By CARSON GERBER, Kokomo Tribune
PERU, Ind. (AP) — In some ways, Mike Kuepper’s life has been one big party. Which makes sense, considering her family has been keeping the party going for 101 years.
Today, this party takes place in a building in Peru. Inside the massive factory that spans an entire city block, the halls are filled with boxes filled with party hats, foil tiaras, and exploding horns.
One room contains boxes of bouncy balls, plastic clap toys and shelves full of candies. In another room, a large printer makes specialty paper plates and cups with party-themed designs. And that’s just the tip of the party iceberg.
The company is called Kuepper Favor Co., which operates inside the nearly 140-year-old factory that stretches along the train tracks. The building was constructed in 1895 and has been used many times to manufacture wooden telephone booths, bubble lamps, and auto parts for some of the nation’s first automobiles.
But the business didn’t start in Peru. It was founded in Chicago in 1921. It was then that Kuepper’s grandfather, George W., began making items such as crepe paper cups and hats which he sold in his five-penny store. The party business was so popular that he ended up selling the store and founding Kuepper Favor Co.
In the 1950s, Kuepper’s father, George C., ran the company and wanted to move it out of Chicago to a more business-friendly state. He started looking at factories in the Midwest.
In 1956, he found the establishment in Peru and moved.
Kuepper, 69, was a child when the family left Chicago, but he remembers being packed into the back of the car and then unloaded in a small town in rural Indiana.
The family business served as the backdrop to Kuepper’s childhood. In high school, he began working summers operating machinery and working on the manufacturing side of the business. After earning a college degree in marketing, he took a job with his father.
But that all changed in 1978, when her father died at age 65. Before the funeral, the company’s accountant took Kuepper aside and told him that the company was in trouble. He suggested it might be time to sell.
Instead, Kuepper decided to take over the business and do everything he could to turn it around. When he became the owner, he was the youngest in the business.
“Once he passed, it was like, boom, I was in charge,” Kuepper said. “… I was forced to grow up fast. I remember thinking, ‘You have to get serious. All of these people depend on you.
After years of jostling, Kuepper landed major accounts with Hallmark and American Greetings, making giveaways that the companies would then sell to Walmart and other major retailers.
During this period, business was booming and the factory in Peru had at times over 100 workers producing almost all of their party supplies in-house.
But in the 1990s, the global economy was in the midst of a seismic shift as American manufacturing moved overseas to cut labor costs. One by one, party businesses similar to Kuepper’s closed, unable to compete with Asian manufacturing.
“No matter how badly I could squeeze our margins, China could always undermine me,” Kuepper said.
He saw the writing on the wall. It was time for another major pivot to keep the family business going.
In 1994, Kuepper started another company called Party Direct, which buys most of its items and then sells them directly to customers. By combining its two companies, Kuepper was able to keep prices well below its competitors.
Party Direct really took off in 1997, when they landed an account with Chuck E. Cheese. Soon they had catalogs and product lines that they were sending to companies all over the United States that had birthday party programs.
Today, the company sells to Disney Cruise Lines, Dairy Queen, the National Elks Club, bowling centers like Heritage Lanes at Kokomo, and a variety of other hotel chains and entertainment companies.
The pivot to wholesaling kept business going and allowed Kuepper to outlast nearly every other competitor. He said today that he knows of only two other family party favor businesses in the United States. When he took over in the 1970s, there were dozens.
But as Party Direct grew, Kuepper Favors Co. shrank. Around 2010, manufacturing in the factory had all but stopped. Machines that once produced 10,000 party hats an hour or cut giant reams of paper stood idle.
“Some of this stuff, it’s sad to see him just sitting here,” Kuepper said.
The huge drop in the manufacturing sector has been accompanied by a huge drop in the number of employees. The company that once had more than 100 employees now employs only 12.
Kuepper said it was difficult to cut staff over the years, but the move was necessary to keep his family’s century-old business intact.
But the challenge posed by overseas manufacturing was nothing compared to what the company faced during the pandemic.
He said business was doing well at the end of 2019. By summer 2020, sales were down over 90% as the country was in lockdown due to COVID-19.
Almost overnight, Kuepper was faced with an insurmountable challenge that was sure to deliver the deathblow to the business. He tried to switch to making masks and other items for the pandemic, but it didn’t go well.
In the end, he said, the only thing that kept the business afloat was government loans and help that kept them grounded for the following year.
Today, the demand for party favors is higher than it has ever been, but that hasn’t made running the business any easier. Kuepper said with the global supply chain still disrupted by the pandemic, it has become difficult to obtain basic supplies like paper to make some of their products.
“I was hoping everything would be better now, but it’s not,” he said. “Before COVID I had all kinds of different vendors to choose from, but now it’s just hard to find anything.”
But after running the company for 44 years, Kuepper has become adept at adapting and finding creative ways to deal with the near-constant changes in the economy.
It’s what the company did during World War II and the Great Depression, when it couldn’t find employees or supplies, and it’s what Kuepper does today.
And while it’s hard at times, he says, the work is still fun after all these years. After all, why not love helping people throw a party?
“Party industry people are just more positive, driven people,” Kuepper said. “It’s fun to work in this industry.”
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