Posted: December 01, 2009
CEOs of the Year: Mark and Annie Danielson
Trinidad couple pours faith, resources into historic Southern Colorado townBy Mike Taylor
From a home-based startup in 1991, Danielson Designs in Trinidad has become one of the largest private employers in Las Animas County, but in some ways that success has been merely a means to an end for company founders Mark and Annie Danielson.
Over the past 15 years the couple has poured time, money and faith into reviving not only the economy but the culture and historic prominence of downtown Trinidad, the county seat of about 10,000 residents near the New Mexico border prone to the boom and bust cycles of the coal and natural-gas industries.
Along with employing about 75, the Danielsons' home-décor business generates annual sales of about $10 million on items such as custom picture frames, decorative door hooks and inspirational signs - like the one that reads, "Home is where your story begins," the company's top-selling item by a wide margin.
"We've sold literally hundreds of thousands of units of that piece," says Mark, 47. "It's unbelievable. It just doesn't stop."
That message - "Home is where your story begins" - also sums up the journey of Mark and Annie Danielson, this year's ColoradoBiz CEO of the Year winners, who met as college students at Colorado College in Colorado Springs.
"It's my favorite story in the world," Mark says. "I knew all the rest of her family before I knew her. I was back for her brother's wedding, and she approached her dad when we were all standing around trying on tuxes. She said, ‘Hey dad, are you going to take me out to dinner?' He was busy, so he turns to me and he goes, ‘All right, Mark, what are you going to charge me to take my daughter out for the evening?' So he paid me to take her out, and the rest is history."
You think Mark Danielson must be joking about actually getting paid to take out his future wife, but maybe he's not, because Annie laughs and says, "You can understand why I don't like to tell the story."
The two married in 1985 and then moved to Southern California, where Mark built a custom-furniture business and Annie worked as a product developer for a greeting-card company and later as a budget manager for Pepperdine University.
And then, Mark says, "We started having kids and didn't want to raise them in Los Angeles. We said this is where we want to be."
"This" was Trinidad, where Annie had moved in 1973 as a 13-year-old when her father, Ed Richardson, a former pastor at the giant Calvary Temple in Denver, moved the family and bought some acreage to create a retreat center that he runs today along with serving as pastor of a local nondenominational congregation.
Mark and Annie Danielson found in Trinidad the small-town, family-oriented environment they were looking for in 1990, but they also found a depressed town grappling with the decline in coal mining and 40 percent of the people on some kind of government aid.
Annie's father spoke often to his congregation of the need to be part of the solution to Trinidad's economic woes, and Mark credits his father-in-law fully for the couple's decision to launch a business that would create desperately needed jobs.
"That was when we sensed the call to say, ‘All right, what's the business solution to this?'" Mark says. "That's what launched us into business."
Danielson Designs began with Annie designing hand-painted picture frames and Mark building them in their small woodshop. They took the first frames to a trade show in Chicago, knowing nothing about how to market their wares, but the items were such a hit that overnight the challenge became how to ramp up production enough to meet demand and create distribution channels, which put Danielson Designs on the path to becoming one of the Trinidad area's largest private employers.
Officially, Mark is president and Annie vice president, "just because we needed to fill in the blanks when we incorporated," Mark says. Earlier this year it was named by the state as one of 50 "Colorado Companies to Watch" and profiled in the June issue of ColoradoBiz.
The impact is not lost on Kim Pacheco, executive director of the Las Animas County Chamber of Commerce.
"This is Annie's hometown, and it really meant a lot to her to bring business to Trinidad and provide economic development and stimulus here, and truly they have," Pacheco says.
Annie Danielson recalls the evolution of their business and impetus for the move back to Trinidad: family and children. The Danielsons' three offspring are now 19, 17 and 15, the oldest a sophomore at Baylor University.
"Some employees have been with us for the entire time we've been in business," Annie says. "They've grown with the company; they've held a number of positions. It's pretty cool over the last 17 years to be able to say, ‘My gosh, we've watched these people's kids grow up and go to college, and they've watched our kids grow up and go to college.' And we've weathered some tough times together. It's very satisfying to know you've answered a felt need, and you've seen the fruit of it."
But Danielson Designs would be only a part of the couple's influence on their town's economy. The couple were vocal opponents of a bill in 1996 to bring gambling to Trinidad, so when the initiative was defeated, they felt the need to once again be part of the solution in coming up with alternative attractions to bolster Trinidad's architecturally spectacular but largely vacant downtown.
In 1997 they purchased a vacant building that was a dime store in Annie's youth and turned it into Danielson Dry Goods and Café. More recently, with an eye on creating a community arts anchor downtown, they founded a professional repertory theatre with performances for the time being at Trinidad State Junior College while they look for a downtown location to convert to a performance center.
Annie says the couple's time in Southern California showed them the right businesses could attract money to Trinidad, whose location along Interstate 25 near the New Mexico border makes it a frequent rest stop for vacationers from New Mexico and Texas heading to the ski slopes.
"We moved here directly from Malibu, California, so we were well aware there was money out there to be brought into our community," she says. "Before business was termed an agent for social change, I guess that's what we were really doing."
The Danielsons don't expect the repertory theatre to ever be profitable. "It's just our way of saying we need an anchor for downtown life," Mark says. "If Trinidad is going to grow and be sustainable, we feel like we're one cog in that wheel. The gas industry has been huge here obviously over the past 15 years, but what comes after gas? So we're just trying to do our part."
Danielson Designs continues as a significant economic driver, but the threat of cheap product knockoffs from Asia has prompted innovation.
Currently only about 1 percent of their sales come from the Internet. But that's likely to change with the Danielsons' launch of a system incorporating digital printing that will allow customers to create fully custom products at a unit of one at prices Mark says will be barely above stock inventory. The new service, at www.thestudio.danielsondesigns.com, will be officially unveiled in January at the home décor industry's major trade show in Atlanta.
It's a leap of faith, but the Danielsons are used to that, like the day years ago after Mark earned his master's degree in theology (he has an undergraduate degree in biology), Annie asked him what he was going to do next. Mark said he wanted to build furniture.
"You've got to bear in mind that I had never touched a tool," he says. "This was just kind of a romantic vision I had. And she goes, ‘Well, maybe you should pursue that.'"
A few days later Mark got an offer to furnish an entire beach house. "I went home and ordered some tools and figured it out as I went," he says. "It's an amazing story as I look back," Mark says. "But it happened."
Says Annie: "A good, healthy dose of self-confidence, and you can do just about anything."
That trait will serve the couple well in Danielson Designs' next big step. "We're really investing our entire future in the Internet," Mark says. "We believe that is where we're headed, and so that's definitely where we're staking our future."
Mike Taylor is the managing editor of ColoradoBiz. He writes about small-business money issues and how startups are launched. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.