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The Pitch spoke with about 30 current and former employees over a three-month span. Not all of them had bad things to say about Hallmark. Some lauded the company's sabbatical program, its "creative renewal days" and its willingness to pay for employee education. In fact, many of those who have been fired or pushed out still say it's a great company that values creativity and knows how to inspire artists.
But most spoke of an environment where the threat of layoffs is constant. Where older workers fear their age might cost them their jobs. Where corporate-sounding terms such as "personal improvement plans" have replaced the family atmosphere.
James Hamil remembers what it was like to work at Hallmark when Joyce Hall treated his employees as the company's most important asset. Hamil hasn't worked at Hallmark for more than three decades, but he still speaks of it as if he were talking about an old friend — especially when he tells a story about the day Hall bought him lunch.
After 15 years in Hallmark's art department, Hamil decided to go out on his own in 1973. Hamil wanted to see how he could do selling his watercolor paintings while still freelancing for his old company. A few days after he quit, he came back to the downtown office for a meeting and decided to take a late lunch in the Crown Room, a 585-seat Hallmark cafeteria that's famous for egg-salad sandwiches, cowboy cookies, Thanksgiving turkey dinners and company gossip.
Hamil was standing in the tray line when Joyce Hall walked up behind him. Hall had retired in 1966, so employees didn't often see him in the Crown Room; until he retired in 1966, Hall ate there every day around 1:15 p.m.
"Come on, Jim," Hall said, "I'll buy your lunch."
It was the first time Hamil had talked with Hall about anything besides business. Hall told Hamil about how he escaped Kansas City summers by vacationing at Grand Lake, Colorado, and how you couldn't judge people by the way they dressed. Back then, Hall's story was known to everyone who worked at Hallmark, mostly because they'd heard it from Hall personally. Hall, a high school dropout, started the company in 1910 with a shoebox of postcards that he sold while living out of the YMCA in Kansas City. He expanded to greeting cards two years later, and within four years, the company had grown so fast that Hall bought his own print shop. His first card, printed in 1916, carried a message that seemed to personify his approach to business: "I'd like to be the kind of friend you are to me."
By 1921, Hall had 120 employees, with salesmen in every state. During the Depression, his loyal workers took pay cuts to avoid layoffs. Even as the company went international, Hall stayed involved with every detail. He often sat in on mundane meetings with every department, signing off on ideas presented on his preferred medium: 3-inch-by-5-inch cards. He gave small bonuses of $10 or $25 to someone at a meeting who came up with a good idea. Hamil recalls Hall picking, from a stack, one of the cards he had designed — it was a church on a hill with a lyric from "Go Tell It on the Mountain" inside. The card went on to be a best-seller. "Every department thought he watched nobody but them," says Hamil, who at 71 is now a successful watercolor painter in Overland Park. "But the truth was, he was in on everything."