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Their success in stationery was in the cards

Reese WitherspoonTarget Brands, Inc.

The gig: Chelsea Shukov, 36, and Jamie Grobecker, 34, are the co-founders and creative directors behind Sugar Paper Los Angeles, a stationery company whose simple but elegantly designed cards, invitations, calendars and wrapping paper are carried in more than 800 stores in the United States and in countries such as Japan and Australia.

The pair manage about 25 people working out of a warehouse in Los Angeles and their sole retail store at the Brentwood Country Mart.

Sisters: They met in a sorority at UCLA. Shukov was a junior majoring in women's studies; Grobecker was a freshman studying sociology. The two sorority sisters bonded over a shared love of art and growing up in families that drilled in good manners.

"Our moms required both of us to write thank-you notes," Shukov said. "Art and manners and decorum, we both had that in common."

First job: After graduation, Shukov dreamed of working in the entertainment industry and got a job as the assistant to Brad Grey, now the chief executive of Paramount Pictures. She quickly realized it was a bad fit, and transferred six months later to a newly created Web venture that Grey was launching. Then the dot-com bubble burst, the company folded, and Shukov was out of a job.

She ended up doing unpaid work for an art director, who tutored her in graphic design programs such as Adobe Photoshop and Illustrator.

"I just needed to start over, and that is when I started doing work for free," Shukov said. At the time, she was rooming with Grobecker, who was still in college. "Jamie and I both had an interest and were both learning simultaneously."

Beginning: On the side, the pair began designing and making cards for loved ones: baby shower invites for Grobecker's sister and wedding invitations for a friend of Shukov's. Word spread, and custom orders began trickling in. They started mulling over the idea of opening a store.

"We were meeting people at coffee shops around town," Grobecker said. "In order to legitimize what we were doing, we felt like we needed a proper space."

The pair loved eating at Clementine Bakery in Century City, and one day spotted a small spot nearby available to rent. They opened their first store in 2003 with about $40,000 in loans scrounged from family.

"Before we knew it we were signing a lease on the retail store on a whim and a prayer," Grobecker said.

Star power: The pair fortunately picked a location on a well-trafficked street frequented by affluent women, guaranteeing a steady stream of shoppers. A few months in, the store scored its biggest coup: actress Reese Witherspoon walked in and ordered custom stationery letter-pressed by hand. The star later had the paper goods photographed for an InStyle magazine shoot.

"She specifically asked the photographer to photograph the stationery," Shukov said. "It was a huge boost. I do believe she intentionally championed these two young women doing something she thought was great."

Within a year, the pair were approached to open another store at the upscale Brentwood Country Mart. The second location opened its doors in 2005.

All-nighters: Shukov and Grobecker both worked constantly their first few years with the company, staying up all night to finish designing custom orders and then dragging themselves back up to work. They reinvested every penny back into the business, all the while watching their buddies climb the corporate ladder.

"We saw our friends and their careers were more established, they were getting much bigger paychecks," Shukov said. "That wasn't in the cards for us. We were skimming off the top as little as we could to get by."

The most difficult part? Understanding how to build a company without any business know-how beforehand. "We are both artists, and running the business has truly been the hardest learning curve," Shukov said. "Things like learning about the state Board of Equalization and employment taxes and all the minutiae."

Grobecker said the second store forced them to retool the business as a well-oiled machine. "That was the first step in terms of thinking, 'How do we replicate this and do it in two places?'" she said. "We really had to start systemizing things."

Making it: Sugar Paper started taking off after the pair shifted focus to their wholesale business in 2010. Using their stores as a test market, they started designing cards, notepads and other goods that stationery stores began to carry. In October, the company launched a limited collection of calendars and datebooks for Target Corp. Another collaboration with J. Crew, this one focused on wedding accessories, will launch Dec. 26.

The pair closed their first store in Century City in March when they moved to a new warehouse space.

"I would say the point I felt like we made it is now," Shukov said. "We have a beautiful new warehouse, and we have a team of artists that are incredible. We are experiencing the fruits of all that work."

They declined to provide revenue specifics, but Shukov said there has been "significant growth" in the last 12 months.

Teamwork. Both say their partnership and work ethic were the foundation of their company's success. Grobecker has taken the lead on the financial side, while Shukov is the point person for marketing. In a pinch, the entire team comes together to fulfill a large order.

"We both make sure to be protective of the fact that it's a relationship," Grobecker said. "We don't keep score, we don't keep tally. I think we are each other's biggest supporter."

The pair also have an open-door policy with their staff; anyone is welcome to come in and chat about what's on their mind. "Jamie and I have both worked really low-man-on-the-totem-pole jobs," Shukov said. "She was a nanny for a powerful person, and I was second assistant to a powerful person. We learned how we wanted to be treated."

Off the clock: Down time is all about family. Grobecker prefers to hang outdoors with her husband, Evan, and daughter Kate. Shukov, who is married to Greg, is on maternity leave with newborn daughter Bennett. She also has a son, Owen. Grobecker and Shukov like to relax together on their off time with girls nights of wine and food.

shan.li@latimes.com

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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