Panda Anniversary 2009
Imagine a fiery young redhead, trudging out to her car after losing her job, a box full of her desk contents under her arm. She has no job, no idea of what to do next. All she has left is her prized Sylvester and Tweety desk clock. While fumbling for her keys, the woman, we’ll call her Kellie, drops the desk clock. Sylvester’s tail breaks off and Tweety rolls helplessly under her car.
“Ah sh#t…Tweety broke,” she says before picking up the pieces and driving away.
A few hours later the phone starts ringing with well wishers. One of those calls is Krikor Topouzian from Ani Safety. Krikor, hearing Kellie now has some free time, wants her to do a brochure. 13 years later, Panda is still at it (although Kellie has never been able to replace that clock). The next call came from Nancy Woltzen, now working for North Safety, but at the time she was Kellie’s supervisor at Lyons: “You’ve escaped The Rock! I have someone you have to meet. Her name is Jill Will of Cameron & Barkley and she needs your help.” And finally the call from Stuart Southard of Care Supply (now Care Safety) who said, “Kellie, we want to get into safety and I hear you can help us, come on down, we need to talk.”. And so it began.
- May 1996: Kellie “leaves” a job at Lyons Safety with big dreams, a broken Sylvester and Tweety desk clock, and not much else.
- (Later that day): Kellie and husband Todd create Panda Communications in their house on Milwaukee’s northwest side. Todd begins a long summer of writing safety copy in the sweltering attic wearing little more than boxers, a t-shirt, and a smile.
- June 1996: Panda starts work on a Bloodborne Pathogen brochure for ANI Safety. Kellie and Todd celebrate by eating more than just Ramen noodles that month.
- July 1996: Kellie lands the Cameron & Barkley catalog. Life is good.
- August 1996: Panda moves into an office in downtown Milwaukee’s LoDuca Building. Cue the theme from “The Jeffersons”.
- January 1997: Panda starts building its massive content Database, which is still growing today and will become self-aware and take over the world in 2012.
- February 1997: Kellie creates Esafetymall.com thinking that a buying portal for both sellers and buyers is a great idea. The concept has a hard time catching on in safety, but worked out just fine in other industries (ever heard of Amazon or eBay?). Catalog production ramps up with Gann Safety, Balco, and Libra Safety all using Panda.
- March – December 1997: A busy year for Panda. Custom catalogs for Gann Safety, Balco Supply, Libra Industries. Kellie will never forget how she got the Libra job. Bill Maki calls her to Chicago. In he walks, donned in a beagle mask, talking like a beagle and telling her “anyone who worked for Bill Thompson has my respect and business”. Bill taught Kellie the lesson of the value of handshake and keeping the lawyers out of negotiations. The deal? “Kellie, you do this catalog for me and I will pay you. I promise”. Deal!
- Sometime in 1997: SEDA comes a calling. Bob Dool of Mid-Continent scouts out Panda and convinces the SEDA board to let Panda present its services. Kellie rushes to Chicago to make a presentation. Wearing jeans and casual shirt, and hair up in a clip, she arrives at a swanky hotel (“Yikes, suits are in the lobby, this could be serious”). Oh well, with a stack of catalogs and recommendations a mile long she presents to the SEDA board. SEDA accepts Panda as their “official marketing company”. Panda pays for the shrimp buffet at the SEDA conference that year.
- Sometime in late 1997: Keith Skipworth from Safety Source, in Mobile, Alabama calls Panda and begins the six-month process of talking Kellie into doing a “generic catalog”. “Have you ever heard of the Washington Tool Catalog?” Keith asks. “You can do this Kellie, I can’t afford to do my own catalog, but if you do this I bet you can sell this to other safety distributors. In fact, I have a buddy over in Florida, Richie Reggiani of Colonial, he wants a catalog too. We can share the costs.” Kellie thinks, “Oh great, two for the price of one. Typical distributor!” After six months of monthly phone calls from “Skippy”, Kellie decides to try, but on one condition: Panda remains the product manager (can’t have too many cooks in the kitchen). Let Kellie do a catalog the way she knows how. Too much involvement from the distributor equals never getting a catalog actually produced.
- March 1998: Panda creates Version A1, the industry’s first generic safety catalog. With the 160-page beauty Panda changes the industry and creates a new market. A1 is Panda’s First Edition and limited collector’s item copies are available for $1,000 at the Panda Gift Shop. Mark this down, this was the month and year that the first “generic” syndicated catalog was created in safety. It caused quite a stir, but appears to be a popular concept after all.
- September 1998: The first controversy begins at Panda. One vendor threatens to sue Panda because they appeared in a Panda catalog possessed by unauthorized distributors. Another big vendor wanted to only be in “certain catalogs”. One problem, vendors never paid anything to be in the Panda catalog. All content was created by Panda and it printed thousands of books. Distributors love the catalog. The vendors? Well, they eventual change their mind, realizing that this might be a good thing for them. (Can you imagine such a thing today? Man, have things changed!)
- April 1999: Kellie launches the first syndicated Panda website. A few years later customers realize that the whole Internet thing just might catch on. In the process Reliable Safety gets a $250K website for peanuts… it’s nice being a beta. The next beta is Minnesota Glove, who Panda has to this day. (Thanks Bob!)
- Sometime in 2000: It’s a blur. Panda is the most popular girl at the prom. Version B is born (a spin-off of A1) and sold to Safety-Wear and others, and more custom catalogs. Cameron & Barkley is back and Panda quickly progress through the letters of the alphabet for generic versions.
- March 2001: The Panda Bears Never Sleep: SEDA and Panda continue and catalogs just keep a coming. Panda launches CD-RO project. As soon as it launches, the “internets” became a hot topic. CD-ROM out, internets in.
- April 2002: The LoDuca Building goes condo. Panda gets kicked out and moves operations to the suburbs. A bigger space, but the view sucks.
- March 2004: Panda completes its largest custom catalog. The 1,600-page behemoth, requires Panda employees to clean 500,000 part numbers. The project, completed in just nine months, proves that the Panda team is: a.) capable of anything, and b.) glutton for punishment.
- January 2007: Panda’s ecommerce program becomes to safety websites what Google is to search engines. Kellie refers to it as the “overnight” ecommerce success that took more than eight years to achieve and cost a fortune. Todd asks, “Do you think this ecommerce thing is ever going to pay off?”
- December 2008: Panda completes its 52nd generic catalog, Lucky E13. Like every Panda catalog before it, E13 is the coolest generic catalog in the industry. Panda also continues making first-rate custom catalogs, brochures and website.
- March 2009: Panda Productions begins creating product and promotional videos. The Panda staff considers moving to Hollywood. Kellie begins wearing Ray Bans at work and starts overusing the phrase, “My people will call your people.”
- June 2009: Panda enters its 14th year in business. Kellie still has big dreams. But now she also has an office, loyal customers, and an extremely smart and attractive staff.
Panda Group, This is Your Life
Dozens of people were instrumental in the early success of Panda. One of the biggest was the dude at Best Buy who extended Kellie her first line of credit, but the Panda Post couldn’t track him down. We did manage to find a few people who were just as important.
Krikor Topouzian called Kellie hours after she “left” Lyons Safety and asked for help making a small brochure. It was Panda’s first gig.
“I called Kellie and the timing was perfect,” said Topouzian. “She had just been escorted out of her old job and was contemplating the injustices of the world. What an opportunity for both of us. Kellie got her first job and I got top quality work and excellent individual attention. Kellie and I have always shared our points of view honestly and directly over the years. Like magic, Kellie has always come through for me, even when I have not requested her help. I am glad that I found Kellie as a friend and a partner in business.”
Jill Will needed someone to coordinate a large custom catalog in 1996. She was introduced to Kellie by Kellie’s mentor, Nancy Woltzen of Lyons Safety, and entrusted a young Panda with the project.
“I met Kellie and we talked and I really liked her and respected her instantly,” said Will. “What a mind and the way it continues to work…good grief! Kellie came to Charleston (S.C.) and met with product specialist Doug Williams and me. She understood what a catalog should look like. She is a very good friend and a loyal associate. She never knew the words ‘it’s impossible’ she always finds a way.”
Blame Nancy Woltzen for Kellie’s entry into safety. Woltzen took a chance on girl from the restaurant industry and hired her to work at Lyons Safety in 1994.
“She was a good fit with the culture at Lyons and she had the personality to deal with what was a rather erratic and chaotic environment while still doing great work,” explained Woltzen. “(She’s managed to survive in the industry because she has) perseverance and is constantly reinventing her business model.”
Keith Skipworth should be considered one of the founders of the generic catalog. His young company, Safety Source Inc., needed a catalog and other distributors were in the same boat.
“We couldn’t make a catalog ourselves and we talked to others in the industry that had the same obstacles,” Skipworth said. “We thought, ‘how about producing just one catalog and we all share in the expense?’”
Kellie took a few weeks of convincing, but eventually the Panda generic catalog was born and the safety industry changed significantly.
“A lot of people listen to ideas, but not everybody runs with them,” added Skipworth. “Kellie is good at what she does, and to this day she still looks after the distributor’s best interests.”
The Evolution of the Safety Catalog
Safety Catalog BP (Before Panda)
A1, The First Generic Catalog
E9, Panda Just Gets Better
Safety Basics, Another Innovation
E13, So Cool It’s Scary
Panda Finds Product Zero
Panda’s massive content library has thousands of different safety products. But North’s MS86 Metal Lockout Hasp will forever be remembered as Product No. 1. This little red beauty was the first product added to our content database. The best part? It’s still a valid part number. We applaud your longevity MS86, and you will always be Product No. 1 in our hearts.