For Mary Martha ‘93/’94 and Gary Parisher ‘94, founders and owners of Cheeriodicals, every day in their business is connected to what they learned as students at AUM.
The room is packed with insurance salespeople and support staff, 400 of them bent over hotel conference room tables eagerly packing bright green boxes with magazines and toys. A buzz flows between tables, excited, energetic, hopeful.
Corporate team building is a term open to interpretation. Too often it comprises mindless exercises that burn time with no discernable results. But not today. Not here. Because these people from Northwestern Mutual are united with a purpose. Each of these green boxes, marked Cheeriodicals, will be delivered to a child at Children’s of Alabama.
Cheeriodicals, the company behind this unique event, is the creation of Mary Martha and Gary Parisher —graduates from the AUM College of Business. And their company, in just a few short years, has impacted thousands of lives.
What is a Cheeriodical?
The idea for Cheeriodicals originated with an illness. Mary Martha’s uncle was admitted to a hospital in Houston, Texas and she wanted to send a small gift.
“He’s a fisherman,” she said. “Flowers or candy just weren’t the right gift to send, but I thought he would enjoy an outdoor magazine. I called the gift shop at the hospital to see if they would deliver something to his room but they couldn’t help. So I did what we all do these days: I asked Google. Oddly, I couldn’t find any kind of service that would deliver a magazine to a patient in the hospital.”
And from that unmet need, Cheeriodicals was born. The idea is simple. Have a friend in the hospital? Go online and order a Cheeriodicals box to be delivered to the patient’s room. Choose from the many magazines they offer on a wide range of topics. The box will also include a variety of other items designed to cheer the patient’s stay.
Do you have the nerve to do it?
Once they had discovered the idea, Gary and Mary Martha discussed its merits, all of the risks, all of the challenges, all of the many reasons not to commit. And in the end, it came down to one question: “do we have the nerve to do it?”
“An original idea is a scary thing,” Gary said. “You have nothing to compare it to. We didn’t know if the potential was a lot or a little. But we knew that if we were going to do it, then we were going to have to give it everything we had.”
It all began at AUM
Mary Martha moved to Montgomery from Tallahassee to attend AUM and for work. She finished her undergraduate degree at AUM before entering the MBA program. During her MBA program, Mary Martha took "Economics and the Law" from Dr. David Sollars. From that positive experience, she decided to go on to law school after completing her MBA. Gary also moved to Montgomery while working for Astra Zeneca. He knew it would be valuable to complete his masters to enhance his opportunities at his company, so he too entered the MBA program.
“We met in class,” Mary Martha said. “It’s amazing how our time at AUM has impacted every aspect of our lives. I studied business there. I met my husband there. And, it was a class I took at AUM that prompted me to go on to law school to study corporate law after finishing my MBA."
Using what we learned
The Parishers launched the Cheeriodicals site on May 11, 2011. “We had this naïve notion that ‘if you build it, they will come,’” Gary added, “and of course they didn’t come. Not like we hoped.”
“I pulled out my old marketing text books,” Mary Martha joked. “Launching the business was a challenge, but it turned out to only be the beginning.”
“When you think about it, we were trying to build a national brand, without a national-brand budget,” Gary said.
And for the next several years, the Parishers applied their education in a wide variety of areas: marketing, inventory control, human resources, finance. In each area, they found what they’d learned at AUM relevant.
The turning point
While Cheeriodicals were designed for adults in the hospital, the Parishers soon added new products for children, tailored by both gender and by age, and the demand for the children’s boxes proved strong.
But the biggest turning point for the business came in March 2012. “We were speaking with our financial consultant, a friend, at Northwestern Mutual,” Mary Martha said. “We discussed a one-of-a-kind idea of a community outreach event where every child at Children's of Alabama would receive a Cherriodicals gift box from Northwestern Mutual. In that first event, we delivered a box to 238 children. We repeated the event later for the same company in Memphis, and we delivered a box to every child at St. Jude Children’s Hospital. Soon after, the concept of having the corporate employees assemble the gift boxes themselves as a corporate team building event emerged."
“It’s when you deliver a box to a child that you really see the power of our original idea. There is so much emotion, from the kids, from their parents, from the people delivering the box. No one leaves an event unaffected.”
Large corporations are always looking for new ideas for team building events. Newsweek reported that the market for these events is more than $46 billion. There has been a growing trend toward events that bring the team together but also have an impact on the local community as well. Cheeriodicals fits that need perfectly. In fact, the events have proven so popular that the people who participate often end up volunteering more of their time to the hospitals involved.
Since 2012, Cheeriodicals has held more than 75 team-building events across the U.S. and Canada for some of the world’s largest companies, including Siemens, GE, Wells Fargo, Medtronic, Novartis and Anderson Windows & Doors. Many of these companies have engaged Cheeriodicals multiple times, and events range from 25 to 2,000 participants. In all, the company has delivered more than 20,000 boxes to hospitalized children.
“We expanded again in 2016 to host events in Birmingham and Chicago that benefit veterans and military hospitals,” Gary said. “We’ve also added branded wagons for the Children’s Hospital events that can be left behind when the event is over. Those wagons have proven to be extremely popular.”
A million reasons to quit; the rewards come with persistance
According to Mary Martha, there are strong parallels between their time in school and running their own business.
“Finishing your education is a challenge, for anyone,” Mary Martha said. “You’re working, on top of going to class and doing the assignments. The school work itself is tough. It tests what you believe you are capable of. You know you’re going to get beat up along the way and you can always find a reason to quit, but the rewards for sticking it out are compelling. Life changing.
“It’s no different starting a business. Discovering the original idea was one thing, but that was only the start of the business challenges. We are constantly learning more about finance, inventory management, marketing, human resources — and at almost every turn, things we learned in school have direct application to the problems we are solving.
“Yes, it’s hard. But the rewards are so gratifying. I never imagined we’d end up running our own business, but the results, and not just the financial results, have been far beyond what we could have imagined.”