If your idea of the typical Texan is that of a laid back, Stetson-wearing, sweet-tea drinking cowpoke with a molasses-thick drawl, be advised - Brian Gray is no typical Texan.
The president of the Leaf Trading Card Company, Gray is a tightly wound bundle of high energy who could pass himself off as a New Yorker easier than he could a Texan. "People always say I sound like a New Yorker," laughed Gray, whose rapid-fire speech is liberally peppered with a syntax associated with that of a man possessed with savvy business acumen.
It was, in fact, that savvy acumen that put Gray into a position to acquire Leaf in 2010 with a strategy to give renewed life to one of the most classic brands in trading card manufacturing.
Established in the early 1920s as The Leaf Candy Company, the Chicago-based business was founded by Sol S. Leaf. In 1948, for the first time, Leaf produced a series of trading cards featuring baseball players. These cards, the first color edition of the post-World War II era, are still considered to be among the most advanced of the period.
Throughout the following 60 years, Leaf continued to make numerous offerings of popular card sets including the ultra high-end 1990 Leaf Baseball set that did much to usher in the age of the premium modern card market.
In 2010, a new chapter of the Leaf story began when the company was purchased by Gray, who had been the president of the Razor Entertainment Group. Acquiring the venerable card company with a vision to build on the innovative and influential history of the brand, Gray has said he believes his knowledge of the industry coupled with the recognition of the Leaf name will prove to be a perfect match.
"The Leaf brand is synonymous with high quality and longevity, pre-dating any current manufacturer," said Gray. "My vision is to produce the highest quality cards while maintaining a long-term commitment to improving this industry."
Setting out with a mission to deliver an exceptional trading card collecting experience, Gray has said he believes the only way to gain new collectors and retain loyal customers is to incorporate a high level of creativity, offer collectors what they really want, and deliver quality content at the best possible price. In an effort to attain that mission, last year also saw Leaf acquire all of the non-baseball brands of the Razor Entertainment Group.
The company's offerings include their 2010 Leaf Cut Signature Encore Edition - a limited run cut signature edition; the 2010 Leaf Muhammad Ali cards that include his autograph, fight-worn equipment embeds and signatures of Ali's many famous opponents, ringmen and celebrity friends, and the 2010 Leaf Sports Icons Update: The Search for Shoeless Joe that offered the first Jackson cut signature card that holds a value estimated between $75,000 and $100,000. On the non-sports side, the company will soon release the 2010 Leaf "Family Guy" cards.
"Sports Market Report" recently caught up with Gray who shared some insight as to who he is, and what his future goals are for Leaf. We began by asking the Dallas native to introduce himself in two sentences:
Brian Gray: I'm a family kind of guy and a huge sports fan. I'm also an avid poker player and the president of the only company that offers collectible poker playing cards.
SMR: As a lifelong Dallasite, we're guessing you are a big fan of the hometown teams.
BG: Yes, I've always been a fan of the Dallas teams, but actually, as I've gotten older, I have become more player focused. I'm a huge Tom Brady fan. I'm also a big fan of Vince Young and Kevin Durant. I would say that I'm really more of a player fan than a team fan.
SMR: Were you a card collector as a kid?
BG: Oh yeah. I started collecting cards in 1984, when I was 12. But then I really went nuts with it in 1987. That was odd because most people my age didn't really go nuts with cards until the early 1990s. I started early and, by 1988, I was doing card shows.
SMR: Was that when you transitioned from being a collector to a dealer?
BG: I was an active dealer when I was still in high school. In fact, by doing the shows, I socked away enough money for college and to seed a business. After high school, when I was attending the University of Texas at Dallas, I ran a company called Edgeman. Along with going to school I was putting in over 60 hours a week running the company.
SMR: Tell us about the Edgeman days.
BG: We were doing a lot of shows. This was the late 1980s and everyone was doing shows. There was mail order back then, but no Internet. Our goal at Edgeman was to be a major player in the industry. What we recognized back then was that formal distribution was something that wasn't in play. We created Edgeman to be a formal distributor who sold to stores all over the country and also serviced retail consumers. We were very lucky - our timing was fantastic. We went from this little business that had one counter in a jewelry store to a business that was doing $55-million dollars in sales by the early 2000s.
SMR: So, while you aren't very old, your involvement in the card industry goes back over two decades - more than half of your life.
BG: Yes. As I matured, and as the industry matured, we matured as a company. We began looking at other opportunities and what we saw was that the one element that had been neglected was manufacturing. Some of the card manufacturing companies had lost their innovation. A lot of the products had gotten very formulaic. The creativity was weak and, in some cases, gone. Customer service was also very weak. Overall, manufacturers had not done a very good job of adapting to a changing hobby. So, for us, in 2008, when we had the chance to acquire a trading card company called Razor, it was a no-brainer. As a guy who had been in the hobby for a long time and as a guy who had worked at a major card manufacturer for a brief time in 1990, I had seen exactly how not to run a card business. From seeing how that company was run during the glut years, I learned a lot of what not to do. As a guy who had been involved in every level of the industry from being a collector, to the owner of a retail store, to overseeing a mail
order company - I realized I could be well ahead of the game by getting involved in manufacturing. We ran Razor for three years and, in 2008, we signed 15 of the top 30 players in the baseball draft to exclusive contracts. That was staggering at the time. No one had ever gone after the players like that. Razor was also very solid in niche products and entertainment categories as well as sports. Even now, with my new company, one of our niche products is the cut signature cards where we use PSA for our authentication. That was how we really blew up in 2008 - with the cut signature releases. Our products just skyrocketed. They were very successful which led us to branching out into baseball and poker and other properties.
SMR: You mentioned your new company - which is really an old company with a new direction.
BG: That's right. I split with my partner at Razor last year and, as a part of the deal, took a part of the intellectual property of Razor. I then had the opportunity to acquire Leaf - which to me, as a lifelong collector, was a company I always viewed as one of the great brands. Its origins are fantastic. They producted issues like the first post-war color baseball set and the 1967 Star Trek set, which is great. When I had the chance to buy Leaf, I really felt it was the right way to go. Right from the start, I felt if we were to go forward and establish an innovative trading card company, why not build it upon a company that already had a history and a legacy associated with it? Why not start out with a name that everybody knows and a brand that has really upheld the tradition of quality merchandise with good customer service? I felt it was a great name to build on.
SMR: What goals did you establish when you took over the reins of Leaf?
BG: Our goals are simple and I can sum then up in three points. Number one - cut out the malarkey. You see people spending thousands of dollars buying cases of cards in hopes of getting one card. We figured why not cut out all the malarkey and just offer them the card or cards they really want? That has always been my motto - cut to the chase. Let's find out why people are buying cards and then deliver what they want. We have done that. We know what collectors want and that's what we intend to provide. It's really pretty simple. So many card companies play games with collectors. You can only dangle the carrot for so long without getting people frustrated. I feel this industry should operate like any other and deliver what the customer wants. I mean, suppose you went to buy an iPad and you were told that in every four boxes there was an iPad and the other three had a BlackBerry Curve. That's not how to deal with consumers and it's a bad business model. If people want to buy an iPad and you make iPads - why wouldn't you let them buy an iPad?
Number two - I want Leaf to offer customer service that is like nothing else in the industry. I really feel that customer service has been a shortcoming in the hobby in recent years. Because there are less and less companies, the ones that exist have exclusives and, due to those exclusives, they don't feel they have to be so customer service oriented. I have seen that holding those exclusive contracts has resulted in companies not providing customers with the service they should expect in things like redemption cards. Think about it - if you're hungry and go to McDonald's and ordered fries and they gave you a redemption card and said you could get them in four to six weeks, you would never be okay with that. I think it is a horrible situation to "rain check" card customers blindly when they buy products. So, giving customers what they want when they want it, offering outstanding customer service, and making sure what we promise is delivered is a critical element to what I want Leaf to be about.
Third and finally - our goal is to define the niches and underserved segments of the market where most of the major manufacturers can't or won't reach.
SMR: Can you give us an example of what you mean by that?
BG: Take for example poker cards. No major card company would make poker trading cards. They just wouldn't think of there being a market for them. But there is. As a huge poker player, I know there are tens of thousands of people out there who would love to collect something that is poker oriented, but there hasn't been anything available. The same is true with "Family Guy" cards. We have the "Family Guy" license. It was not done very well when it was done in the past, but we know we can do a nice high-end job with something that has a really great cult-like following. Another great example is Muhammad Ali - a true legend. It is amazing to me that there haven't been far more Ali trading cards produced over the last 30 to 40 years. He is one of the most recognizable people to have ever lived. So, those are the things we are looking for - things that present an opportunity. When we see an opportunity, we want to focus on it. That means offering products that are not being offered and servicing customers who
are not being serviced. Anyone can make a baseball or football card. We plan to focus on underserved niches where we can show some creativity without some of the licensing pressures that are placed on major manufacturers. This year, we put out a card with a Joe Jackson cut embedded in it. It is the most expensive cut signature ever put in a card. That was our first step in the next direction, which will be to offer extremely high-end cuts.
SMR: You are in as good a position as anyone to comment on the state-of-the hobby. Where do you see the card collecting industry today and in the future?
BG: I'm really passionate about the business and believe I have good reason to be excited about where we are and the future. I've seen the industry at its best and at its worst. I want to be a part of what makes this industry the best - and even better than it has ever been. We have weathered the struggling economy and some of the negative things that have happened in the business and it is time to strive towards taking the industry to a higher level by incorporating creativity, creating new collectors and by increasing interest in all fields of collecting. Collecting is what makes America unique. We are one of the only countries that really collect things. More than half of the world's people don't collect anything except what they plan to eat or as much money as they can. Everyone involved in the collecting industry, on every level, should be doing all we can do to foster that uniqueness. I believe that every one of us who is a part of this industry should be doing all we can to grab the bull by his horn
s and set this industry off in a positive direction.
SMR: You mentioned that you think it's important to create new collectors. Can you touch on that a bit more?
BG: That is a challenge for all of us in the industry. I don't know if kids today have the same chance to find the fascination with trading cards and autographs and collectibles as we did as kids. That is because cards and autographs are a low tech deal that is in competition with the computer and related games. My hope is that kids would give them a shot. It is a challenge but I believe these things can give kids today the same kind of enjoyment we had when we were kids.
SMR: Along with trading cards, by offering cut signature cards, the autograph industry also plays into what you do. What is your call on the current health of the autograph business and hobby?
BG: The autograph business is a very difficult business, especially when you are dealing with vintage items. There are not many collectors around today that were around when Babe Ruth was singing items. That said, if you want a Babe Ruth signed item, you have to buy it. That is why the hobby needs any and all protection that can be afforded to it. That is why a third-party authenticator is vital. And when I say third-party authenticators - what I mean is those that really know what they're doing and care about the hobby. When you look at PSA, and look at the quality of their staff who really knows the industry and the autograph business, you clearly see that they have done a really great job. They have the best guys in the business when it comes to authentication - guys who themselves have been collectors and who have been on the front lines obtaining in-person signatures for over 20 years. That gives a huge amount of confidence to the customer. If PSA was not present as a third-party authenticator today,
there would simply not be that level of consumer confidence that currently exists in the industry - it would be the Wild West. I mean we have all heard the stories of the people who claim to have gotten a Babe Ruth autograph and when you press them on when they got it, you find they were born three years after he died. I've been around this industry for a long time and I know there have been some pretty amazing and farfetched stories floating around out there. Thankfully, PSA stopped that by giving customers the assurance that their hard earned money is being spent well and on items that are what they are advertised to be. That is critical to the future of this industry and hobby, and there is no doubting that PSA is the leader in that.
SMR: Are you currently collecting anything yourself?
BG: I'm an avid collector of presidential autographs. I have an entire set of all 44 presidents. My presidential set has both cuts and clips. I know the purists want letters with incredible content that were signed when they were in office and that's fine, but that's not how I collect. I'm fine with nice signatures. I've been fortunate to actually meet a few presidents. I mean, for the average person, the chances would be extremely rare that you would ever be able to own something that actually belonged to George Washington. But, with a signature - you can actually own a little snapshot of a moment in Washington's life for somewhere in the high-$6,000 range. Along with my presidential collection, I also collect the players I am a fan of - Tom Brady - Vince Young - Kevin Durant. I also love Muhammad Ali signed stuff. I have become a buyer of older Ali stuff - pre-1975, really nice quality, vintage stuff such as documents and photos. I love the old vintage Ali stuff - back when his signature was larger and bold. But I also love the in-person stuff I have too. We just did a signing with Ali and I got some things signed by him. Those things will always mean the most to me because he signed them for me. They mean a lot more than the most perfect signed photo from the 1970s.
SMR: You earlier mentioned that besides running a company and collecting you are also a family guy.
BG: My family is the most important thing in my life. My wife, Andi, and I got married in 1996 and we have two kids - Sydney who is 9 and Sophie who is 5. In fact, Sophie was just featured in a segment of a show with Nate Berkus (the interior designer who became popular from "The Oprah Winfrey Show.") Some collectors may know that Nate's father, Mike, helps put on The National and has been around the hobby for a zillion years. So, who knows, we could have a little aspiring actress on our hands.
SMR: Your passion for what you are doing is palpable. It's clear you are really excited about what Leaf will be able to bring to the hobby.
BG: I am very passionate and extremely lucky. My story is simple. As a kid, I loved collecting. I turned that love into a way to pay for college and ultimately into a way to make a living and support a family. I pretty much never had to work. I've had a blessed life thanks to this industry. I think it's sad there are not more people in this industry who can say that. So, I hope we start seeing some more positive growth of this industry so more people can get out of it what I have gotten out of it. I'm a very blessed guy. Not only do I get to do what I love, but I also get to go home to what I love, too.
The Leaf Trading Card Company is located at 15944 Midway Road, Addison, TX 75001. For further information on the company and their offerings you can call (800) 854-1732, log on to their Web site at www.leaftradingcards.com, or communicate with Brian Gray directly via e-mail at [email protected].