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Published: Monday, 4/21/2003

Success for Carruths measured in concrete

BY MARY-BETH McLAUGHLIN
BLADE BUSINESS WRITER
Deb and George Carruth show off some of their garden and architectural accents. They have retail outlets in Waterville and Columbus. Deb and George Carruth show off some of their garden and architectural accents. They have retail outlets in Waterville and Columbus.
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George Carruth admits his parents and his in-laws were less than thrilled when he announced 20 years ago he quit his job at American Greetings in Cleveland.

After all, he and his wife, Deb, had two small children and another on the way, and he had decided to try to make a full-time living at carving whimsical figures in stone and then selling them at art shows across the country.

“Both sets of parents freaked out about that,” he said. “I was walking away from corporate security.”

Today, he provides corporate security to 36 employees at his Carruth Studio, Inc., and its retail stores in Waterville and Columbus. The firm estimates revenues this fiscal year at $5 million. Its designs are sold to 2,500 accounts throughout the United States and Canada, and it is branching into licensing designs for other products, such as candles.

“You've got to have that dream and then hope you come close to it if you work really hard,” said Mr. Carruth.

Peggy Grant, art director for 20 North Gallery in Toledo, travels across the country and often sees Mr. Carruth's distinctive work in collections of artists and friends.

“He is nationally known and collected,” she said. “His whimsical, charming garden sculptures are very popular.”

Although national recognition is common now, the start of Carruth Studio was much more low-key. Mr. Carruth worked as a sculptor at the Cleveland headquarters of American Greetings when he watched Croatian immigrants carve names and designs into breakwall stones on the lakefront.

Inspired, he used a screwdriver to do his own designs, carting them back to the Toledo area on weekends to show his wife. Sales at the Harrison Rally Days, Perrysburg's annual community festival, evolved into touring art shows on weekends, and then he quit his job to do about 30 shows a year.

Although Mr. Carruth was content carving one-of-a-kind pieces for an average of $300, he was approached about designing an item cast in concrete to be sold in quantity by a Cleveland garden catalog.

When the catalog bought the next six items he designed, Mr. Carruth realized he was on to something.

“Selling to catalogs really balanced our business out because instead of selling items for $300, we were now selling things for $30, so many more people could afford them,” he said.

Enter Mrs. Carruth, an occupational therapist by training, who took over the business side of things, even though she said she had to learn what to do.

“You open your mouth, ask questions and one thing leads to another,” she said. “Besides, it's easy to brag about someone you believe in.”

The couple, reared in Perrysburg, moved back to northwest Ohio in 1986 and quickly settled in Waterville. Today, they have a 13,600-square-foot manufacturing and office building on Farnsworth Road and Garden Smiles by Carruth, their retail operation, on Mechanic Street. A second shop is in Columbus, plus the firm has a retail Web site.

Jamie Black, secretary-treasurer of Waterville Gas Co., buys corporate and personal gifts from Carruth because he likes the idea of giving a piece of artwork made in his hometown.

“The company is very easy to work with,” he said. “They understand our needs for our clients, and ... everything is so beautifully made.”

Sue Roberts, an owner of Schramm's Flowers in Toledo, said the Carruth designs fit well in her shop, which is very oriented to garden items. “I pick up all of our orders and if there's a problem with anything, they totally fall over backward to take care of you,” she said.

Now that the company is so large and their three children are grown, Mrs. Carruth said she is stepping away from the business. Mr. Carruth is pursuing his dream of making a line of children's toys.

“You can make a career in art,” he said.

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