5001 North Freeway
Fort Worth 76106
The word failure is not in Sharon Evans’ vocabulary.
As an entrepreneur in Fort Worth, she has spent more than three decades running two thriving enterprises – a jewelry production site and retail store called Collections Fine Jewelry and its sister, CFJ Manufacturing, a global branded merchandise business. Evans steers her own companies’ growth while championing the efforts and successes of other business organizations owned by women.
A multimillion-dollar, certified Women’s Business Enterprise (WBE), CFJ Manufacturing specializes in employee recognition programs and corporate brand identity programs. It does product development, base manufacturing, uniforms, warehousing, kitting, distribution and fulfillment.
The company’s average annual growth for the last three years has been between 5 and 10 percent and it is on track for 2015’s projected growth of 15 to 20 percent.
“We’ve grown exponentially. We have five divisions today and 100 employees in the U.S. We have an office in Peru, a partnership in Canada and are on the ground in China,” Evans said. “We started base manufacturing product back in the ‘80s and we had many obstacles to starting a business then. There weren’t too many women doing that so it was hard. But I never thought about failure. I couldn’t. If I didn’t succeed, my children didn’t eat.”
Evans began her career working part time in sales with Zales Corp. When her marriage suddenly ended, she was left with three small children to support. Her early success in the jewelry industry inspired her to fopen Collections Fine Jewelry in Saginaw in 1983. Before she knew it she had built a reasonable retail business. The company rapidly expanded to include branded and logo merchandise, first in the form of service award jewelry, and eventually it added branded items including clothing, writing instruments, electronics, crystal, travel gear, sporting goods, home furnishings, office and desk accessories, custom jewelry – even bottled water, coffee and chocolate.
One of CFJ’s first corporate clients, GTE Corp. (now Verizon Communications Inc.), introduced Evans to J.C. Penney Corp. But her first bid for J.C. Penney’s business misfired.
“When I asked why I didn’t get the bid the first year, I was told it was because I was so dramatically lower than everyone else. Because our pricing was so competitive they were concerned,” Evans said. “I remember their response to this day, ‘We thought you were some crazy little woman in Saginaw who didn’t know what you were doing.’ That started a very long relationship with J.C. Penney and one corporation to the next.”
Using the initials from her jewelry store, Evans opened CFJ Manufacturing in 1994 to handle the growing demand for service award, employee recognition and promotional marketing programs. Big brand clients include American Express, Amtrak, BNSF Railway, Energy Future Holdings, Ericsson Inc., Exxon Mobil Corp., Kimberly-Clark Corp., Marriott International Inc., PepsiCo Inc., Prudential, United Airlines, UPS and W.W. Grainger.
The two companies are operated today by Evans’ daughters, who literally grew up at their mom’s feet, doing homework under her desk. Collections Fine Jewelry is operated by Evans’ older daughter, Shawn, while younger daughter Kim is executive vice president of business development at CFJ.
“The jewelry store’s still there in Saginaw and we still use the same business philosophy. We never advertise and we’ve never had a sale. It’s all word of mouth. People tell other people,” Evans said. “That store will always have my heart. It kept my children fed. It kept me alive for many years.”
Over the decades, Evans’ businesses have evolved with changing trends in the workplace. Since the Great Recession, there has been an increase in employee appreciation programs and in corporate branding, she says, as more companies are realizing the value of their workforce and the importance of their identity in the marketplace.
“For a while during the recession, employee appreciation almost dropped to nothing. Every company was just trying to keep going financially. Major conventions were cut back and products weren’t given away,” she said. “We’ve seen a strong growth in appreciation and in product today. Companies began to recognize that it wasn’t all about monetary compensation but telling you ‘I appreciate what you’re doing for the company.’ Appreciation is a lot more valuable than it was previously. But still only about 4 percent of companies today practice effective appreciation. It’s surprising how little they appreciate someone.”
Evans works to support and advance women-owned businesses on both the national and local levels. She serves on the board of the Women’s Business Enterprise National Council (WBENC), which provides WBE certification, confirming that a company is at least 51 percent owned, operated and controlled by women. She’s also a member of Women’s Business Council-Southwest, the Arlington-based regional partner organization that conducts WBE certification on behalf of the WBENC. Together, the national and southwest councils give women’s businesses access to major corporate buyers so they can grow and add jobs.
Evans has won WBE Advocate of the Year awards four times from WBCS and frequently speaks to groups about issues and challenges that women in business face today.
“Eighty-five percent of our business comes from corporations that want to do business with WBEs,” Evans said. “I think most of them clearly understand we are the gatekeepers. They’ve begun to recognize that 85 to 87 percent of the wealth in the United States, whether we’ve earned it or have inherited it, belongs to women. We’re now a major portion of the workforce and we’re starting companies.”
Texas has an estimated 825,400 women-owned firms, employing 633,400 people and with roughly $127.2 billion in revenues, according to the fifth annual State of Women-Owned Businesses Report, commissioned by American Express OPEN. The report analyzed the 1997, 2002 and 2007 data from the U.S. Census Bureau’s business census, the Survey of Business Owners, taken every five years.
Nationally, the number of WBEs has increased 74 percent since 1997. Texas is ranked second in the increase in businesses over the past 18 years (116.4 percent) and 20th in growth of revenue during that period (95.6 percent).
“We’re still growing, whether out of necessity like me as a single mom, or whether it’s just an entrepreneurial shift with young women and women in general. We’ve evolved,” said Evans.
CFJ Manufacturing continues its growth, too. For the past 17 years, the company has occupied a 48,000-square-foot facility in North Fort Worth but it is running out of space. Evans said she is looking for land to build a bigger facility to accommodate growth.
“Business is great,” she said. “But I don’t want the business because I’m a woman-owned business but because I’m the most capable person to do it.”