With graduation season in full swing, Lucie Voves has her hands full.
“It’s definitely a busy time for us,” she said with a laugh. “From the middle of March to mid-June, we’re working at full capacity. It’s like a giant mountain peak that we have to be prepared for.”
Voves is the founder, president and CEO of Church Hill Classics, a manufacturer of custom diploma frames, certificate frames, varsity letter frames, photo frames and desk accessories at 594 Pepper St. in Monroe. Since the company was formed in 1991, it has manufactured over 1 million frames for its customers and expects to hit the 2 million mark by 2020. It manufactures about 120,000 frames a year, Voves said.
Christmastime is actually the company’s highest peak time in terms of orders, she said, “but that’s a much shorter time than graduation season.”
The somewhat quizzical company name was derived from her starting the business in Newtown, where Church Hill Road is one of the main thoroughfares. A graduate of Dartmouth College, Voves was working as a brand manager at Procter & Gamble when the idea came to her that college diplomas – “which represent something that people are deservedly proud of” – were often simply lacquered to a plaque. “I thought a custom-made frame that could employ school seals, colors, athletic logos and the like would add value to such an important achievement,” she said.
Initially operating out of her basement in Newtown, Voves was soon “peddling frames at Dartmouth graduations” and found that many customers appreciated the craftsmanship involved.
Partnering with Dartmouth’s college bookstore, Church Hill Classics soon began making similar deals with other colleges and universities. Quickly outgrowing her “bootstrap operation” in Newtown, the company moved first to Danbury in 1998 and in 2007 to its current home in Monroe, a 47,000-square-foot facility that employs 95 people, roughly 80 percent of whom are women.
Today the company has agreements with about 1,500 colleges and universities and is a licensed vendor for the various branches of the military. Voves said the company adds 50 to 100 institutions every year, with roughly half of its orders coming from college bookstores and the other 50 percent from its website, DiplomaFrame.com.
“Church Hill Classics was a totally made-up name,” she said. “By the time the Internet boom arrived we’d already established our brand identity … but we needed a name that was immediately recognizable for our website.”
The company has been steadily growing, with revenues of $11.7 million last year. Voves said Church Hill is on pace to hit about $12.5 million this year.
Voves added that the differentiator between Church Hill and such industry Goliaths as Jostens – which are sometimes displayed next to her company’s wares in college bookstores – is that “we’ve established ourselves as a category leader through our craftsmanship, the fact that we custom-make every frame, and our turnaround time.” That time is five days, she said, even during peak periods.
As a member of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s WasteWise Program, most of Church Hill Classics’ frames are produced with renewable woods, and the manufacturer offers a selection of frames that are made with 100 percent recycled American wood.
“We want to be responsible corporate citizens,” Voves said. “Being in a college industry, there are high standards we want to maintain in order to produce something that graduates and the colleges themselves can take pride in.”
The company also emphasizes its products are American made. “‘Made in the U.S.A.’ is an important part of what we do,” Voves said.
She said that she encourages employees to explore additional skills, rather than be confined to one job. “A lot of our production employees have moved into IT and website management, purchasing and other functions,” Voves said. “We try to understand each person’s strengths and interests. I don’t know if that kind of thing happens at other companies.”