In early 1997, after several years practicing law, Jeffery Cohen felt the entrepreneurial call and purchased a screen print and embroidery house, Image Network of Charleston, Inc. Soon afterward, he purchased land just outside Charleston and built a facility which is still in use today. Purchasing Image Network and building excess capacity were the first steps in creating the current company which operates as Image Branding Group LLC.
Room to Grow
The Hanahan facility provided plenty of room for growth. While organic growth was always in the works, acquisition opportunities soon appeared. Through his business contacts, Jeff met an apparel manufacturer specializing in shirts for the resort industry. The company, Gravity Graphics, had grown due to an eye for design and expertise in water based and discharge screen-printing. Jeffrey says “the owner was looking to get out of the apparel game just as we had added a great deal of capacity in our new facility.” In the fall of ’98 Jeffrey purchased Gravity Graphics and moved the business lock stock and barrel from New York to the South Carolina facility. Says Jeffrey, “Adding Gravity Graphics increased our capability of producing unique products. We were one of the few manufacturers in our market that does waterbase and discharge printing on a regular basis. We like to think we are among the experts in this specialty printing.”
Jeffrey recalls “I was always told that you are not full until you are operating at 100% capacity.” Production Manager and industry veteran, Tony Pepitone is constantly reiterating that the closer you get to maximum capacity in a manufacturing environment, the better off you are. Adding Gravity Graphics was a step towards reaching max capacity.”
“From the beginning, Image Branding had a reputation for design in its business to business and screen print market. We were already what some would consider ‘art heavy’ having three full time designers on staff” VP of Finance, Rose Bolden shared, “Jeffrey is always reiterating that adding a graphics based apparel line was just a matter of looking at it like widgets. How can we put more widgets through our plant?” Jeffrey added “they may have a different paradigm or business model, but that’s outside the building. The products may be boxed up differently and the graphics may be dramatically different, but once it gets inside the building, the reality is, it will flow through my manufacturing process very consistently. It’s just widgets.”
More recently, Image Branding merged with 110 year old Hymans Wholesale, also based in Charleston. Jeffrey says “Over the years I had worked with Hymans on many projects as we helped each other out. One day as I was working with Hymans partner, Dave Holtz, we came to the conclusion that since we were both operating below full capacity And since Image Branding owned our building we agreed that we should merge and, move Hymans in to stop duplicating efforts while reducing overhead costs.” At the time we had a retail store called Odle Uniform, so we kept the name and the merged company became known as The Odle Group LLC. That name was short lived as we soon sold the retail store and changed the name to better reflect the nature of our business. Dave Holtz remained active with Image Branding for some time and is now currently semi-retired.
The Unique Value Proposition
Through merger and acquisition, Jeffrey brought in more talent and customers. Keeping production going was a matter of leveraging the unique character of the products Image Branding produced. Jeffrey says “While I talk about production and widgets, what we really are is a product based marketing company. We sell what is in our head. It just happens to be conveyed to our customers in product that shows those ideas we have presented. We are only as good as our last idea. Someone will always print it or sew it cheaper so we must sell service, ingenuity, creativity and all the added value we can bring to the equation.”
Jeffrey continues, “This is not news. We tell our people and our customers that it’s not about the price; it’s about the value we offer our customers. I have no hesitation to tell a customer that I don’t want to be the cheapest guy. If you are looking for the lowest price, we are not the right fit for you. We want to offer you value. We do discuss budgets—that’s part of the discovery process. We want to offer them a good fit for their budget, but what they need is the value we add to the products we produce. I am not going to participate in the race to the bottom.”
Jeffrey continues, “Don’t misunderstand. We do bid work to keep the operation running during slow times in the year. The management textbooks will say that production labor is considered a variable cost. We don’t look at it that way. We have great crew and many of them have been with us a long time. Because so much of what we do and who we are as a company is based on the creativity of our people, we want them to stay with us. We see them as a fixed cost and we work hard to keep them here.”
Serving the Customer Needs
With the acquisition of companies and the development of new business models, the strategy tying everything together is putting the customer needs first. Jeffrey remarks “From a ‘brand’ standpoint it’s not about OUR brand. While our current name, Image Branding Group LLC,, reflects more accurately what we do, as we get more involved in e-commerce and long distance relationships with our customers we don’t have the face time that we had when we were a regional or local based company. Now we look at our customer’s individual business model and speak to them in terms of how decorative apparel and promotional products will help them achieve their goals. I tell our sales people, regardless of the division, everybody you meet is a potential customer. As we all in business have come to realize, it all starts with adding value. We can add value by making a company’s employees look top notch, or giving a sales organization the promotional products that can set their team apart and leave a lasting positive impression when they interact with their potential customers.”
Rose adds “We talk with our customers; find out who they are trying to reach. We look at their budget and find out about their business process. We sell a lot of embroidery but if a business interacts with their customers by phone, embroidered uniforms may not be the best fit. It could be they would be better served by a direct mail campaign with a lumpy-envelope branded promotional item. We just want them to let us help with what the item looks like.”
Unique Distribution Models
While the Gravity Graphics acquisition brought with it some recognition among apparel buyers, Jeffrey is quick to point out that none of the Image Branding Group’s distribution models is truly a “brand.” Jeffrey recalls “In the day s before NAFTA, we tried to have domestic made custom labeled brands with Gravity Graphics as a branded group of products. Now it’s impossible for us to do that without tying up too much capital in supporting inventory. Retailers at trade shows were familiar with the ‘line’ but the customer was not looking for a ‘Gravity Graphics’ shirt. They wanted ‘one of those bright colored shirts with the cool designs on it.’”
Jeffrey explains “We have five business models. It’s based on the method or means to market and the experience with our customer. For example, Gravity Graphics is sold through independent professional sales reps calling on retail customers who stock them in their stores and resell them.”
The next “division” is “Our Shirts Don’t Suck,” an online faith-based line generally sold to churches, missions and camps with a mission message and design and materials supportive of those goals and objectives. Jeffrey says “Putting together a faith based line called “Our Shirts Don’t Suck” aimed at non-denominational megachurches was a large leap of faith for us. The lead designer insisted we needed something youthful and edgy but before we moved forward I had our sales and design people do market research to make sure the name would not offend the market. Trying to be a little different made that group one of the fastest growing parts of the company.”
Like most of Image Branding’s peers there is also a corporate B2B group within the company that sells in the South Carolina market in a triangle from Beaufort to Orangeburg to Georgetown with 2-3 on the street sales people meeting face to face with customers.
The wholesale group (formerly Hymans) is a holdover from the merger. This division sells to smaller monogram and embroidery shops that cannot buy certain brands because of the minimum order requirement. This part of the operation is small and not expected to grow. As the market gets tighter, many manufacturers are opening smaller accounts but there are still many suppliers that have minimum orders that smaller shops can’t buy. It’s a tight margin business dealing with blank goods that are usually drop shipped.
The last and newest piece of the Image Branding family is the fulfillment division made possible by the acquisition of Passport International, a Charleston based web store fulfillment company for uniforms and programs for trade associations and manufacturing companies. This division works with franchise owners who require only authorized apparel be worn by all of their franchisees. “When they order from us they get items that are compliant with the franchise owners requirements.”
Jeffrey says “It may seem unusual, doing a lot of seemingly different things. It is sometimes frightening from a business perspective but comforting in that we are not hung up on one buggy whip. We are constantly looking for new customers where we can use our experience and tools and applying them to new markets. We continually look to get a larger share of wallet from each customer but at the same time, we have a special approach to graphic design on apparel and are always looking for prospects who might be interested in that. I may have a different perspective because of my unusual background , but one thing I have learned–don’t be afraid to use what you have in a novel way. Different can be really fresh.”
The Universal Unilink Connection
Jeffrey has contributed a great deal of time and expertise to Universal Unilink Members. Image Branding Group opened their doors for a company tour at last year’s conference and will be offering the same opportunity for attendees this year. Jeffrey is looking forward to the conference and is hoping to get as many of his staff as possible over to meet with other Members and Suppliers. This year Jeffrey has had more opportunities to network with Members. Jeffrey says “I have a great relationship with peers and competitors alike.. I enjoy talking with Members in other parts of the country that are dealing with the same issues that I face. I have gained a great deal of insight from Members with the same headaches and challenges and I am looking forward to more opportunities to exchange ideas.”