A few weeks ago, we spent a misty winter's afternoon catching up over tea with Gun Denhart and her granddaughter Kate, and Gun shared thoughts about the company's beginnings and what she's passionate about right now. Maybe it was the view of Portland from her feels-like-Sweden home, but after talking with this inspiring businesswoman and philanthropist, we all left feeling more than a few feet off the ground.
In 1983 you and your husband Tom left careers in Connecticut and moved to Oregon to start Hanna Andersson. What prompted that leap of faith?
"Tom and I had talked a long time about starting a business, and looked at a number of ideas. One that we considered seriously was a bottled water company (she laughs). On a trip back to Sweden where I grew up, we discovered a factory that was creating beautiful cotton children's clothes, and having a baby boy ourselves, I knew there was nothing like them in America. We brought a big box of Swedish clothes back to the US and shared it with friends. The response was overwhelmingly positive, so we thought we might be onto something good."
Just curious, why the name Hanna Andersson?
"We wanted a name with a Swedish connection, and decided to name it after my grandmother."
Tell us about making the very first Hanna catalog.
"While we were still in Connecticut, Tom quit his job as an art director for Ogilvy and Mather, and then went to Sweden to take pictures for the first catalog. He and producer Britt Berg worked all hours for two weeks—at one point Tom was up in the middle of the night wallpapering my childhood room to use for photos. When he got back to the US, we moved to Portland, settled into a house, and prepared for the catalogs and clothes to arrive from Sweden. We placed an ad with the headline, "Why are Swedish babies so happy?" and it's kind of funny, it generated catalog requests for nearly 10 years. Soon after that, the catalogs were mailed, the shipment of clothes from Sweden was organized in our garage, and the first Hanna orders came trickling into our mailbox. We were thrilled. It felt unreal."
"Because Tom was from here. It was so hard for us the first few years, not only because it rained months on end but because we worked all the time, literally."
Did you have any idea the company would grow at breakneck speed for the next five years?
"We had no idea! After two years of running the business out of our house, boxes of baby clothes were everywhere. We bought a small building in an industrial area of Portland for our company of 20 people, and within nine months we'd outgrown it. We realized then that we had something special."
What drove Hanna's success?
"Well, mainly, at that time most kids clothes weren't designed for comfort, they didn't wear well, and there wasn't much 100% cotton, let alone the quality of cotton we were bringing from Sweden. So our timing was right. We offered a new way of dressing kids in soft, comfortable, crayon-bright clothes—we called it letting kids be kids, and since hannas lasted for more than one child, parents were willing to pay for quality, which is how I was brought up in Sweden. We started the catalog at a time when specialty catalogs were becoming popular. So that played a part, as well. And we were lucky. You should never discount luck."
Hanna fans are pretty passionate about the clothes...for some it's more than a place to get clothes, more like a relationship. Customers tell us their children are "second generation Hanna kids," so they consider us a form of family.
"You know, we poured our souls into this. Tom loved Sweden, the importance of my family there. I think he brought that alive in the catalogs. He wrote the copy and art directed, so it was through his lens that people saw us. There was a time when we were told, okay, you're too expensive, but we chose to stay with quality, rather than bringing it down in order to lower prices. It is wonderful to see that Hanna hasn't lost its soul. That says a lot, that you have stayed true to what is special about Hanna, making wonderful clothes so parents can truly hug their kids in softness."
Gun, you have always had an uncanny gift for being ahead of the curve of what's coming. At Hanna, you pioneered family-friendly workplace policies like subsidized child care for employees, as well as pushing the business towards organic cotton and Oeko-Tex certification (which tests for over 100 harmful chemicals), and the list goes on. What are you excited about right now?
"I'm working closely with a conservation organization called Ecotrust, and we're involved in a number of projects with the goal of building a new economy that restores nature and invests in people. We focus on agriculture and forestry, as well as fisheries. For example, we're part of the local food movement with farm to school projects that focus on low-income schools and preschools to ensure that kids have access to healthy, local food. It’s good for the kids, and creates new jobs as well, which is great for the local economy."
And Kate (Gun's 13 year old granddaughter), you've been doing volunteer work in the community. Tell us about it.
"This last fall I helped set up a Fun Run fundraiser for an elementary after school program, and then a few weeks ago, I spent a day baking cupcakes and cookies for nurses and doctors in the oncology ward of Doernbecher Children’s Hospital."
Great job, Kate, that's awesome! And Gun, thank you for having us all over for tea today. It's been wonderful talking with you, and hearing about your current work. Are there any thoughts you’d like to leave us with?
"Well, there are so many challenges in the world today and it’s easy to get discouraged. However, I truly believe that there are things each of us can do to make the world a better place. Listening more, helping someone, reading to a child. Small is a good start...it all makes a difference!"