Diane Carnevale Jones has a knack for knick-knacks

February 23, 2009
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Diane Carnevale Jones, meet Ringo Starr.

As Jones sat through the January Beatles tribute show in Grand Rapids, her mind wandered back to the day in 1998 when she presented The Beatles’ drummer with collectible plates to sign on behalf of a client.

“I had to be a part of a collectors’ plate signing with one of my clients,” said Jones, president of Professional Marketing. “I was one of six people invited to L.A. to a hotel — a private room set up with boxes and boxes of collectors’ plates. My job was to take photographs to make sure the signing was verified, then to go out and place stories in the media.”

The conversation with Starr wound around the quantity of plates and the importance of marriage until, at the end, the former Beatle picked up a pen and drew a design for a Christmas ornament on a tablecloth. Jones’ client framed the drawing and eventually did make the ornament, said Jones, who had been part of a throng to see The Beatles live at Detroit’s Olympia Stadium in the 1960s.

“He had these orange fluorescent penny loafers on with his blue jeans,” Jones recalled. “It’s just one of those moments you don’t forget.”

Over 27 years, Jones’ company, Professional Marketing, has nabbed thousands of media placements, Web hits and trade show attention for clients in the home décor, gifts and collectibles industries nationwide.

In November, Jones was named executive director of the Gift and Home Trade Association, a professional organization with about 300 members. It’s the same type of job that launched her career back in the 1980s. That’s when Jones took over as executive director of the Collectors’ Information Bureau from her friend, Ferris State University marketing professor Susan K. Jones (they’re not related).

“She really got me started in business,” said Diane Jones. “I think she is an amazing woman who has mentored many others and really kind of set the tone for how I run my business today.”

The women met about 30 years ago when they were both new to the Grand Rapids area. They encountered each other several times at Newcomers events, at Junior League and, finally, at an Alpha Delti Pi sorority event.

Turns out, the sorority sisters hit it off.

“She is a people person,” Susan Jones said. “She’s very outgoing. She can go into a room and make friends and gain influence and make things happen.”

Susan Jones, who was working as a marketing consultant at the time, started the CIB as a trade organization.

“She had said, even though she had young children, she was interested in doing something professional,” she recalled. “I invited her to get involved with this. She and her neighbors got involved, but she was the leader of the group and eventually took over CIB from me. After that, she started Professional Marketing.”

Professional Marketing is now in its 27th year and Diane Jones’ two children are grown, but the gifts and home décor industry still needs someone to create events at the 24 showrooms across the country, keep up contacts with national and trade magazines, and place products on TV shows and in movies.

Jones said she doesn’t expect much disruption from the recession.

“You have those special occasions and holidays, and they’re not going away, and people are not going to stop purchasing gifts for these different special occasions and holidays,” Jones said. “We’re not necessarily completely recession-proof, but definitely people are still going to continue to purchase. When you talk about the home segment, people — women, especially — love to decorate their homes.

“So what we see as a trend is maybe the price points are affected. When you’re talking about gift items, maybe ones that cost a little less, those might be the ones that rise to the top. The higher-end gift items had better be extraordinary or they may not be purchased. The difference we’re seeing is the price point is a factor.”

Professional Marketing employs eight full- and part-time communications specialists. “They work with clients closely, doing anything from traditional press releases to media relations with the trades,” Jones said. “We do a lot of work with national media, placing products for companies.”

The communications specialists and account executives manage accounts, handling everything from press kits to editorial calendars to trade shows. The industry is driven by 24 trade show sites around the country.

Vice president is Paul Bishop, who previously held the same title at the former Seyferth Spaulding Tennyson agency, now Seyferth & Associates, in Grand Rapids, and handled VIP and celebrity accounts for Versace.

“I always thought I would work by myself,” Jones said with a laugh.

Brushes with celebs are not uncommon for Jones, who has worked with entertainer Marie Osmond on her Marie Osmond Collectors Dolls business. Jones co-hosted a show on Lifetime TV, “The Collectibles Show,” from 1986 to 1993 with actress Morgan Brittany, who is remembered for her role as the evil Katherine on “Dallas.”

And Jones did not hesitate to explore the sales potential of the Web, working early with eBay to help refine the site’s sign-up process.

She’s also written or edited about a dozen price guides for collectibles, collaborating on several with Susan Jones.

Locally, Professional Marketing has represented Woodland Shopping Center, Hospice of Michigan and Surefil LLC, a contract manufacturer in the personal care industry.

“My clients are all over the country,” Jones added. Among the list is Mudpie, located in Georgia, which produces baby, pet and gift items; Peking Handicraft Inc., a manufacturer and wholesaler of home textiles, decorative accessories and gifts produced in China; Swarovski Crystal, of Austria; and Webkinz, a plush toy with an Internet connection created by giftware maker Ganz, of New York.

As GHTA executive director — she’d been doing the job in an interim capacity since last February — Jones is taking on some new tasks, including politics.

“Public policy has become a huge concern recently to the organization because there’s a lot of issues with lead, and all of these companies do a lot of testing of lead to make sure products are safe for the consumer,” she said. “Right now, many of the trade organizations are working with the federal government and the CPSC (Consumer Products Safety Commission), requesting federal guidelines for testing so there’s no confusion in the marketplace.”

She traveled to Washington D.C., in January to meet with CPSC representatives about those lead-testing rules that could affect some gift and décor producers. Early this month, the CPSC agreed to delay the testing requirement for a year.

GHTA is about to launch a new Web site, independentretailers.com, for store owners, who are the conduit for the products, Jones said. “We need to support them,” she said.

Another GHTA initiative is gathering facts and statistics, a task made difficult by the fragmented nature of an industry dominated by “tiny companies,” Jones said. “Through the technology companies in the industry, they have the ability now to gather data and to share with the industry.

“Every trade organization wants to have statistics about their field,” Jones said. “We’re having a launch in the next couple of weeks, making industry information available for the first time. Not only will it help our industry — each company individually — but it will also help us to promote the industry.”

Jones grew up in Dearborn, the daughter of Dorothy and the late Sam Carnevale, who worked for Ford Motor Co. for 32 years in the engineering department. “He actually repaired the convertibles for Henry Ford — I think it was in Indianapolis,” she said. While her mother lives in Florida, her only sibling, Steven, is a venture capitalist in San Francisco.

After graduating from Edsel Ford High School, Jones enrolled at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor to study journalism and English. She started her career by selling advertising for The Michigan Daily, the student newspaper.

“I worked all four years for The Michigan Daily,” Jones recalled. “It was actually the best thing that happened to me, because it was really the start of my business career. I worked in advertising and managed accounts and managed people, and I learned some really good skills there. I came up with ideas — like putting together a section for Valentine’s Day. They had never done that before, so I made my little mark there. It was a very, very good experience there.”

Jones called her U-M education “a wonderful experience. I really feel that it provided me with the skills, the resources I needed to do problem-solving and networking, which I think are so important in the business world.”

After graduation, Jones married Paul Jones, a Grand Rapids native. He took a job at Steelcase Inc., and the couple moved to Grand Rapids. The couple has two grown children, Michelle, a teacher, and Eric, a Ph.D. candidate in social psychology at Purdue University.

A tennis player and avid book club member, Jones is part of a group of neighbors who walk as many as five days a week. Even though her work often takes her away, she loves to travel for fun and recently met relatives in Italy for the first time.

“And I absolutely love the beach. That’s my little getaway,” Jones said of the family cottage in Ferrysburg.

Jones still likes to collect things. The window ledge in her Grand Rapids office sports a row of Caithness glass paperweights, and an étagère holds a collection of Swarovski items.

“I must like anything that sparkles,” she said with a laugh.

“I think back to everything I’ve done and the people that I’ve met,” Jones added. “It has been an exciting experience through the company.”

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