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Secrets to Building an International Brand

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May 27, 2016
Two of Ulster County’s most prominent businessmen with international companies shared some secrets to their successes at the May Breakfast Meeting of the Ulster County Regional Chamber of Commerce.
Robert Tonner of the Tonner Doll Co. in Kingston and Garry Kvisted of Woodstock Chimes in Shokan shared the history of their work and discussed how they were able to create international brands.
A world-renowned doll sculptor and creator who sells products in 66 countries, Tonner took the audience through his collectible dolls from “Gone With the Wind,” “The Wizard of Oz,” “Twilight,” “Harry Potter” and super heroes like Wonder Woman, Batman and Superman.
Tonner began his career in New York’s Garment District and started the Robert Tonner Doll Co. in a one-room studio 21 years ago. His attention to detail led him to take anatomy classes a few years ago to help his sculpting abilities.
He told Ulster County business leaders about his experiences acquiring license agreements to design dolls, particularly “Harry Potter,” which he got after two other designers failed to succeed with the product.
“To this day, this is our single best-selling doll,” he said. “Once we got Harry Potter, then the world opened. I like to take a license and do something different.”
He began his career designing porcelain dolls in his garage and giving them generic names, but he aspired to do “iconic characters” and he eventually got the license for “Alice in Wonderland.”
“That was my first introduction into using a brand to elevate my brand,” he said. “You may not have been a Tonner collector before, but you may be an Alice collector. So I tied my name to their brand.”
The licensing agreements led to publicity for Tonner.
“I don’t believe in paying for publicity; I want it for free,” he said. “That’s why I like the Internet.”
“If your name is out there, the retailers will come to you. They will search you out and that’s basically what happened to us.”
Kvisted agreed and started his presentation by playing a short clip from his company’s appearance on “The Today Show” several years ago. It also helped that Gene Shalit was a customer.
“That 6 minutes cost me one chime,” Kvisted said. “Can you imagine that kind of publicity?”
Woodstock Chimes offers a variety of unique, musically tuned wind chimes, bells and gongs, crystal sun catchers and other musical products.
Kvisted and his wife, Diane, quit their teaching jobs in the Midwest in 1979 and moved to Ulster County, drawn here by its reputation as an artsy community.
With no business experience, he attended a marketing seminar and learned a valuable lesson that companies selling drills don’t market the drill, they market the hole.
“It made me realize that we sell wind chimes, but we market the sound,” he said. “All of our marketing went toward the feeling one got from our product.”
It also helped that Kvisted is a Grammy-award-winning musician and the member of a world-renowned percussion group called NEXUS.
In the early days of the business, Kvisted said competitors were “knocking us off left and right,” but he found hiring lawyers expensive.
“We realized that innovation was so much better to put your money,” he said. “We developed new products constantly and they couldn’t keep up with us. That was part of the branding lesson that we learned.”
When he first moved to Ulster County, Kvisted said he couldn’t afford to live in Woodstock and he heard the zoning rules were stringent. He settled in neighboring West Hurley.
“We were smart enough to realize that West Hurley Chimes just didn’t have the ring,” he said to laughs.
Kvisted named the business Woodstock Percussion, but branded it Woodstock Chimes.
Kvisted defended his decision to manufacture overseas.
“If we hadn’t, we would have been out of business 15 years ago,” he said.
Woodstock Chimes employs 40 people locally and they all “make living wages,” Kvisted said.
“We have 150 sales people around the country who are making a living off of us, and thousands and thousands of stores that sell our products,” he said. “We have millions and millions of wind chimes all around the world as a result.”
“I don’t feel bad about that part. I’m really happy that we have a thriving business and we’ve also helped a lot of Chinese families.”
Kvisted also touched on his Woodstock Chimes Fund and asked business leaders to keep Ulster County the kind of place that attracted him here.
“Thank you for making this region what it is,” he said. “You are all leaders and we follow your lead. Please support the arts to keep the culture alive in the Hudson Valley.”

Ward Todd, President/CEO
ward@ulsterchamber.org, (845) 338-5100