Kendra King has put together a lot of baskets, but none so extravagant as a "coming of age" gift she assembled on behalf of a major TV network executive who had forgotten his daughter's 21st birthday.

"His assistant called and said, 'It's his only child's 21st birthday,' " King said. The executive was ready to spend $500, but the basket had to be in London the next day.

King assembled a "becoming-a-woman" basket, complete with Belgian chocolates, candles, a silk robe, champagne, bath salts, oils and sponges and delivered it via air courier to the young woman's doorstep.

"Shipping cost a fortune, but the girl never knew Daddy forgot," said King. "That's the whole point. Someone like that needs someone like me to make sure their daughters don't know they've forgotten their 21st birthday."

King makes it her business to help busy people give gifts, albeit usually not such opulent ones. King owns and operates Artfull Baskets, a themed gift-basket business based in a warehouse space at Santa Monica Airport.

King's baskets are what she calls "concept-driven," meaning they are given artistic names and themes, usually inspired by painters or works of art. Her best-selling baskets include "The Prodigy" baby gifts "for the newest artist in residence" and "Norman Rockwell's 'The Physical,' " a get-well basket featuring fortune cookies, an apple-shaped cookie, chocolate band-aids, and a hypodermic needle/pen, arranged in a small rectangular cardboard box printed like a doctor's bag.

You can't buy these baskets in stores; King's clients are the people on her mailing lists.

A former assistant to actress Kathy Bates who later went into international television sales and distribution, King started the business in 1994 by calling up a list of her former contacts in the entertainment industry. She also went through the phone book and created a mailing list for her catalog, targeting personnel managers, executive assistants, office managers, heads of administration and human resources directors.

She added to her lists by joining networking and referral groups, and in her second year of business hired the Women's Referral Service, a consulting service that puts women in touch with other women, to buy and manage her mailing lists.

She left the TV business because she was tired of the long hours and travel schedule. She was inspired by all the rotten gifts she received from business contacts. "I had gotten so many bad baskets, I thought I could do better," she said.

Most of her baskets run from $39 to $49. "The way to make money is in multiples, it's not customized baskets," she said.

King, who started out on her own, now has a year-round storage space for her supplies at the airport, as well as a two-room office and two employees. She also has a driver who delivers part-time.

Annual revenues increased from $79,600 in 1996 to $242,000 in 1997. Most of King's business is done during the holidays about half her revenues are generated during November and December. Last year, she arranged about 4,000 baskets, 1,800 of which were assembled in those two months.

During the holiday months she increases her staff from two to six full-time employees not including herself and her mother, whom she flies in from New Mexico to help out.

But King realized early on that holiday sales weren't enough. "I realized the phone had to be ringing in the summer months or I couldn't maintain an infrastructure," she said. "Companies have gift-giving needs. Becoming that resource has taken my business to the next level."

Secretary's Day at the end of April has also become a busy time, when King sells baskets geared for women, such as "The Monet," and the "Swan Lake," which comes in a basket or hatbox and includes gold picture frames, bath salts, gold bath oil, tea cookies, and honey.

King's corporate clients include Carlson Wagonlit Travel, a Texas-based travel agent, and the Argonaut Insurance Co., a workers' compensation insurer. Regina Sanguesa, Argonaut's Southern California division controller, said the offices under her purview send two or three baskets for every new account to the broker who sold the policy and to executives in the client company.

Thomas Ruff, who runs an executive search firm for the pharmaceutical and medical-industries, said he sends King's baskets "to differentiate myself from competitors."

Ruff said he sends the cigar basket, or the golf basket (which comes with white chocolate truffles shaped like golf balls), to men. Indeed, men's gift-giving has turned out to be an important niche for King, because "Men don't consider floral arrangements or plants memorable gifts," she said.

Artfull Baskets

Year Founded: 1994

Core Business: Gift baskets

Revenues in 1996: $79,600

Revenues in 1997: $242,000

Revenues in 1998 (projected): $280,000 to $300,000

Employees in 1996: One full time, one part-time

Employees in 1998: Two full-time, one part-time

Goal: To do $1 million in sales

Driving Force: Busy professionals, who rely on gift givers because they don't have time to scour malls

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