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Business Spotlight: T-shirts with a Twist

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At Creator Designs Inc., T-shirts, water bottles and coffee mugs serve as canvasses, and graphic designers overlay their artwork on products for Brad Paisley, Mercy Me and other notable music acts.

Nearly 80 percent of the company’s annual $3.3 million revenues come from T-shirt design and sales, a niche that has grown since focusing on band merchandise in 2006, according to company officials.

Kanakuk Kamps also feeds the T-shirt work, and a single order for the Branson campground could net 4,000 shirts for summer campers.

The 35-employee Bolivar screen-printing and embroidery shop started with a handful of staff members. Co-owner Dwain Banner founded Creator Designs with a business partner in 1991 after purchasing a manual press and dryer.

Trina Banner married into the business in March 1996.

“He put me to work pretty immediately,” jokes Banner, who halted her business degree studies at Southwest Baptist University to marry Dwain Banner, then a teacher and basketball coach in Fair Grove.

Months after marrying, a second business partner, Jackie Ray, stepped out of the picture and Trina Banner stepped in. She ran the shop during the day, and he worked after school – sometimes until 3 a.m.

“It was awful,” she says of the long hours just to fill orders. “But it paid off. Nothing comes without sacrifice, and we knew we were working to build our business. We didn’t mind. That’s just how we spent time together.”

The husband-and-wife owners still work together – Dwain hands-on with printing and delivery tasks and Trina, now a mother of four boys, generating ideas, organizing and marketing from a home office. “I’ve always said that she was the brains behind the business, and I did the work,” Dwain Banner says.

By 1999, the Banners had three employees, and each remains with the company. The team handles screen-printing and embroidery jobs in-house with its three automatic screen printers with up to 10-color capabilities, a textile gas dryer and a multihead embroidery machine at its 19,000-square-foot shop off of Highway 13.

Dwain Banner says screen-printing jobs account for 78 percent of business, with promotional products at 10 percent, and the embroidery and retail/online segments each make up 6 percent.

Online sales spiked during the St. Louis Cardinals 2011 World Series run with Creator Designs selling 5,000 “rally squirrel” T-shirts. “We never experienced anything like that,” Banner says, pointing to the 200 orders per day and a handful of extra staff members brought in to help with shipping.

In November, Creator Designs held a fashion show for its largest customer, Kanakuk Kamps.

Eric Alms, director of purchasing for the Branson camp, says the annual show advises staff on the new styles that appeal to its 10,000 youth campers each summer.

“It’s tough to figure out what a teenager likes,” Alms says.

“It’s good to hear firsthand. A lot of that plays into what we end up choosing next year to sell to all our campers.”

Alms says Kanakuk orders the bulk of its merchandise from Creator Designs, which represents at least 50,000 items such as shirts, shorts, hats and blankets each year.

Creator Designs counts Ozarks Coca-Cola/Dr Pepper Bottling Co. among its embroidery clients, primarily producing items for its staff and event giveaways, Trina Banner says. The Banners added three embroidery machines and a 100-client book of business last year through an April acquisition of Springfield Embroidery.

Creator Designs connected with the Nashville, Tenn., music scene through Brian Smith of Christian music band FFH. Much of the band business funnels through Brentwood, Tenn.-based Greg Oliver Agency, which has placed merchandise print orders for such acts as Rush of Fools, Aaron Shust and Brandon Heath.

Kim Scowden, Creator Designs’ concept and design manager, says the team sent Rush of Fools 15 designs to choose from for a new tour and album, and the band ordered three short-sleeved shirt designs, a hooded sweatshirt and a hat.

The company actively handles designs and orders for more than 20 bands, and Scowden has worked with more than 150 clients, including camps, conferences and churches since 2006. Creator Designs has produced water bottles for country artist Brad Paisley and a T-shirt for a recent Gungor album release.

She says the key is getting in with the managers and representative agencies. “If they’re pleased with us, they send their bands our way,” says Scowden, who works full-time from home and whose husband Jeremy is Creator Designs’ sales manager.

With more than 4,000 active clients, the year ended with a record $3.3 million in sales, a 12 percent increase compared to 2010, Dwain Banner says. The company recorded a steady sales climb through 2008, when it exceeded $3 million, before dropping 7 percent in 2009. “Any kind of growth in this economy is just fantastic,” he says. “If we could just maintain, I’d be happy.”[[In-content Ad]]

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