Vickie Hutchins & JoAnn Martin

While many business partnerships fail when oversized egos get in the way, Gooseberry Patch owners Vickie Hutchins and JoAnn Martin say partnering is what makes their company work.

“I don’t know that either of us would have hung in here this long if we were by ourselves,” says Hutchins.

Sixteen years ago, the duo started the Delaware mail order business from a mutual love of country decorating and antiques. With an initial investment of $5,000 apiece, they took no income for three years. In 1990, they hit the $1 million sales mark, and the company grew at about 30 percent a year after that. They expected sales to reach nearly $15 million at the close of the fiscal year last month.

As in most successful partnerships, Hutchins and Martin have complementary skills. Hutchins handles the creative aspect of the business, particularly catalog design and cookbooks, while Martin manages more of the day-to-day operations. Yet each crosses over from time to time, and neither is territorial when it comes to getting things done.

“We can divvy up the crummy jobs and the fun ones,” says Martin.

And neither gloats over a good decision — nor plays the blame game over a bad one — like the time they tried to sell the bowl with the floating candles.

“We’ve still got quite a few of them,” says Martin with a chuckle.

“Maybe it was because the candles were shaped like rocks,” adds Hutchins. “We’ve been trying to donate the bowls to schools to use as terrariums, but you really can’t donate them because they’re so breakable.”

But the pair thinks they’re on target most of the time when it comes to picking just the right products for their customers — typically well-educated women between the ages of 35 and 55. And they contend they’re selling more than simply products in their whimsical catalog pages.

“I think the catalog is about comfort, family, friendship and sharing,” says Hutchins. “It brings to people’s lives a little something they’re missing.”

The duo also has a shared commitment to providing extra-friendly service to their customers. Gooseberry’s “personal shoppers,” telephone operators whose numbers swell to 25 in the months before Christmas, are given extensive training not only in taking orders in a chatty way, but also in becoming experts in Gooseberry’s cozy product line — from layered cookie mixes to bubble lights. Each year, the catalog features about 200 new products.

The pair, winner of Ernst & Young’s Columbus and Central Ohio Retail Entrepreneur of the Year Award in 1995, says the newest challenge is finding enough creative people to add to their in-house staff of illustrators, copywriters and graphic designers. They say Gooseberry’s laid-back atmosphere, replete with scented candles and potpourri, may be difficult for those who prefer a corporate ladder.

“A lot of people can’t go with the flow and be flexible and spontaneous,” says Martin. “The lack of creative talent is determining our growth, which gets frustrating because we have so many ideas and so much we want to do.”

But Hutchins and Martin are confident that they’ll continue to build their business in the relaxed, non-competitive way they always have.

“I don’t think we’ve ever lost sight of what it is we’re here for and what it is we want to do,” says Hutchins. “I don’t think it’s ever changed; it’s evolved.”

Muntaqima Abdur-Rashid is a Columbus-based free-lance writer.