LeeWard Mills and Lee Wards Story

Book 7

Susan Wildemuth, Atkinson, IL

History of LeeWard Mills and LeeWards


Final Years


Negotiations began with Munford, Inc. in January 1988 for a local LeeWards management team to buy out the 60 store chain. According to an April 27, 1988 Courier News article, “LeeWards, a subsidiary of Munford, would be purchased for $31,500,000 in a buyout backed by Prudential-Bache Securities. President John Popple assumed the duties of chairman of the board.” (126)   This April 29, 1988 purchase allowed the headquarters of LeeWards to remain in Elgin, Illinois and it would be a “privately-held” company. 


In 1988 LeeWards continued to add new retail stores, with 63 company owned stores and two franchised ones. (127) LeeWards was one of the first companies in a growing number of retail chains that asked customers for their zip codes in order to gain market information.  Customer zip codes helped LeeWards in real estate site selection and targetted advertising. (128) 


LeeWards placed most of their stores into suburban strip shopping centers in large communities, because most of their customers lived busy lifestyles and didn’t want to travel a great distance to purchase their items.  The original 840 N. State Street store was the only facility that didn’t match that pattern.  Like it was in the Fink and Fried, General Mills, Inc., and Munford Inc. days, the Elgin store was a magnet for busloads of art-hobby and needle art enthusiasts throughout the Midwest and retained its status as a good moneymaker.(129) 


The late 1980s and early 1990s saw a movement away from the traditional needlework and knitting projects that had been a mainstay of LeeWards in the past.  There were still souls who loved the traditional crafts of needlepoint, crewel, embroidery, and quilting, but there was a “new breed of crafter” coming up through the art-hobby and needle art ranks. These crafters were moving away from “long-term” projects such as a embroidered dining room table cloth, which might take two months to complete, to projects that could be completed in a short time. “Fast-learn” techniques such as T-Shirt painting, stamping, sponge work with acrylics, macramé lawn chairs, jewelry with beads, mixed media Christmas ornaments, and machine quilting were a hit with customers of all ages.  More people worked outside the home and cherished their home environments, so LeeWards branched out into home décor items, framing, and party goods to go with their seasonal holiday decorations. 


In the 1990s, people were feeling more artistically inclined and those that only dabbled in crafts before were really getting into this low-cost leisure activity.  LeeWards attracted new art-hobbyists by offering them a wide variety of supplies at reasonable prices, and classes that convinced their customers they could do it.  Each store in the chain offered 40 to 75 customer classes per month in everything from “Stitch a Quilt in a Day and Paint ‘til you Faint to New Drizzle Look Shirt.” (130)   LeeWards attributed the majority of its success in this decade to strong consumer demand for craft products, aggressive promotions, improved merchandise in stocks at store level, good management control, and the addition of stores. (131) 


John Popple of Elgin, Illinois was the man at the helm of LeeWards during these years.  A Chicago Tribune article gives readers an insight about what a week in the life of Mr. Popple was like, “One day he’s off to Hong Kong to check out the latest in Christmas decorations for 1993 (Xmas buying for next year will be complete by mid spring). The next day he might be shopping with his wife Cheryl looking for Halloween items to decorate their home.  Later in the week he might be found leaning over employee’s shoulders in the company cafeteria observing their once-a-month craft club, an event that allows employees to try out the latest LeeWards projects or encourages them to dream up new ones.”  Under his management Mr. Popple continued the Fink and Fried and Lee Anderson tradition of encouraging creativity in his employees and the family-like feel within the firm. (132)


Like previous owners from 1947 to the present, LeeWards always encouraged their employees to come up with new project ideas. Store managers and their employees, in each of the individual stores, were one of their primary sources for project ideas. Employees from the receptionist at the Elgin Headquarters on through the ad staff were also encouraged to hit the craft and art fair circuit to search for new and exciting ideas.  Ideas also came from their customers who were “typically” female, married, couple of kids, working full-time or part-time and between the age of 25 and 60. 


“Inspiration for these ideas and the planning came together in the basement of the LeeWards Headquarters on St. Charles Street in Elgin in what the company dubbed the Plan-O-Gram Store.  This life size replica of a store served as a model for the chain’s stores, which averaged about 20,000 square feet.  The setup provided an example of how merchandise should be showcased.  Silk flowers and foliage were along the left side of the store.  The center aisle or center court, bursting with seasonal merchandise, was changed completely 6 times a year.  The far right was stacked with the home décor and wearable art supplies that in recent years became some of the chain’s hottest sellers. At the Plan-O-Gram Store, store managers came once a month to browse.  Vendors set up their ideas for displaying merchandise and a team of 10 freelance designers took the doodads and crafted some nifty new ideas as well as designed new projects for the stores.” (133) 


An August 9, 1991 Courier-News article explains LeeWards back-to-basics philosophy, “We want to protect the image that if we don’t have it, no one else will. Yet at the same time, each huge craft supply center is supposed to give off the feeling of a neighborhood shop in which consumers will enjoy spending time.” (134)   LeeWards maintained the policy of hiring store workers who were crafters themselves to improve rapport with customers and one fourth of the customers were “regulars” who visited their local store on a weekly basis.


The first retail store in the craft supplier’s chain at 840 N. State Street in Elgin underwent an extensive renovation in 1991.  Major structural repairs like new plumbing, cosmetic touches like fresh paint, and display improvements were completed by the end of August. (135)   During the September 1991 grand reopening week of the Elgin Store there were special sales on merchandise, free craft classes, daily drawings for $50 shopping sprees and free “make it and take it” workshops in which customers received free materials and instructions, then took the completed craft project home. (136) 


Sales for the privately held company were more than $158 million in 1991. LeeWards had become one of the largest players in the craft business. The 45 year old firm’s major competitors were Michael’s Stores, a company based in Texas, Ben Franklin Stores of Carol Stream, Illinois, and Frank’s Nursery and Crafts in Michigan. (137)  A Chicago Tribune November 29, 1992 article noted, “LeeWards Creative Crafts operates over 90 stores nationwide featuring more than 22,000 of what President John Popple calls traditional to trend-setting craft items which range from do-it-yourself fabric paints, faux jewels, glow bright beads, sponge painting, marbleizing home décor, traditional knitting, quilting, and decoupage supplies.” (138)   1992 profits were the best in LeeWards history, and 1993 proved to be another stellar sales year. “Our continuing strong performance mirrors a national explosion in crafting which is now a $7 billion dollar industry,” explains John Popple in a 1993 Courier-News article. 


By early 1994 Michael’s Stores, Inc., the Texas-based craft store chain and major force in the art-hobby and craft industry had 260 stores and LeeWard’s retail stores numbered around 100. Michael’s and LeeWards had begun merger talks and an agreement was reached by spring of 1994 that the privately held LeeWards Creative Crafts, Inc of Elgin, Illinois would, in a $100 million dollar deal, merge with Michael’s, positioning the Texas corporation as a commanding leader in the craft market. (139) 


The original Fink and Fried retail store on 840 North State Street closed its doors for the last time as LeeWards in the fall of 1994.  The corporate offices at 1200 St. Charles Street were needed during the merger transition, but were eventually sold. (140) LeeWards officially completed its merger with Michael’s by the end of 1994 and, after 47 years in the “craft” business, LeeWards became a part of Illinois art needlework history.