A Twist of Fate: Kalalou

Stages Magazine
November/December 2010

It was a simple little basket, perched innocently among other colorful wares for sale at the market square in Ocho Rios, Jamaica.  The year was 1984, and Clinton natives Doug and Susan Williams were vacationing on the island with their best friends.  Susan’s eyes landed on the two-dollar basket and as she examined it closer, realized it was identical to a basket she paid $40 for back home.  “You could see dollar signs ringing up in Doug’s eyes,” said Susan.   At that moment, the wheels of fate began to turn.

As a young married couple trying to make ends meet, the Williamses made extra money selling artwork at local flea markets.  The couple decided the baskets would make a great addition to their booth and recruited their friends to help them carry as many baskets as their arms could hold on the plane home.   The baskets were a success – flying off the shelves of the Williamses’ weekend booth.   It was then that the Williamses dove head first into the import business.  “We didn’t have enough money for both of us to make a return trip to Jamaica,” said Doug.  “I convinced the Jamaican Trade Council to ship a container load of baskets to Jackson with no money down and thirty days to pay.  That was miracle number one of many miracles to follow.”

Less than three years after Susan stumbled across that unassuming basket in Jamaica, the couple’s small venture would grow to become one of the “500 Fastest Growing Privately Held Companies” two years in a row according to Inc. MagazineEntrepreneur Magazine named Country Originals one of the “51 American Success Stories” representing Mississippi.  The state of Mississippi also awarded them the coveted “Business and Industry Super Achievers.”

Over the years, Country Originals evolved into Kalalou – a cutting edge collection of unique products that span the globe and come in a variety of colors, textures, and styles.  The name is derived from a Creole word describing a soup made of a variety of ingredients that is never made the same way twice.  Kalalou now does business in nine countries and features over 1500 product lines.

As if their business didn’t keep them busy enough, Doug and Susan have also developed several charity projects such as Doug and Susan’s Kids Foundation – an organization that provides medical care, education, food, and shelter for kids in Haiti, Colombia, Honduras, and right here in Mississippi.  The charity’s projects are funded through both Kalalou sales and outside donations.  All administrative costs are covered by the Williamses, meaning 100% of the donated funds go directly to support the organization’s charitable efforts.

The devastating earthquake that struck Haiti earlier this year hit particularly close to home.  The pair fund a charitable project in Haiti known as Sister Clara’s Clinic as well as import goods.  Doug and Susan immediately sent money to several families in need and then set out to raise enough money to assemble a shipping container full of care packages, medical supplies, and household necessities.  The goods were then distributed to the employees of a factory that the Williamses have worked with for the last 20 years.  The Williamses’ good deeds have not gone unnoticed.  They have received recognition from Oprah Winfrey for funding and building one of her Angel Network Habitat for Humanity Houses, were honored with the Tozzoli Business Leadership Award from the Mississippi World Trade Center Association, and were recognized by the Jackson Chamber of Commerce as a Super Achiever.

Life doesn’t seem to be slowing down anytime soon for the Williamses.  In 2009, Kalalou experienced record breaking sales.  The couple has traveled the world in search of new and unique items to bring to market and even found time to climb Mount Kilimanjaro.  The Williamses are still close with the couple that helped them bring armloads of baskets back to the U.S. twenty-six years ago.  Says Susan, “Often the conversation turns to the memories of that fateful vacation and that beautiful sun-drenched day in the colorful market square of Ocho Rios, Jamaica.”