"I’ve run a company with well over a thousand employees, and I know where my heartburn was,” says Paul Taunton, founder and CEO of Business Impact Group (BIG), a Chanhassen-based branding company that specializes in uniforms, printing, and employee recognition programs for large corporations. Perhaps the biggest sources of that heartburn were suppliers that simply couldn’t deliver products he needed. “At BIG, I put myself in the customer’s shoes and ask, ‘What do I wish my suppliers would have brought to me?’ ”
Taunton’s answer to that question: create a one-stop system that closely collaborates with the corporate client in selecting products, then deliver the products quickly, whenever needed. It’s an approach that has helped him grow BIG into a $50 million company in just 11 years. A team of fashion consultants and inventory analysts assists the customer with everything from selecting color patterns to ongoing inventory management.
“One of the beauties of BIG is that we fund 100 percent of all manufacturing for our clients,” says Taunton, who built a chain of retail stores called Athletic Fitters before selling it to Foot Locker in 1998. “We do not invoice the client until the branded products are drop-shipped to them. That makes us a vested supplier in their program and moves a pretty big line-item expense off their balance sheet and onto ours, which is a pretty nice value-add.”
That turnkey approach is what attracted Greg Schneider, the vice president of purchasing for Eagan-based Ovation Brands, which operates several restaurant chains. “What brought us to BIG was their ability to source products from all around the world in a cost-effective manner and at the same time have a very skilled group of fashion people on staff who could help us ideate what we wanted to have in our restaurants,” says Schneider, who’s been a customer for more than a decade.
Schneider also praises BIG’s e-commerce platform. “The online ordering system helps make it a complete package,” he says. “It’s a highly customized and [secure] ordering system for all levels of the organization, so that you can only order what you’re supposed to be able to order.”
“Our clients utilize 90 percent of our core services from our e-commerce platform, which enables us to bring major economies to large organizations across the country,” says Taunton. “They know that the more core services they put in the shopping cart, the more efficiencies and economies they receive. It’s not uncommon to save 25 to 40 percent on shipping costs alone. That’s a real number for some large organizations.”
BIG has four divisions. Its corporate division, consisting of employee uniform programs and branded products, accounts for roughly 40 percent of sales. The employee recognition division generates 30 percent of BIG’s revenue, and its “rewards gallery” has thousands of items for recognizing staff, including electronics, sporting goods and gift cards. The division is based on the belief that companies can improve customer loyalty by rewarding the efforts of their own employees. “We show companies how to engage their workforce so that when their customer walks into their location, they have an amazing experience,” Taunton says.
The company’s two other units include a printing division that can produce a variety of client materials, including business cards, tri-fold brochures and window decals. It also has produced menu boards for restaurants and cookbooks for supermarket chains. The newest member of the BIG family is its athletic division, which kicked off in early 2012. This division sells uniforms, athletic footwear and all manner of sports-related equipment, from goalposts to soccer balls, to more than 500 high schools and colleges across the country. That might seem like a curious business for BIG to expand into. But it does fit with the company’s uniform prowess, and supplying athletic equipment allows BIG to cross-sell.
One of the most pivotal events in BIG’s history was the customer contract signed by Michigan-based Jackson National Life Insurance in 2004, which immediately grew the company’s revenue by 20 percent. “When you’ve got great clients like Jackson, it pushes you to continually evolve your skills and bring more core services underneath one umbrella,” says Taunton, who has since added Best Buy and Cargill as BIG clients. “I wanted to make sure we were always going to be relevant with the services we were providing; and nothing’s more relevant to corporate American than bringing cost efficiencies and improving their processes.”
In sum, “I took my experience in building a company and applied it to BIG,” Taunton says. “I said, ‘I want to create a company that can be relevant to corporate America today. And here’s what I want to be great at.’ ”