our spouses and kids became sick of hearing about all the work issues when we are all together, so have an unwritten rule not to talk about work during the weekends or dinners unless absolutely necessary.”

With the second generation fully engaged, Lion Circle continues to grow and thrive as a family business, experiencing 10% growth for the last four years, with YTD sales stronger than those in 2013. The company has won the Counselor Distributor Choice Award in the Fan category for the past five years, and its new growth is coming from acquisitions as well as new business development. The HaPi Line was integrated in 2007, adding more paper products and promotional head wear; Sam Line was purchased in 2012, adding magnets and plastic substrates.

The third generation of Carollos — seven grandchildren, ages 10 to 18 – is following their parents’ lead in the company. “Most of them have been in to help at one point or another,” says Jo-Ann. “When we were kids we used to glue matchbooks in catalogs for samples over summer and holidays – getting paid 5 cents per catalog – and sweep the floors and make buttons. Our kids do the same – cleaning, sweeping, paper shredding, gluing sticks to fans, adding tassels and light assembly work.”

Rich points out that as the second generation is “still relatively young,” they’ll continue the commitment to make Lion Circle a successful family business for generations to come. “My dad will continue to direct the business and tell us all the crazy new products we should be developing based on a TV show he saw or an idea he had while walking on the beach in Florida. And because our kids will be graduating college in 10 years, I would think a few of them might choose to join us.”


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