A Million and Counting
We talked with three embroidery businesses that hit the million-dollar mark – and they share their secrets of success with you
If someone told Jim Winske 20 years ago that he’d be the owner of a million-dollar embroidery shop, he might have said, “Move – racehorses can’t stop on a dime!” Or if someone told Ed Mancini that he’d manage more than 100 employees at a huge contract embroidery company, he would have laughed, joking that he’s illiterate and saying that was utterly impossible. And if someone had said Andrew Nordstrom would become the successful owner of his very own sporting goods store – he would have drawn out his pistol and said, “Sorry, partner, Oregon’s not big enough for the two of us.”
Despite what each of these embroidery shop owners was doing 10, 15 or 20 years ago, each has managed to accomplish what every embroiderer, or any business owner, hopes to do in a lifetime – make a million dollars in revenue. For naysayers who think this kind of success only comes from hitting the lottery, we beg to differ. Follow along as Stitches peeks into the windows of these three amazing embroidery shops. Then, we’ll share their secrets of million-dollar success.
It’s 5 a.m. and Jim Winske, owner of Embroidery Unlimited, has already finished his morning exercises and is checking his e-mail. “People always want to know if I ever sleep because I’m e-mailing at five or six in the morning,” he says with a thick Boston accent.
But after a life of racing harness horses, it’s the kind of schedule Winske is accustomed to. “Racing horses was a 24-hour, 365-day-a-year job,” he says.
Despite not having much of a personal life, Winske says he loved his job and was at the top of his game. But in 1995, Winske’s mother was dying of cancer, his daughter was just starting to walk, and he began to get weary of his fast-paced, exhausting career.
“I was just burnt out from racing,” he says. “It’s not that I hated the sport; I loved it. I just didn’t want to do it anymore. I missed so many things with my son and so I wanted to watch my daughter grow up. I wanted to be with my family.”
In August 1995, Winske bid the horse world good-bye. But no one took him seriously. “No one in the industry believed I was going to do it, because it’s like a major league baseball player in his high time just retiring out of nowhere,” he says. “They say when you get bit by the bug, you never get out.”
But stop racing he did, and he returned home to Marlboro, MA, to start a new life – and find a career. “I had investments with my brothers, but I wasn’t sure what I was going to do,” he says.
By sheer luck, Winske says an old friend happened to tell him about an embroidery and screen-printing business in Long Island, NY. “The owners invited me out to learn the ropes, and after a few days they wanted to know what I thought,” he says. “Well, I didn’t know what I thought, because I didn’t know anything about embroidery, but I stayed for that week and ended up deciding to give it a try.” With nothing but ambition, Winske bought two single-head machines and went from there.
Embroidery Unlimited has a six-person staff and a 4,000-square-foot showroom.
A HOPE AND A PRAYER
Without a shop setup, a customer base or any idea of how to get started, Winske decided it wasn’t smart to sever past ties completely. “I had a lot of contacts,” he says. “So I automatically had instant customers because everybody knew I had left racing, started a company and was looking for business.”
But as orders began trickling in, he immediately knew his machines wouldn’t cut it. He needed bigger guns. “We opened a storefront right off the bat and we were doing ones and twos, carry-ins and youth programs,” he says. “But we quickly went from a brand-new to a steady clientele.” And by September 1995 – just a month after he left the tracks – Winske bought a Tajima four-head machine and was on his way to a million bucks.
Starting with shirts, hats and jackets, Winske says his business certainly had enough order volume to stay alive. Now, however, there’s no limit to what the staff can embroider – and they can never have too much business. “We embroider and screen print apparel and personalize promotional products. I have a direct-to-garment printer, so there isn’t much we can’t do,” he says. And the six-person staff (his wife included) run the production shop and the showroom in their 4,000-square-foot facility.
Despite what you may think if you happen to talk with Winske – who claims to be “retired” – the horse industry accounts for just 30% of the overall business. “We’ve done work for Raytheon, Intel, NBC Sports and of course all the local businesses,” he says. “Our big thing is that we don’t have minimums. We do all the work here and that gives us an edge over places that work out-of-house.” Everyone who comes is given a turnaround time of less than a week.
At 51, Winske admits he’d never thought he’d be where he is. But business-wise, it makes sense. “I have a good business sense,” he says. “I don’t fall in love with horses even though I buy and sell them all the time. I treat that like business.”
Winske thinks a lot of people just don’t think they could open an embroidery business. “But embroidery is embroidery,” he says. “It’s not brain surgery – you just have to have a goal.”
Getting Ed Mancini to boast about his company’s success is about as easy as pulling teeth from a live crocodile.
OK, maybe it’s not that bad. But Ed, the eldest of six brothers, the father of two, a husband, an avid golfer and president of an extremely successful contract embroidery business, needn’t be modest. But, modest he is. “Anything I say about the business isn’t about me, personally,” he says. “It’s all about us,” referring to the company as a whole and especially his mother, Connie Mancini – his business partner and the “true” embroidery expert.
Every day, Connie and Ed work side by side. And believe it or not, they enjoy it. “For the most part, it’s been very easy for us to work together,” Ed says. “I, however, have been accused of working my mother to death, but for one, she’s doing just fine, and two, there’s really no way of stopping her from working hard. She’s probably the hardest-working woman I’ve ever met.”
Artistic Stitches was born when Connie wanted a career change and decided to try her hand at embroidery. “Connie’s aunt had a sporting goods business and owned a four-head and six-head Melco machine,” he says. In the meantime, Ed was literally far away – not even thinking about a career in embroidery or running an embroidery business.
“I did my undergrad at Southern Illinois and completed my master’s in finance and accounting at Texas A&M in 1986,” he says. “Then, I started working for Chase Manhattan in New York as a media banker and stayed in banking for the next six years.”
Even though Ed put his hard-earned education to use, he wasn’t really satisfied. “I didn’t see banking as a long-term career for myself,” he says. “One of the best things I learned is that the people we were lending to – the ones running businesses – were having the most fun.”
So after a bit of research (and probably a little encouragement from Connie), Ed saw real potential in his mother’s newfound career. While there were several large embroidery businesses on the East Coast, he wasn’t sure if any large contract embroiderers existed in the Midwest. “I really thought we could have a viable business,” he says.
So in 1990 (by this time he was back in Chicago), Ed ended his banking career, and he and his mother bought Connie’s aunt’s sporting goods shop, closed the sporting goods section and started a new embroidery business.
Ed Mancini in Artistic Stitches’ 50,000-square-foot building.
SLOW AND STEADY WINS THE RACE
In the company’s first official year, 1991, Ed says Artistic Stitches was in real need of some clients, so he turned to the Yellow Pages for help. “We grabbed the Yellow Pages and sent out letters and price sheets to all the ad specialty distributors and screen printers in the Chicago area,” he says. But with not enough machinery to really make a dent in a big order volume and an entirely new clientele, it was a slow first year.
“The second year, we acquired a Wings digitizing system and started digitizing in-house,” Ed says. From then on, Connie did the embroidery while Ed did the digitizing, and it didn’t take long until they started getting better quality control and faster turnaround times – not to mention more business.
Since 1991, they’ve moved the shop seven times. Now, Artistic Stitches is located in a 50,000-square-foot industrial building on Chicago’s west side. With 120 employees, (many of whom have been with the company for at least 10 years) the shop runs 330 Barudan embroidery machine heads five and six days a week. And every year since 1995, Artistic Stitches has brought in at least a million dollars in revenue.
Despite the shop’s success, Ed says it’s not, and hasn’t always been, a walk in the park. Nor is it a nine-to-five kind of job. “We managed our initial growth by working long hours,” he says. “We managed the next growth stage by farming out some production work, and now we manage seasonable growth by working weekends.”
Yet, because Ed and Connie made a decision from day one to sell their services, not the garments, Ed says having a goal helped. “It seemed like a crazy decision for about four years, as we grew slowly and had a difficult time with it,” he says. But after those early days, the company found larger customers with larger needs who kept their business going, and now keep it booming.
Ed’s pretty sure that not having the right mentality is what keeps other embroiderers from achieving the profits they’d like to see. “The sooner you adapt to a production level of thinking, the sooner your company and customers will be better served,” he says.
When Salem Emblem Shop owner Andrew Nordstrom answers his phone, he talks in a quiet, reserved, yet friendly voice. But if you ask him what he does for fun, he’ll say very animatedly, “Call me Good Amos.”
Turns out Good Amos is Nordstrom’s alias for his favorite hobby – competitive cowboy action shooting. And no, we’re not kidding. Competitive cowboy action shooting is “the fastest-growing sport in the world,” (according to Nordstrom), and it’s a sport where people get dressed up like cowboys, use single action shotguns or pistols and shoot at steel targets.
Apparently there are 75,000 competitive cowboy action shooters worldwide – 60 who hail from Oregon, including Nordstrom’s wife and brother. But how many are also the owners of million-dollar embroidery shops? Not many, we’re sure.
MAN OF MANY HATS
Clearly, Nordstrom wears many hats. At 33, he’s the married father of three and a man living a double life – sometimes as Good Amos, and other times as Andrew Nordstrom, owner and manager of Salem Emblem Shop.
And while it’s sometimes difficult to balance it all, Nordstrom is happy at how his 10-year-old shop has progressed. Although it was founded in 1948, the store officially became his in 1998, just after he graduated from college. “I was pursuing buying a sporting goods store in college – that was my goal – and I stumbled upon this business,” he says. “The shop was a production facility and a sporting goods store, and the owner was ready to retire. I saw my opportunity and jumped.”
Although his childhood dream was to become a major league baseball player, he majored in business management and decided to take over the existing business and learn from the ground up.
“I learned most things through trial and error,” he says. “When I came in, everyone was twice my age, so that was very awkward to begin with, and I was supposed to be the boss.”
Yet, he says the existing staff was patient with him and provided the proper training. He also picked up the machine manuals on his own and started reading trade magazines.
Salem Emblem Shop’s specialty is lettermen jackets.
As for establishing clientele, Nordstrom says he relied on existing clientele to keep the business running through the transition. For the first few years, a million-dollar profit seemed out of reach. “I had thought about shooting for a million – I mean it’s a nice round number – but when I first started, sales were in the $200,000 range, and it seemed like a long way off,” he says.
Today, Nordstrom says Salem Emblem runs Tajima and Melco machines – 12 embroidery heads and three chenille heads. And, Nordstrom is a certified Melco trainer for chenille digitizing, so the shop always welcomes visitors to come in and learn the ropes. “We’re a kind of one-stop shop,” he says.
On top of embroidery, the staff screen prints, creates patches and makes banners and signs with vinyl lettering. The shop’s specialty, however, is lettermen’s jackets that are manufactured right in the store.
“We were the only company that could turn over a jacket by Christmas even if we didn’t get the orders till December,” he says. “Every other manufacturer I know has a cut off of November 1, if not sooner.”
Nordstrom says quick turnaround coupled with superb customer service is what sets Salem Emblem Shop apart from its competitors. And although he considers the company competitive, it doesn’t compete on price. “We’re competitive, but we’re not the lowest price – and you don’t have to be to succeed,” he says. “Especially with the Christmas jackets, there are a lot of people who’ll pay anything to get something done by Christmas. We make it happen. Customers appreciate that.”
Despite being the only certified chenille trainer in the United States, managing the company, operating embroidery machines and controlling the company’s finances, Nordstrom still feels he’s got a lot to learn.
“I wouldn’t say I’ve mastered the embroidery business,” he says. “There are always things to learn.”
AMY LUCAS is associate editor of Stitches. Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org.