“The Kisses Business” By Erica M. Rauzen,
editor Miami / South Florida Magazine
Vivian Greene jauntily walks into an office and drops a beige teddy bear on the desk. The curly-haired bear is wearing a black lace teddy and carrying a red satin heart. “It’s a Let’s Have An Affair Bear”, Greene laughs. “Want her? Or a Kiss?”
The bear – not to mention thousands of Kisses™ greeting cards, hundreds of nighties, scores of dolls and countless comic strips – is one of Greene’s creations. Her products all emerge from her insight and intuition: the embodiments of charming, childlike cartoon characters.
She’s a business dynamo who bases her economic practices on emotion, something the Harvard School of Business would scorn. Greene, 37, initially became known as the creator of greeting cards bearing chubby, loving children and touching, wry slogans. The youngest and first female card manufacturer in the US at age 21, Greene made her first million by age 26. Her success began with the Kisses™ characters who appeared on her greeting cards and in her comic strip.
The tousled toddlers are drawn without eyes because, Greene reveals, “All that is real is seen with the heart…” and that’s how she does business.
Greene is a sought-after corporate consultant as well as the owner of four Kisses™ affiliate companies—a manufacturing plant, Kisses™ syndicator, an advertising/endorsement agency, and a retail franchise chain. Her practical, professional achievements are based as much upon love as logic, upon emotion as economics. Imagine a fortune and a bottom-line business reputation founded on whimsical greeting cards.
“I could love you forever… but after that you’re on your own!” teases one Kisses™ card depicting two kids dressed up as bride and groom. Another one, slightly more naughty from Greene’s Juvenile Delinquent line shows a cherubic innocent remembering, “I left my panties at your place.”
Greene’s product lines, including the newest additions Angelwishes and Be Cuz Bears crop up on stationary, key chains, folders, lunch buckets, bikinis and even on T-shirts for the Rain Festival in Seattle where Greene spent her childhood.
The angel dust messages of Greene’s cards were born from the gristmill of her life. Raised in a lower-middle-class home, swimming in cross-cultural currents between her black and white neighbors Greene was surrounded by opportunities for self-reliance and imaginative resourcefulness. Thus she created her special friends, the fantasy characters who are her stock in trade today.
Her mother, separated from her father before Greene was born, had relinquished her career as an artist to become a sales clerk. Greene swore she’d live a more enterprising life. At age 12 she began to work after school. Eventually she started the Seattle Times’ youth page and gradually assembled her portfolio.
At 17, she enrolled in the University of Washington. She finished her degree early, but she never made it to graduation ceremonies. A month or so before commencement, she saw Midnight Cowboy, and two weeks later caught a plane to Miami. “It was one of the most inspired moves I ever made.”
After a stint on a local paper in suburban Coral Gables, Greene sold her first comic, the Kisses™ panels, to a New York syndicate (she made the connection by ghostwriting for one of their columnists). The sale proved to be a false start on the road to success. The syndicate went out of business just weeks before Kisses™ was scheduled for release.
Undaunted, Greene introduced her character greeting cards at a New York trade show. Her 24 designs generated $12,000 in orders. With $700 in her pocket and $12,000 in paper promises, Greene returned to Miami. She found an attorney, an accountant and a printer who would invest their skills in her future and launched her business from her apartment. Two Miami Dolphins lived in her building, and the whole team pitched in to help box and haul her first shipments of cards.
In 1972, the first year she took her cards to trade shows around the country, she generated $300,000 in orders.
By 1975, she had a warehouse, 21 employees, 80 salespeople and her first magazine cover stories. She was cited as a self-made millionaire in The Miami Herald’s Tropic Sunday supplement and as an unknown millionaire in US News and World Report.
That year, Kisses™ finally made syndication in a deal with National Newspaper Syndicate that lasted until the syndicate was purchased by United Feature Syndicate in 1979. Greene declined United’s contract due to unsettled copyright agreements, but people still write her asking when Kisses™ will return to the comic pages. “If the newspapers respond to public demand, it’ll be back,” Greene reassures us.
Kisses™ did very well without the funny pages, thank you. Kisses™ is syndicated now only abroad in 22 languages, and it thrives in the US on cards and some 65 additional licensed items.
Greene stepped out of manufacturing in 1983, when she affiliated with Mark I, a Chicago greeting card company, with projected royalties of $250,000 a year. Mark I filed bankruptcy in 1985 and, a year later, Greene became a manufacturer again.
Her personal approach and devotion to simple principles – light-heartedness, integrity, generosity, warmth – make for successful, if offbeat, business relationships.
In 1980, Greene applied to Miami’s Biscayne Federal Bank for a $200,000 loan to buy a house. Bank officials assured her it was a cinch, but required her financial statements. Greene asked the bank to approve the loan based on her sterling integrity and platinum credit. “That’s like a man who won’t love you unless you undress”, she explains. Although bank officials were reluctant, Greene prevailed, supported by advice from an art appraiser who valued the licensing life-span of just one of her card images at $150,000.
But value beyond money led to her newest venture. In 1981, at age 32, Greene became a foster parent, a $22-a-month sponsor of a third world child. By age 33—having asked her friends to sponsor their own foster kids for her birthday—she had six foster children. Now, she’s embarked on an innovative program that will benefit the overall Foster Parents Plan.
Greetings cards on sale must be inventoried, store by store, week by week. Instead of paying store clerks to count her Kisses™ cards, Greene is rewarding Foster Parent Plan volunteers. For each month that a volunteer counts cards, Greene’s company will sponsor a child in the volunteer’s name. This program is being launched in June in New York, Boston and Miami and represents both a different approach to business and a unique motivation for volunteerism.
“The volunteers will feel a real commitment to the mission,” Greene explains. “They’ll know that because of their input, a child will eat. The foster children and their families will have more opportunities, and the volunteers can contribute time instead of money.”
Buyers of Kisses™ cards become involved as well, because the back of every 1987-edition card reads, “Thank you for sharing Kisses™ — and contributing to the support of a third world foster child.” Greene’s friend Woody Allen quips, “Being a Foster Parent is fun. You get darling letters from wonderful, needy kids that you’re helping and they live in remote places so you never have to lend them the car.”
Greene’s other new venture is chocolate-coated. Nestles chocolate, in fact. Sometime next year, perhaps by Valentine’s Day, Nestles will launch “Divine Chocolates”. Each high quality candy bar will come with a collectible Angelwishes decal designed by Greene. Nestles vice president Allen J. Berger describes Greene as “The most unusual, but by far the best business woman I have ever met.” Why unusual? Perhaps because she requested that he read The Little Prince before she’d seal the deal with Nestles. “The book describes what’s real, what’s a genuine ‘matter of circumstance,’ Greene smiles. “After all, we produce most effectively with others who share the same purpose?”
What’s next for Greene? What matters of circumstance? A musical television feature is pending. It will be called Rotunda Luvs Robert Redford, based on her character Rotunda and co-produced by double Emmy winner Jay Poyner. Lavish retail outlets for her Kisses™ line are scheduled to open first in Miami, Beverly Hills and New York, and later in Geneva, Paris, Cannes, Milan and Tokyo. “We do more abroad than we do in the U.S. with products other than cards,” Greene explains.
Not all her travel is business-related. Every now and then it’s just time for R & R. At least once a year, Vivian Greene heads for the airport with only a toothbrush, passport, bikini and coat. And why not? Kisses™, angels and teddy bears are welcome anywhere.
Story by Erica M. Rauszin, editor, Miami / South Florida Magazine. Released with permission.
© 2011, Vivian Greene. All rights reserved.