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‘Art Kids’ with Business Minds

Rowboat Creative occupies 20,000 total square feet of space with a production area that includes multiple automatic and manual screen printing presses, flatstock presses, a direct-to-garment printer and more.

June 2, 2014

In 2006, Lucas Guariglia and Joe Zangrilli started Rowboat Creative in the same manner as many small-business owners: in a basement.

The pair met years ago as they were pursuing careers in the music industry. As fate would have it, Guariglia and Zangrilli received the same Christmas gift one year: a Speedball beginner’s screen printing kit. Having both graduated with college degrees in photography, media art and design, they were eager to dig into the new field.

“Joe and I have always been the business-minded ‘art kids,’” Guariglia says. “With almost 10 years under our belts as full-time musicians, we noticed that a band’s main source of income had shifted from record sales to touring and merchandising. An outside vendor would mark up the garments, print them and then charge us for them. Joe and I knew we could figure out the process and cut out the middle man.”

Their plan worked right out of the chute. Guariglia and Zangrilli began reaching out to whomever they could find to take over their merchandise accounts. Word spread, the client base grew and diversified, and production floor and backend expansions took place.

Located in Chicago’s Logan Square, Rowboat Creative occupies nearly 20,000 square feet of office, warehouse and production space. The company employs seven full-time staff members: the two co-owners, an office/project manager, an operations/HR manager, a director of sales, a direct-to-garment (DTG) printing department head and a shipping/receiving manager. The back end consists of between seven and 11 part-time and full-time seasonal employees who comprise the screen printing and embroidery production floors, advertising specialty department, and shipping and receiving dock staff.

Smart-yet-aggressive growth always has been a vital blueprint for the company’s mounting success, according to Guariglia.

“Joe and I have always believed that longevity is based on not how many niches you serve, but how well you serve them,” Guariglia says. “Don’t get me wrong, a diverse portfolio of services is always an added plus. But with the markets and industry so oversaturated these days, you have to stay a cut above.

“Everyone seems to be a screen printer these days,” he continues. “But can they all register an eight-color simulated process print, and have 5,000 pieces turned, packaged for retail, back out the dock doors in a shift and, moreover, printed correctly?”

Rowboat Creative is equipped to keep up with high-volume demand. The company started with a Vastex six-color manual press, a home-built exposure unit and an M&R Economax II dryer. An old shower functioned as a washout booth. Since then, embroidery production and printing departments have been expanded.

“Our main printing department now operates M&R 10/12 Challenger, M&R 10/12 Gauntlet II Revolver and M&R Sportsman EX [automatic screen printing presses], a Vastex six-color manual [screen printing press], two American Tempo 2230 [presses], two semi-automatic vacuum table flatstock presses, a Brother GT-541 [direct-to-garment printer], an American gas dryer, and a couple of smaller electric M&R dryers that are quite mobile around the production area,” Guariglia says.

Keeping up
Guariglia and Zangrilli keep their ears to the ground when it comes to new processes and technologies. They follow industry message boards and constantly consult with ink distributors and technicians in attempts to push the boundaries and be innovative.

The company’s clients range from Fortune 500 notables like Red Bull, Verizon, Belvita and Wrangler, to smaller, independent clothing companies and private-label designers. One thing is synonymous across all Rowboat Creative client meetings: an ability to think and imprint outside the box.

The company also has implemented a flatstock department that has helped to attract a different niche of clients. “Our flatstock department is responsible for handling various production runs such as custom boxes, vinyl stickers, flat signage, silk screened posters, etc.,” Guariglia says. “Since we have roots in the music industry, we print silkscreened posters for a large niche of musicians and artists, in addition to our normal apparel production and advertising specialty items. Shortly after expanding this side of Rowboat, the city of Chicago approached us to print all of the parking signs you see in the city.

“At Rowboat Creative, we feel that the integral parts of continued growth and survival are adaptation, knowledge, customer service and not being afraid to stray from the pack,” he adds. “Times have changed, and so must all approaches. You cannot go into the world uneducated and expect to excel.”

Customer service has and will continue to win out, and it’s what makes new customers become repeat clients, Guariglia says. While a person may just be a customer on the books to some shops and businesses, Rowboat Creative reveres that client as the most vital and crucial part of its team.

Staying Relevant
While design capability, quality and service are the core elements to a successful client-business relationship, the company also strives to expand product lines and imprinting methods.

“We have been an ASI supplier and decorator for quite some time now,” Guariglia says, “and that has helped us to expand our repertoire. Whether it is our promotional items, our screen printing, our embroidery or our flatstock printing, our attention to detail is always evident.”

Rowboat Creative also has a presence on most of the popular social media platforms — Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Yelp, LinkedIn, etc. — and the sites are updated regularly. Guariglia says his roots and experience with marketing allow him to pull his team together to brainstorm about brand awareness and other marketing methods, which help the business to grow.

Guariglia and Zangrilli refer to the company’s image as “simple and professional, yet intriguing.” While a nice website can have a positive effect on business, Guariglia believes it is only a bridge to something larger. Delivering to clients and meeting their expectations is key.

Rowboat Creative has an effective catalog that was compiled with a mission to immediately show off the company’s skills and capabilities.

“People need to be able to get a sense of everything that your company stands for immediately,” Guariglia says. “This is especially the case with such oversaturation in the market these days, as well as people’s decreasing attention spans. You look at our catalog or physically page through the hard copies that we printed, and clients can tell immediately about our attention to detail, our precise finishing techniques, our design sense and our professional demeanor.”

Guariglia says continued intelligent expansion has brought success, along with a hard-nosed business plan and set of ethics. This combination is set to drive the company to the next level.

“Rowboat Creative has become a staple in the industry, regionally, in the last five years,” he says. “We have posted an annual growth rate of 120% each year since opening our doors in 2006, and that was only the beginning. A more aggressive sales team and approach have been implemented since 2013, and we already have surpassed our initial projections for the first quarter of 2014.”

Rowboat Creative At A Glance

Company Name: Rowboat Creative
Address: 2649 N. Kildare Ave., Dock 1 on Schubert, Chicago, IL 60639
Founded: 2006
No. of Employees: 7 full-time, up to 11 part-time
Services Offered: Design, screen printing (water-based, plastisol, discharge, chino base), embroidery, tag relabeling, cut-and-sew, promotional items, brand identity development and advanced printing techniques (foil printing, flocking, burnout and more), direct-to-garment printing, sublimation
Company Website: