They’ve called her the “Lapper Lady” for more than five years. Ashley Hatcher -- a former pharmaceutical representative -- turned entrepreneur in late 2006 when she created a line of colorful, non-slip dinner trays for small gift shops in hopes of taking them to the masses one day.
A passionate cheerleader for the product she has been, appearing on Good Morning America, the cable network Home and Garden TV, and in a variety of magazines, including Family Circle. That led to appearances on the home-shopping giant QVC and, finally, the sale of her company to Columbus-based cooking equipment distributor Masterbuilt in 2009.
The Lapper line has taken off from there, with several hundred thousand being sold so far, including about 80,000 last year. Hatcher, 46, pitched the trays 18 times on QVC last year and has now worked her way into the Sam’s Club pipeline, with the trays scheduled to debut in 200 of the Walmart chain’s 600 stores in March, including the Whittlesey Boulevard outlet in Columbus.
And more is on the way. The Columbus resident, whose official job title is Lapper sales manager, said it all has been a whirlwind that continues to pick up momentum. The Ledger-Enquirer talked with her about her job and the transition she has made from one-woman show for the Lapper to a team player. This interview is edited for length and clarity.
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As Lapper sales manager, what are your official duties?
I do all of the designing, redesigning. We’ve just gotten in the past two weeks two new design patents. So I now have four design patents, a utility patent and an international patent pending.
Is obtaining patents difficult?
It’s not easy. We have a patent attorney. When I first started the company, all I did was supply everything that the patent attorney needed in order to submit it to the patent office. What’s happened is I’ve evolved the Lapper. The original design is for the Lapper. The next design was for a new tray that I came up with to make the plate hole bigger. It takes some time and some money.
You also are the face of the Lapper, promoting it heavily?
I do all of the promotion. I’m in charge of all the on-air sales at QVC, all of the on-air promotions. I also call on all of the key accounts. I went out to Sam’s (in Bentonville, Ark.). By the time the Lappers get into Sam’s I will have been working on that account for a year from start to finish.
What’s the difference now in your job and the Lapper process from when you started?
It’s just a lot bigger, so there’s a lot more to do. And it’s a lot more accountability. Before I was just going to trade shows and selling to mom and pops, and taking care of my accounts. Now I’m having to get engineers to help me figure out packaging and get people in sales support to help with electronic data input. So it’s just a lot more complicated because these stores are a lot bigger.
That’s where Masterbuilt’s expertise comes in?
Yes, it’s huge. I don’t know if I could have done it without them.
Masterbuilt co-owners and brothers John and Don McLemore have been a big help?
They have just provided me the avenue that I needed to help make (the Lapper) so successful. They were doing business with Sam’s already, so it was a lot easier to work through vendor setup and to get everything uploaded into their system. It just made it a lot smoother than having to start from scratch.
What do you enjoy most about your work?
It’s like a two-step process. First of all, I enjoy designing it and, then, I love selling my designs. It is so rewarding.
What’s the most challenging aspect?
Trying to get in front of key accounts. Trying to get appointments. The buyers are so busy. And it’s a product that a lot of them have never seen before, they’ve never heard of. And pricing has always shut the door right in my face. But we’ve now got new pricing. They were too expensive, so we have been able to work with the factories in China and get our costs down and increase our volume on containers. That helps with price as well.
How has interaction with QVC helped develop your skills?
It’s been such a catapult for me achieving a comfort level. It’s national TV. At first, I would just be a nervous wreck. But I was on 18 times last year. I’ve got my little routine down. I go by and get my groceries and I check in to QVC, and I get my tables and set everything up. As soon as the cameras come on, I’m totally at ease. No nerves anymore. It’s so exciting and I love it when people call in. (The Lapper) has got a 4.3 out of a 5 star rating, which is really, really good. So I’m very, very proud and love to go online and read what people say about them.
QVC certainly has mastered the art of the sale and tracking everything?
They’re amazing. They’ve got it down to a fine science. They can tell you things real time ... like if I do a certain demo or something, I can hear the producer in my ear saying, ‘That just shot sales up. Do it again.’ And they’ve got that real-time ticker so you can see how many are sold. Then it’s really neat because when you go off air you can go back to what they call the green room. They’ve got a computer bank set up and you can get on there and see how many overall sales you have, a breakdown of how many of each colors sold, what your dollars per minute is, what your overall dollars are, how many minutes and seconds you were on.
So you expect your job will continue to evolve and stay fresh?
I do. I’m working on a smaller version of the Lapper, called the Lappetizer. I’m going to be introducing that next month. It’s going to be like a little appetizer tray that keeps your dishes in place and it’ll hold a wine stem or a double old-fashioned (mixed drink), and it’s got a little place for a napkin. I tried to add features that other trays on the market don’t have ... There are real inexpensive appetizer trays on the market. I have just made mine better and with more features.
What else is on your horizon?
QVC in the United States has been so successful with the Lappers that I was actually able to get appointments over in Europe with QVC London and QVC Germany. They’re in six countries and we’re in negotiations with them. That’s why we’ve applied for an international patent. And I got an email Monday asking when I would be available. I hopefully will hear something this month. Plus, I’m going to be on QVC next Thursday morning (Feb. 23) at 5 a.m. live. It’s a segment called “Mom’s Kitchen.”