Selling puppets, blocks and workbooks -- lots of 'em -- has made Chaselle Inc. a giant in school supplies.

AS EASY AS 1 - 2 - 3

December 03, 1990|By Graeme Browning

In the large, light-filled classroom for 3-year-olds at the University of Maryland Hospital System's day-care center, a tiny girl with pigtails is giving her doll a bath.

The child leans over a water table -- a 3-foot-long plastic basin set in a sturdy wooden frame -- and fills a pitcher with some soapy water. With utter solemnity she looks down at the doll floating face-up before her, and pours the water over its tummy.

Not far away, a wooden platform with a balcony bisects a corner of the room, creating a sort of two-story playhouse. On the second story, another small girl kneels before a plywood stove, carefully putting a plastic carrot into it, and taking the carrot out again.

"Those are ours -- the water table and the make-believe vegetables," whispers James Rogers, pointing up at the platform as he quietly watches the children play. Mr. Rogers is a salesman for Chaselle Inc., a Columbia-based company that in the past 10 years has become one of the nation's largest school supply distributors.

Most of the toys, materials and equipment here, in one of Baltimore's newest day-care centers, come from Chaselle's sprawling warehouse in Columbia. The doll on the water table and the plywood stove. The red plastic aprons that the make-believe mother and cook wear. And the trio of puppets -- a goggle-eyed frog, a ladybug and a rabbit with tall pink ears -- perched on a rack.

The center buys "everything we need" from Chaselle because of the company's service, head teacher Susan Sandstrom says. "If something breaks, they replace it, no questions."

"Besides," she adds, with a good-humored grin, "they've got real good stuff."

Chaselle is also an old-fashioned business success story. In the last 10 years, annual sales have boomed from $5 million to almost $55 million.

The company, begun in a converted Baltimore coal bin, made a remarkable journey to reach that point. It passed through three sets of corporate hands before returning to the care of founder Charles Ellerin who, in partnership with Robert J. Chaisson Sr., a former toy industry executive, took it private again in 1980.

Back then Chaselle was losing inventory, customers, and about $750,000 annually. Today it has a 101,000-square-foot warehouse/ store/office complex in Columbia, as many as 500 employees in peak periods and 100,000 customers.

The day-care industry, which began its own boom shortly after Chaselle began supplying day-care centers in the early 1980s, is partially responsible for that growth. So is the mushrooming emphasis on education in the pre-kindergarten years, which academics call "early childhood."

Leading the corporate turnaround were Mr. Ellerin, 72, who is now Chaselle's chairman, and Mr. Chaisson, 54, its president.

Mr. Ellerin, who had founded Chaselle's corporate predecessor with a $3,000 GI loan, built it into a million-dollar concern, sold it, and saw it almost driven into the ground before helping to rescue it. Today he works full-time from his home in Florida, representing Chaselle in the state's three biggest school districts.

Not bad for a former art teacher. "Charlie has always had a yiddisha cup, a head for business," says Roger Mueller, Chaselle's senior vice president and general manager.

Mr. Chaisson, on the other hand, came to Chaselle after rising through the corporate ranks, at Milton Bradley Co., Playskool Inc., and Macmillan Inc., where he was president of the school division.

An intense, plain-spoken man, he has a commitment to quality that has reached mythic proportions among those who work with him.

Robert J. Chaisson Jr., now Chaselle's vice president of marketing, remembers that when his father worked for Playskool he would bring toys home and put them in the freezer. When the plastic was thoroughly frozen, the elder Chaisson would drop the toys off the family's second-floor deck to the concrete patio below, to see if they would break under rough usage.

"He taught me that what's good and what sells aren't necessarily always related," the younger Chaisson recalls.

Chaselle has also developed an innovative approach to its product line and the flexibility to shift with rapid changes in educational philosophy. "We've always looked to what the market needs, and then gone to every end to supply those needs," Mr. Ellerin says, sitting at a conference table littered with prototypes of Chaselle catalogs.

One of those is the company's new Early Childhood catalog, which it will send out in January to a nationwide audience. It is not only the first Chaselle-produced catalog aimed directly at this rapidly developing market, but also the first company publication addressed to customers outside the East Coast.

Chaselle's executives admit these are tough times to be making such an aggressive move.

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