When Sally Pofcher took the CEO job at Paper Source four years ago, she found too much of a good thing.

The Chicago-based independent stationery and crafting store reflected the quirky tastes of its founder Sue Lindstrom, an artist obsessed with paper who traveled the world buying whatever struck her fancy. But the operations languished in creative chaos.

Walking through the Paper Source warehouse required twisting and turning through a stockpile of old desks, broken office chairs, air-conditioning units and out-of-date computer monitors. Boxes of unmarked inventory hid in the nooks and crannies of the distribution center and offices: heaps of luggage tags, mounds of misfit envelopes, piles of plastic sleeves, hundreds of Christmas cards.

"I spent my first year sorting through the treasures," Pofcher said. "Our company was choking on inventory. We've spent thousands of hours finding and sorting and selling old stuff."

Today, the warehouse is free of clutter. Inventory is assigned a stock keeping unit number, logged into a computer system and stored on shelves waiting to be picked, packaged and shipped. A red pathway is painted on the floor to guide workers through the distribution center and improve work flow.

On a tour of the reorganized warehouse at Kinzie Street and Milwaukee Avenue earlier this month, Pofcher points to the sign written in black marker and taped over the leftover stash: "There is a plan."

Focused, driven and intuitive, Pofcher never imagined herself as a CEO. She bristled at the formality inherent in big corporate cultures. She wanted to work in a creative field, but her talents were analytical.

"I hate the notion that if you are a business person, you cannot also be creative," she said.

When the Paper Source opportunity arrived unexpectedly on her doorstep years later, Pofcher saw a chance to immerse herself in a world of creativity and design.

Since its founding in 1983 as a storefront under the elevated train tracks in River North, Paper Source has developed a cult following of crafters and artists taken with Lindstrom's offbeat, and often naughty, sensibility. The store developed its reputation for colorful, cutting-edge merchandise by importing specialty papers from Japan, making its own rubber stamps and journals in-house, and offering an irreverent alternative to Hallmark greeting cards (such as the $5.50 letterpress card depicting three nuns declaring, "Holy Sh*t! It's your birthday").

When Brentwood Associates LP purchased a majority stake in Paper Source in 2007 and hired Pofcher to oversee a national expansion, there was no more room for mayhem.

The Los Angeles-based private equity firm wanted to open a dozen stores a year and eventually operate more than 200 Paper Source outposts in malls and main streets across the country.

"We knew behind the store there was great creativity, but the company needed organization and systems and planning," said Roger Goddu, a partner at Brentwood and chairman of Paper Source. "Sally is a very hands-on CEO in terms of understanding all aspects of the business and the nuances that aren't so obvious. There's nothing going on in that company that she doesn't know."

Goddu learned about Paper Source from his teenage daughter when he was working in Chicago in the late 1990s as chairman and CEO of now-defunct Montgomery Ward under GE Capital Corp. Goddu decided the retail concept had national potential and persuaded his partners at Brentwood to invest, even though the 21-store chain was smaller than most companies in their portfolio.

Lindstrom, who remains the company's single individual shareholder, was unavailable to comment for this story. But Goddu recounts Lindstrom telling him that she didn't care about how much money the company made.

"That wasn't how she approached the business," Goddu said.

Chandra Greer, a luxury paper proprietor in Old Town, has followed Paper Source under both Lindstrom and Pofcher.

"Sally is extraordinarily well-organized," said Greer. "Sue would bring in things she loved even if they wouldn't sell."

Keeping it real with customers