MARY ENGELBREIT, QUEEN OF CUTE

Since she was 11 years old, all Mary Engelbreit wanted to do was draw. In that simple quest to make a living as an artist, she somehow wound up creating a line of products that racks up sales of more than $110 million annually.

The prolific 49-year-old has penned more than 4,000 illustrations, and with more than 40 licensees, she sees those images on everything from greeting cards to dinner plates. Her homespun drawings, which include a bespectacled alter ego named Ann Estelle, have won legions of fans, mostly young girls and women.

But don’t mistake her: All that cuteness doesn’t mean Engelbreit is a pushover. Early in her career when companies wanted to buy her drawings outright, Engelbreit refused. She maintained copyright control even at the expense of some deals. She controls licensing by carefully monitoring each company for quality and authenticity. Knowing her fans want original Engelbreit works, she draws each illustration herself.

Engelbreit’s many ventures include her own magazine, Mary Engelbreit’s Home Companion, and a chain of 11 retail stores that since has been whittled to one, the flagship in St. Louis. And she’s not done. As one of the official artists of the Olympic Winter Games of 2002, Engelbreit will sell her art in Salt Lake City this month.

Perhaps the sweetest triumph for Engelbreit came just a few months ago. Twenty-five years after she first went to New York to solicit work as a children’s book illustrator, only to be turned away (one publisher told her to try greeting cards), Engelbreit signed a four-year, 20-book deal with HarperCollins Children’s Books. Who’s too cute now?