It’s been more than 40 years since a middle-aged character in the now-classic movie The Graduate counseled young Benjamin Braddock, played by Dustin Hoffman, about his future. “I want to say one word to you,” Mr. McGuire advises Braddock. “Plastics.”
Depending on interpretation, the line may have simply referred to the growing importance of synthetic materials in much of American life. More likely, it also reflected a generational difference of the time: Many young people associated the word “plastic” with increasing shallowness and insincerity in the corporate and political “establishment.”
Perceptions notwithstanding, plastics – more accurately, the making of synthetic materials – went on to become a huge global industry, and Louisiana came to supply a large portion of the chemicals that feed the production. The United States became a major consumer of finished synthetic products and parts. And even though our purchases often included Asian-made trinkets seen as cheap and tacky, the American appetite for plastics didn’t wane.
Nowhere in the country is the hunger for cheap plastic goods more obvious than in New Orleans. In a ritualistic celebration that goes nearly unrivaled throughout the world, we annually toss untold quantities of plastic beads, medallions and other, well, junk, into the streets during the many events of Carnival.
For some area businesses, this routine dispatching of cheap plastic has the gleam of gold. The founder of one local company, in fact, could be seen as having taken Mr. McGuire’s advice to heart – though at a later age than Benjamin Braddock.
Dan Kelly Jr. was in his early 40s when the appeal of plastic, as a business, began to seize him. He had worked for years in a warehousing business founded by his father. He had also long participated in Mardi Gras as a member of various Carnival krewes. It was after he became a board member of the Krewe of Endymion that Kelly got to know a bead supplier named Ernie Kruttschnitt.
“He invited me to go to China with him on a buying trip,” Kelly recalls. “I ended up taking my brother and two other people, and we all loved it.”
Kelly began soaking up the fine points of the plastic bead business as he joined Kruttschnitt in repeated trips to China. Gradually, as his father’s traditional warehousing business went into decline due to changes in the trucking industry, Kelly began to see the potential of using larger amounts of storage space for beads.
In 1993, having already begun supplying Carnival organizations that included the Krewe of Zulu, Kelly formed a new business, Beads by the Dozen, and started wholesaling beads and other Mardi Gras merchandise from 5,000 square feet of space on Edwards Avenue in Harahan. When the company also became the primary supplier to the blockbuster Krewe of Endymion, business blossomed. And after Kelly’s wife convinced him to set up a retail operation to sell directly to individual buyers, things really snowballed.
Kelly soon expanded the operation to 25,000 square feet. Just a few years later he doubled that footprint. Still, the growth continued.
In 2000, Kelly’s brother, who owned a former Pepsi bottling plant near the bead warehouse, suggested they convert the plant to a new use. “We built a new Beads by the Dozen home at 333 Edwards Ave.,” Kelly says. The site covers 200,000 square feet, including office, retail and warehouse space.
While the growth of local Mardi Gras krewes helped stoke the business, Beads by the Dozen also benefited from branching into other markets. The company started supplying beads and other products to event organizers in Texas, Georgia and Florida. It now sells its wares to Universal Studios, which stages parades at theme parks during Carnival season and throughout the year.
St. Patrick’s Day parades and celebrations such as Cinco de Mayo help keep business churning between Carnival seasons, as does the demand for custom products. Kelly initially developed the custom side of his business to tap the market for corporate promotions, such as events sponsored by Captain Morgan Rum. “We constantly make new items and beads for them,” he says. The company also customizes beads, medallions, trinkets and plastic cups for smaller events ranging from baby showers and birthday parties to bar mitzvahs. “We even did a funeral,” Kelly says.
As they prepare for Mardi Gras 2011, Beads by the Dozen could just as easily be called “Beads by the Ton.”
Referring to the 40-foot-long steel containers used to transport bulk goods on ships crossing the ocean, Kelly says: “We bring in about 200 containers of beads a year.” The business imports around 8 million pounds of plastic annually, he says.
The company that began its life in a tiny warehouse today employs as many as 90 people at the peak of Carnival season. A year-round staff of 40 includes Kelly’s wife and other family members, some of whom spend three weeks a year in China scouting for new products to fill a seemingly insatiable demand. The supplier markets to buyers around the world through its website, BeadsByTheDozen.com.
Kelly says the 17-year-old business has seen growth in each year of its existence. While the company carries a handful of items, such as rhinestone crowns and “collector” ornaments, which are priced north of $70, most pieces in the warehouse can be had for pennies. Yet, there’s nothing small about the revenue Kelly squeezes from his inventory. “We do over $10 million a year,” he says.
It is a surprising figure for a business focused solely on plastics. Benjamin Braddocks of the world, listen up.