Now He's Holding a Lot of the Cards

ASSOCIATED PRESS

When Lud Denny printed his first football card three years ago, the former Braniff pilot and oil wildcatter had seen enough of the business world to take just a short-term lease.

He sublet a 1,500-square-foot office to launch Pro Set Inc. and told his landlord, "I don't know if we're going to need it after the first month."

Well, he did. Now his empire is crammed into a 44,000-square-foot headquarters, where 225 employees design hockey, golf, racing and soccer cards, as well as music and movie cards, candy and cookies.

"We're getting to be a reasonably sized lemonade stand," he said.

Denny, 48, expects $165 million in sales this year at his privately held company, up from about $125 million last year.

Traditional sports cards aren't all he sells. His company offers football cards in Spanish, hockey cards in French and soccer cards in the King's English. Denny's latest venture, Guinness World Record Cards, will be available in Canada, the United States, Australia, South Africa and Great Britain.

Pro Set Gazette, a free magazine, is mailed to 1.2 million collectors every month. Talks are under way to syndicate his television show "Profiles," a sort of "Entertainment Tonight" for memorabilia collectors.

The show, which had a trial run in Dallas-Fort Worth and other parts of Texas, is not on the air while syndication talks continue.

Pro Set has had a dramatic impact on the industry that grossed about $1.9 billion in sales in North America last year, said Pepper Hastings, technical services manager at Beckett Publications, a guide of the trading card market.

"He's setting standards in listening to the customer and responding to those needs," Hastings said. "And he's never been afraid to go after new markets."

Hastings said Denny's first coup was obtaining a licensing agreement with NFL Properties, thus gaining access to its extensive photo library and becoming the first card maker officially associated with a professional sports league. Pro Set football cards are publicized as the official NFL card.

Denny entered the retail sports industry in 1986 when he directed marketing for a game he co-invented called Armchair Quarterback. Then he sold NFL Sun Screens for car windshields.

Before that, he flew South American routes for Braniff from 1973-81 and was an independent oil operator in Texas from 1978-85.

"The last three years in the oil business was like playing musical chairs with no music and no chairs," Denny said of the industry that has struggled since 1986 when prices sagged.

Football cards accounted for just 5 percent of all trading card sales in 1988, and Denny figured he could change that.

"Our research showed that kids thought football cards hadn't been done well," Denny said. "So we became determined to find a way to make quality cards, make them readily available and make them valuable."

"The card collecting madness stems from an attempt from people to feel close to their entertainment heroes," he said. "Sports trading cards are a convenient piece of memorabilia. Not all of us can have Lou Gehrig's jersey."

Pro Set added hockey and golf in 1990, and music, racing and movie cards last year. Football cards still generate one-third of Pro Set sales, Denny said.

Pro Set also makes sets for Walt Disney Co.'s "Beauty and the Beast," "The Little Mermaid" and "Dinosaurs," and for LucasArt's "The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles."

Denny's wife, Jan, is executive vice president. Their two daughters, Day, 12, and Catherine, 7, test the products.

"Day checks out whether people are hot or not," Denny said, "like the actor that plays young Indy at 16 is hot, OK? Catherine checks out whether they're neat.

"Unlike when I was young and saw a movie once and then it went away, 'The Little Mermaid' is now a videocassette that little girls watch one, two, three times a week. They know every saying, every song. The characters become their friends."

Pro Set's cards are printed on ultra-white, stiff stock, with various coatings. Parkhurst, an elite hockey set, and Pro Set Platinum, a high-quality football set, have drawn particular praise.

Denny credits the emergence of this premium market to Upper Deck Co., which began a higher-quality baseball set in 1989.

These cards are more expensive to make, are specially coated, have higher-quality photographs and artwork, and usually sell for three or more times the cost of regular cards.

The success of Upper Deck and Pro Set has forced the industry giants -- Topps and Fleer -- to change their look and add their own high-quality lines.

Pro Set also has looked to Europe for expansion. It introduced soccer cards in Britain last year, added the Scottish league this year, and plans to add Germany, Spain and France after that.

"Basically, England is a stepping stone into the rest of Europe," Denny said.

Pro Set recently entered into an exclusive deal to market two of Canada's best-selling candy bars in the United States. Denny said he expects between $5 million and $7 million in candy revenue this year, "and I hope to grow candy into a $25 million to $50 million business over the next four or five years."

One thing Pro Set doesn't do is make cards for the national pastime -- baseball. But Denny hopes that will change.

The players association and Major League Baseball Properties must issue an invitation to be licensed to produce baseball cards, which they haven't done since allowing Upper Deck to do so in 1989. Pro Set has had informal discussions, but the answer to all suitors for three years has been that baseball is not issuing a license at this time.

"We're quite anxious to someday have the ability to make cards for baseball, the granddaddy of all collectible sports," he said. "We're knocking at their door and hoping they're smart enough to say yes."

Denny's irreverent style is reflected in his office artwork. One painting is a rendition of Hans Holbein's "Henry VIII" holding a football. It's called "Coach Henry." Another is a depiction of Sandro Botticelli's "Birth of Venus" called "Tina Turner On The Half Shell."

"If you don't have a sense of humor, you cannot come in this place," Denny said.

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