By Karen Davis Barr
Planning and providing the stuff of great parties is what the Shaw family does best. But spend some time talking with them and you’ll come away convinced they should expand—into the entertainment business.
The people behind Party People are a lot of fun.
Three of four Shaw siblings run the 29-year-old party rental and sales business, which has locations in central Phoenix and Scottsdale. They’ve worked hard to build the business their father started. Through it all, they’ve maintained close, easy-going relationships based on mutual respect and a shared gift for quick-witted humor that keeps day-to-day stresses in perspective.
They spend every day at work—and every family holiday—together. They finish each other’s sentences. They poke good-natured fun. And they laugh. A lot.
The family patriarch, Christopher Shaw, got his start as an electrician in Chicago, where he and his wife Carol were raising four children—Catherine, Christine, Jeanette and David.
Business was good, but Chris had his sights on something new. When an opportunity came up to join an acquaintance in the rental business, the Shaws moved to Arizona.
“He always had envisioned owning his own business,” Carol remembers. “He thought the rental business was something he could enjoy. He didn’t want to spend his whole life as an electrician.”
The rental business occasionally got calls requesting “chairs and stuff they didn’t carry,” says David. “That kind of spurred my dad’s thought that he could start a whole other business.”
“His vision was a separate party rental store,” adds Jeanette. “He was not going to do fountains next to lawnmowers. He wanted to make it first class. He investigated the business [model] and saw that there were only a couple around the Valley at the time…we never looked back.”
“He found a place in California that was selling out,” Carol continues. “He bought $40,000 worth of equipment, brought it here in a U-Haul, rented a space and started up.”
Party People (the name resulted from a family brainstorming session in the pool) opened in October 1982, in what Carol describes as “a dinky little place in Scottsdale.” In 1988, the company moved to Seventh Street in Phoenix, expanding to take over a larger space next door when another business moved out. A second, north Scottsdale location has been operating since 2002.
All four Shaw children have worked in the business at some point, though Christine, who now lives in Costa Rica, did so sporadically for about 10 years.
“David worked for his dad from day one,” says Carol. “In a family business, you did everything—washed the linens, washed the dishes, made deliveries. David and his high school buddy were pretty much the full-time delivery crew.”
In those early days, Carol washed all the linens at home. Her mother ironed them.
“It was supply and demand,” Carol remembers. “If you wanted something, they’d say, ‘Oh, yeah, sure’—and then they’d run out and buy it. That’s how they built the inventory. If a customer wanted 10 green linens and he only had two, he’d go out and buy eight more.” The retail side of the business started a few years later, when people started asking for paper tablecloths, napkins and balloons.
The siblings tell the story of how they got involved in the business with the precise timing of a well-honed comedy routine.
Cathy starts: “Jeanette was living in Witchita, Kan. and I had a sociology degree, working in corrections, when Dad asked if we would be interested in working in the business.
“He asked?” David interjects.
“I was feeling a little bit stressed [at work],” Cathy continues, “and David was still trying to get through freshman English at Scottsdale Community College…”
“I wasn’t trying at all!” David interrupts.
“…and when Dad asked us to come on board, we said yes.”
In 1986, Jeanette moved back to Phoenix with her husband. “Both of us came and worked in the business—my husband just briefly until he got a [another] job,” Jeanette says. David’s wife Becky, now a Phoenix realtor, also put in time at the shop.
Carol took care of all the grandchildren when they were babies and “there were plenty of times when there was a playpen in the office,” Cathy recalls. “The swings, the playpens, the walker…the kids would go up and down the aisles in the walker. I was in labor here at work. I was nursing my children, taking orders on the phone.”
Even the Shaw grandchildren have worked in the business, and several have put in significant blocks of time. “There was a lot of, ‘What are the kids doing over the summer?’” Jeanette says. “You keep them busy. It’s what working women have to do.”
You have to wonder how a family can handle so much togetherness. The Shaw siblings credit the example set by their dad.
“In the beginning, there was a little bit of an adjustment that had to be made,” says Cathy, who is the company’s events planner and is a certified design rental professional. “There’s the whole child/parent relationship. My dad once made the comment that you had to treat your kids like your employees.”
“He was always ‘Chris’ at work,” says Jeanette, who manages the business end and is currently developing an e-commerce portal for selling party supplies. “We were paid employees like everyone else.”
“There were times when my dad would hit the ceiling but then it was over,” says David. “It didn’t go home. When it’s over, it’s done.”
And what is it like working with siblings?
“As long as we stay in our own places we’re pretty good,” Jeanette says, with the hint of a smile.
“We aren’t the type of siblings that hold grudges or get upset if someone says something unexpected,” adds Cathy.
“We just shut the office door and go at each other,” Jeanette says. Everyone laughs.
Their business, not surprisingly, is busiest during the fall and winter holidays. “You’re trying to create your own holidays and also create holidays for your customers,” says Cathy. “You’re very, very busy.”
The pressure comes from coordinating the logistics and getting everything out on time. Sometimes they process 200 orders for Thanksgiving.
“I can remember 24-hour shifts,” David says. “At 6 a.m. you’d start deliveries. You’d make deliveries all day then do dishes until 8 the next morning. There were weeks when I was working on average 75 hours a week. It’s just what you had to do to keep things rolling.”
Chris, who died five years ago from mesothelioma, would be proud.
“It’s the way our dad taught us,” says David, who is now the company president. “You want to do the right thing and deliver quality. We take that personally. We have an emotional investment in it.”