When Lucie Voves graduated from Dartmouth College in 1986, she landed a job as a brand manager at Procter & Gamble. She wanted a framed picture of her alma mater to hang in her first office, but she was stymied in locating her desired artwork.
“I thought, ‘Well, I cannot be the only graduate of Dartmouth College that wants a picture of the school,’” she recalled. “So, I hired an artist to do a painting and we created a series of prints. And his wife taught me how to frame pictures.”
Armed with her framed prints, Voves ventured back to her old school and “stood on the street corner and peddled framed art at graduation.” Pleased with the results of her street corner sales, she repeated the formula with framed art of other Ivy League schools, but soon discovered customers who were less interested in the art and more interested in the frames.
“There were a lot of people who said, ‘I love your artwork, but can you frame my diploma to match it?’” she continued. “Once I started selling diploma frames, I pretty quickly realized that that was the big opportunity.”
In 1991, Voves turned her side hustle into Church Hill Classics, with the goal of helping newly minted graduates preserve their diplomas in classy-looking frames. Thirty years later, Voves’s Monroe-based business recently landed on Inc. 5000’s list of America’s fastest-growing private companies for a record 11th time — and as the official awards vendor for Mansueto Ventures, the publisher of Inc., she also manufactures the awards that she won.
Voves, who also runs the online site DiplomaFrame.com, manufactures approximately 150,000 frames per year at her 62,000-square-foot facility. She expanded her initial school audience beyond the Ivy League to include the University of Connecticut and Syracuse University before expanding far beyond the academic sphere.
“We do frames for organizations that issue credentials — like legal, medical, financial, human resources,” she said. “We do particularly well when you know the credentials are a little difficult to get and you want to put it up on your wall. We also have programs with the Daughters of the American Revolution, the Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts, and we do frames for the American Kennel Club for your pup’s pedigree and certifications.”
Voves connected with Mansueto three years ago via a request for proposals from its awards business, and she credited her association with the company as being a key part of her company’s growth. Today, much of her new business is gained through referrals and word of mouth, and her initial focus on consumer sales has shifted.
“Our business is 50% wholesale, which is mostly to college bookstores and then 50% direct to consumer through our website,” she said. “We help our partner stores and we help ourselves by promoting frames.”
Voves’ operations faced its greatest challenge in 2020 when the Covid-19 pandemic took root only a few weeks before colleges were preparing for their graduation ceremonies.
“We were like, ‘Okay, graduations are canceled, we’re in really big trouble — is this going to work out?’” she said. “My leadership team did a really good job of really being proactive — by working with our bookstore partners and universities and other companies in the graduation industry.”
The strategy that Church Hill Classics pursued was to reinforce the importance of showing off the credential of the framed diploma in the absence of the canceled graduation ceremony. The pandemic also sparked an unexpected consumer stream from the remote workers who began to notice their domestic surroundings and wanted to show off their honors for their new Zoom audiences — with a framed degree being a key object for display.
“Those things kind of came together and gave us a boost and a level of growth that we’ve almost never had before,” Voves said, with the company adding a second shift to keep up with the demand.
Looking forward, Voves is focusing Church Hill Classics’ 2022 priorities on scaling production capacity while keeping on top of its supply of raw materials to meet increasing demand.
“We’re planning for more growth than we’ve ever experienced before,” she said. “It’s a big challenge, but it’s exciting and we’re just trying to keep our foot on the gas and keep our customers happy. I think it’ll take us a long way.”