Tradition breeds success at Vaillancourt Folk Art

This article originally appeared in the Worcester Telegram & Gazette’s Business Section on Sunday, September 21, 2014.

Santas painted with gold are in the foreground, while William Anderson paints other creations at Vaillancourt Folk Art. The company is celebrating 30 years. (T&G Staff/CHRISTINE PETERSON)
Santas painted with gold are in the foreground, while William Anderson paints other creations at Vaillancourt Folk Art. The company is celebrating 30 years. (T&G Staff/CHRISTINE PETERSON)

By Sandy Meindersma CORRESPONDENT
SUTTON — Vaillancourt Folk Art has been celebrating Christmas with its chalkware Santas and other figures for 30 years. But while Vaillancourt has stayed true to its original mission, it has also had to adapt to changing business conditions.

Vaillancourt Folk Art launched in the mid-1980s, when Americana folk art was very popular and about 135 Christmas manufacturers operating in the United States.

Today, there are only three, and Vaillancourt’s retail store is one of Massachusetts’ most popular Christmas tourism destinations.

“Chinese manufacturers came in and produced high quantity, but low quality,” said Luke Vaillancourt, director of digital marketing and son of founders Judi and Gary Vaillancourt. “We realized that we couldn’t compete on the price point, so we decided to produce a high-quality product.”

Vaillancourt Folk Art produces handmade chalkware figures by pouring liquid chalk into antique chocolate molds and then they air dry.

“They then become a three-dimensional canvas,” Luke Vaillancourt said. “My mother, Judi, designs all the pieces, about 100 each year, and we have studio artists who do the actual production.”

Gary Vaillancourt said the studio artists and their longevity with the company are one of the keys to the company’s success.

“We have one painter who has been with us 29 years, another 28 years, another 23 years and another 19,” Mr. Vaillancourt said. “It takes 16 people an average of three weeks to make one of our pieces.”

That commitment to quality has paid off for Vaillancourt Folk Art, whose figures are sold in Neiman-Marcus, Bergdorf’s, Wynn Casinos in Las Vegas, as well as the museum gift shops for Colonial Williamsburg and the Metropolitan Museum of New York.

“We also do custom work for each of them,” Mr. Vaillancourt said.

In recognition of the company’s 30th anniversary, Judi Vaillancourt will be bringing back figures found in the company’s original catalogues. Once a month, for the next year, a different figure will be painted and released, as part of a special limited edition of 30 figures.

“Folk art was very popular when we first got started, so the painting is very different than what we are doing today,” Luke Vaillancourt said.

Situated in the Manchaug Mills building in Sutton, Vaillancourt Folk Art is now in its fourth location; the original location was Gary and Judi Vaillancourt’s living room.

“When they decided to expand, they first moved everything to the basement and hired some people, including both sets of my grandparents,” Luke Vaillancourt said.

In 2007, after their first non-residential location became too small and inefficient, the company leased the space in the Manchaug Mills building, which at first was an issue with the post office.

“We wanted to still be able to say that our products were produced in Sutton, but Manchaug has its own zip code,” Gary Vaillancourt said. “But the Sutton post office agreed to come to our location and to pick everything up and deliver it, so that we could still say that we are in Sutton.”

Mr. Vaillancourt said the company had looked at mill space in several area towns, but because Judi is a 13th-generation Suttonian, staying in town was very important to them.

Mr. Vaillancourt said the 12,000-square-foot space has enabled the company to create a large retail area, making it an attraction for tourists from as far as Europe, Florida, California and Texas.

Vaillancourt Folk Art has 20 employees. Luke Vaillancourt declined to discuss the company’s revenues.

While the local store is doing well, Luke Vaillancourt’s e-commerce marketing expertise has broadened the company’s online presence, which has also contributed to its success.

“Even during the downturn of the economy, we saw an increase in business. The past five years have been among the best of the last 15,” Luke Vaillancourt said. “We attribute that to the fact that people like to give quality gifts at Christmas time, and they are looking for traditions.”

Meindersma, S. (2014, September 21). Tradition breeds success at Vaillancourt Folk Art. Telegram & Gazette, p. 9.