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story.lead_photo.caption “We are an amazement in our own industry. Companies don’t grow this quickly.” - Photo by Mitchell PE Masilun

Todd Smith's world is farmhouse chic -- but not the ducks and gingham look of your great-grandmother. His is a contemporary vision of days long ago that reflect Southern hospitality.

Hidden away off Interstate 30, his Park Hill Collection of about 3,000 products sits in a 500,000-square-foot warehouse ready to be shipped to about 15,000 customers -- many with familiar names like Pottery Barn, Dillard's, Neiman Marcus, and Chip and Joanna Gaines of HGTV's Fixer Upper.

He and his business and life partner, Charlie Groppetti, built the Park Hill Collection from scratch after they both spent years in the floral business.

"We wanted to take early American or European antiques that we live with daily and make them more affordable to the public," Smith says.

Business partner Herren Hickingbotham helped make Smith's dream come true by providing backing for the business.

"I believe in their talent, their abilities, their creativity and after much prayer, I just felt it was the right decision to make this investment," Hickingbotham says.

Smith got his start as a floral designer at Tipton Hurst. His mentor, Tipton Hurst vice president Chris Norwood, took him to San Francisco in 1998 to an American Institute of Floral Designers convention to assist with a floral presentation. He met Groppetti, who was also doing a presentation, at the convention.

Groppetti told Smith about a Chinese floral company that was looking for designers who could provide an American influence to their products. When they arrived, the Chinese factory had about 50 employees. Demands for the products quickly exploded and the company grew to more than 5,000 employees.

The men started out as business partners in China but their relationship grew to something more. After five years in China, Smith told Groppetti he wanted to move back to Arkansas and start their own company.

They were determined that their business would be a reflection of their story "of how we live our life, the farm life, the rural life," Smith says

The two men went house hunting and came across a little Craftsman-style house in the Park Hill neighborhood of North Little Rock. With the house -- and the name of their business -- decided, they were ready to start working.

They put together their product line and rented a small showroom at the Atlanta International Gift & Home Furnishings Market. Traffic was slow at first.

"We sunk everything we had into this and so no one is coming and then they found us and I would say in two hours our booth was like finding the Hope diamond," Smith says.

When they returned to Arkansas, the two men totaled up the orders and Smith thought "Oh, dear God. What have we created? What are we going to do? We have no idea how we are going to run this company. We have no cash flow. What are we going to do?"

That's when he called Hickingbotham. "I said 'Herren, I think I have created this monster and I don't know what to do.'"

With Hickingbotham taking over the business side, the company became a success. Groppetti also attributes the success to the public's desire for nostalgic goods.

"The timing was really lucky because everything was kind of slick and glamorous and we were more farmhouse before Joanna Gaines was born basically," Groppetti says.

“We wanted to take early American or European antiques that we live with daily and make them more affordable to the public.”
“We wanted to take early American or European antiques that we live with daily and make them more affordable to the public.”

Smith says much of Park Hill's growth can be traced to Chip and Joanna Gaines of Fixer Upper.

"They are huge clients of ours and they source and buy a lot of our products," Smith says of the Gaines' Magnolia Home line of products.

They ship products to Magnolia Home in plain boxes and the Park Hill labels are ripped off as soon as they are received. "They don't use our brands. It's the Joanna and Chip world when it comes to them," Smith says.

Pottery Barn uses the Park Hill brand on lanterns sold in its stores.

"In the history of Pottery Barn, they never reached outside of their name and used some other company's name until they came to us and they actually branded the Park Hill lanterns," Smith says. "You can go to any Pottery Barn and see our name. They asked if they could use our name because they knew the name recognition was already getting established and it was well known in our industry."

Smith also attributes Park Hill's success to Norwood. "He's probably why all of this happened because he taught me all he knew about flowers."

The admiration is mutual.

"He set a whole design trend across the world with the Park Hill look and that's really saying something, that you created a design style," Norwood says.

"He's very, very giving and always is concerned that everybody is happy. ... He is a very sweet, genuinely nice, caring person," Norwood adds of Smith.

GRANDMOTHER GLADYS

Smith's love of antiques and vintage items can be traced to his early years growing up in tiny Corning in northeast Arkansas and summers spent at his grandparents' farm. Smith's 95-year-old grandmother Gladys Clifton inspired many of the Park Hill products.

"We even named one of our kitchen fragrance candles after her. It's called Gladys' Kitchen and it's just that smell of walking into your grandmother's kitchen and something is baking," Smith says.

Smith and Groppetti eventually outgrew their Park Hill home and bought 10-acres of land near Vilonia. Their property adjoins the farm and home of Smith's mother, Darlene, and stepfather, Dr. Jon Southerland.

On the land, they were able to build their "dream house" with enough farm land for Smith to raise heritage chickens, sheep and geese and Groppetti to grow plants. The house and farm provide much of the inspiration for their product line.

It's also big enough to house their child -- Leland Charles, whom they adopted in China. Leland is now 6 years old and is home-schooled by a neighbor who is a retired teacher. The couple turned a room in their home into a classroom.

"He's a kindergartner but tested on the fourth-grade level," Smith says proudly as he turns on his cellphone to show a photo of their adorable son.

Pictures of Leland can be found in several of the Park Hill catalogs. In one photo, Smith is holding one of his heritage chickens and Groppetti is holding Leland. The catalogs are packed with photos of Park Hill's signature look.

"There's a term called nostalgic marketing. People always tend to look back more favorably on the past," says Groppetti, who grew up on a farm in California. "You tend to forget the hard times and you remember the good old days and our merchandise was just from our good-old-days memories."

Park Hill's products range from rustic, rural Americana to high French style.

"The idea is you can take any of our pieces and mix it to create your own look because a Southern home really is a mixture of all kinds of generations and influences," Groppetti says. "You can have a beautiful piece of silver next to a paper plate. Southern people have a knack for style."

Over time, the Park Hill look evolved from farmhouse chic to something larger.

"Farmhouse is a component of it, but it really more of a Southern look because it has French influences," Groppetti says. "If you look at the Southern home, there are influences from rural America, the French or Louisiana and Europe."

And the two learned a few years ago, if their products have a Southern connotation, it will sell better. "People really want that tradition and hospitality. Southern hospitality is really recognized," Groppetti says.

PIECES HE LOVES

Park Hill employs about 130 people in Little Rock and another 70 outside of Arkansas. They have a store in Conway, Park Hill Home, and showrooms in Dallas, Atlanta and Las Vegas.

"We are everywhere from mom and pop stores to major retailers," Smith says of his products.

Smith finds his design inspirations from items in the couple's own home, antique stores and while on vacation.

For instance, a blue spruce tree was cut down, wrapped and sent to China to be copied to look like a real Christmas tree. And an antique leather settee the couple bought is being reproduced and will be ready in 2020.

Park Hill's line of candles is made in Pocahontas and Des Arc. Much of the other merchandise is made in China and India.

"They are lifelong pickers, if you will," says Ellen Scruggs. "They love going through antique stores."

"But they also pull from the way they live," says Nancy Nolan. "They will have this stuff in their house or from their families or they run into it somewhere."

Nolan was a commercial photographer in Little Rock who has worked on many company catalogs. Hickingbotham hired her to shoot the photographs for Park Hill's first catalog. After several years of freelance work for Park Hill, Nolan took a full-time job with the company. She brought Scruggs with her.

"They are the most amazing, generous people that I have ever experienced," Nolan says. "There generosity is like crazy. They are like family to me. So for me it was natural to come here."

Scruggs, who has a background in graphic design and spent years at the now shuttered Little Rock-based Seasons Inc. candle company, handles design, packaging, website development and producing the catalog for Park Hill.

"Todd is quick. He knows what he likes. He knows what he doesn't like. If he's not feeling it, he's done and moves on," Scruggs says.

Groppetti agrees. "He has a color sense like no other. I will usually take 20 colors and I will analyze it and analyze it and sleep on it and I will lay it out into three to six choices and he will come in and say 'that one.'"

The Park Hill main catalog grows larger every year and is now much heavier and thicker than a phone book. The 2018 catalog has 776 pages and showcases photo after photo of Nolan's work. Hickingbotham initially suggested hiring Nolan because he wanted "the best" photographer to showcase the then-new company's rapidly expanding product line and clientele.

"As our company has grown -- and with more name recognition -- more people want to know who are Todd and Charlie and what makes Todd and Charlie tick. We are an amazement in our own industry. Companies don't grow this quickly," Smith says.

Todd Leon Smith

Date and place of birth: Feb. 27, 1969, Poplar Bluff, Mo.

My fantasy dinner party: It would have to include Tina Turner and the other people who are closest to me and they know who they are.

My friends describe me as: Compassionate.

Favorite designer: My partner Charlie.

Personal style: Jeans, always.

Favorite meal is: Anything my grandmother cooks.

My China pattern is: Mix match of all of the Southern best.

Stainless or silver?: Silver

Favorite flower: Garden roses

The favorite room in my house is: The sun room

I named my son Leland because: I wanted something that sounded Southern, baron-ish and tycoon-ish.

My favorite holiday is: Easter

I drive a: Range Rover

My favorite movie is: Shawshank Redemption

The one word to sum me up: Loyal

Next Week

Carol Dunn

Little Rock

NAN Profiles on 12/16/2018

Print Headline: HIGH PROFILE: Todd Smith's Park Hill Collection is not grandma’s country chic

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