March 17, 2023
A love for aviation took Rocky Smith on a lifelong journey from pilot to apparel decorating specialist. Smith, who earned his private pilot’s license in 2001, has had a lifelong love of airplanes—World War II planes especially. Unfortunately, the week Smith was supposed to do his first solo flight, 9/11 hit, and everything was grounded. Later that year when he was able to complete his flight, his wife, Alma, bought him a sign with an inspirational saying on it that the couple thought would be great on a T-shirt. The rest is Rocky Smith Productions history.
“I was working for a major airline, and we found out about the Imprinted Sportswear Show in Atlantic City [ISS—now Impressions Expo],” Alma says. “We attended and saw the possibilities we could have in providing aviation-themed T-shirts to flying clubs and aviation events.”
“We started with some simple, three-color designs,” she says. “We took them to a little show here in Texas [the company is based in Dallas] and everything just grew from there.”
Better still, the work the couple did for general aviation events soon morphed into working with organizations hosting events for people who owned or rented planes and held conferences where they’d do seminars and have extracurricular events like cookouts. From there Rocky and Alma moved into working with air shows.
So how did the company evolve into specializing in WWII-themed designs? “From the time I was a little kid, I always wanted to be a fighter pilot,” says Rocky, who also has been a professional photographer and airplane mechanic for decades. “I was born in the ’50s and always have been fascinated by these airplanes. As we were doing more aviation shows, I got to see more and more WWII planes and was encouraged to join the Commemorative Air Force through my legacy as an Air Force veteran. Through that, everything just snowballed.”
After getting hooked up with the Commemorative Air Force, the Smiths secured what was called the “rights” to do shirts for a few of the group’s shows. Rocky says the events are like an old-fashioned barnstorming, during which the organization will fly four or five airplanes into a city in order to give tours and rides. This is where Rocky Smith Productions’ T-shirts and accessories dovetail on the event.
The events are held throughout the country, and Rocky now travels to many of them, selling a number of different items out of what the Smiths call their mobile gift shop. “We [the organization] consider ourselves a kind of living museum like a flying museum,” Rocky says. “The Commemorative Air Force’s motto is to honor, educate and inspire. We create T-shirts to echo that motto and handle the concessions and gift shop for each show we go to. They have chapters all over the country, so we go in and set up, sell, break down and move on to the next.”
The Smiths first “gift shop” consisted of a trailer that housed a cache of blank inventory, including T-shirts, sweatshirts, hats and the like. It also carried an embroidery machine and heat press to apply aviation-themed transfers the couple screen printed at their facility. The Smiths would then create custom orders and have designs with original artwork on site. Soon, demand became too great. Rocky was also too busy, as he serves as the “ramp boss” for the events, making sure the airplanes are moving where they need to be and that the crowd and staff are safe.
“I soon found out I didn’t have time for custom orders with my other obligations,” Rocky says. “So, we now preprint everything and keep the merchandise in the trailer. Because Alma works for an airline, she flies in every Friday to help me with sales for the weekend wherever I am in the country. Every Friday, she shows up with two big suitcases full of restock.”
“We originally invested heavily in transfers,” Alma says. “We would bring in the blanks and the transfers that we had printed back at the shop and apply the designs on site with a heat press. But with the Commemorative Air Force, that became too labor intensive because we were so busy. So now we screen print everything in our shop and the inventory is replenished every weekend when I fly to the next show.”
A Balancing Act
As the case with most other decorators, before the Commemorative Air Shows’ business took off, Rocky Smith Productions also created apparel and accessories for local school, churches, teams, community groups, businesses and more. Once starting with initial air shows, the company dropped the other sales to focus solely on working the aviation angle. However, Rocky notes there proved to be a downside to this kind of specialization as well.
Rocky, Alma and a friend out where the business was born: an airfield!
“We learned a lesson there about putting all your eggs in one basket when we were working with one organization, in particular,” he says. “A few years ago, two planes crashed and unfortunately some people lost their lives. The FAA shut that particular organization down, and we felt it was time to go back to screen printing for outside organizations as well again, so we remained diversified. Then we joined the Commemorative Air Force shows and business took off again. So, while our commitment to the Commemorative Air Force is huge, our business has expanded to be more inclusive of a variety of jobs.”
To this end, the company now has an entirely separate website (b29b24px.org) for the WWII plane and aviation designs offering apparel, hats, mugs, plaques, Christmas ornaments, aviation photography and more. The designs celebrate two of the most iconic airplanes in the world, in particular: the B-29 “Fifi” and the B-24A “Diamond Lil,” with the goal of raising funds for the maintenance of these two icons through the sale of logoed merchandise.
At press time, the company which still consisted of just Rocky, Alma and one other person, was looking to hire some more staff to handle its expanding orders. The team currently operates both a Workhorse manual and an automatic screen-printing press, a Toyota embroidery machine, and an Epson F 2100 DTG machine acquired this past fall. The couple spent a good deal of time testing the DTG machine before fully bringing it to the production cycle having had trouble with digital printing in the past. But it has quickly become an integral part of their business (see sidebar: Making a Mark).
As far as marketing and social media, the Smiths admit they are novices and still looking to ramp up their efforts. “During COVID, we didn’t travel at all and did some marketing through Facebook to ramp up our sales,” Rocky says. “It didn’t work very well, and I need to figure out how to do it better. So, after we hire people to handle the production so my wife and I aren’t working seven days a week, I’m wanting someone with social media marketing experience who can handle it and maybe a sales force for us.”
Similarly, although the company has been in business for 19 years, Rocky says he has really only been focused on the screen printing and embroidery for the past five or so, as they spent the early years traveling with the transfers. Now that business is literally taking off, the couple has found itself in need of some outside expertise to ensure they’re doing things right.
“One of the frustrations I had when we first started is that we really didn’t know anyone else who was printing,” Rocky says. “I remember meeting someone else local, and they kept their cards close to their vest. I didn’t find a lot of people asking if they could help us when we were new. It wasn’t until I went to an Impressions Expo and started networking with peers outside my area that I found open arms from people willing to share their experiences.”
Among the industry veterans the Smiths met was consultant Charlie Taublieb, a decorating professional who not only proved a huge help to the company but also became a good friend. “I couldn’t believe someone who had been in the industry forever was willing to help a newbie,” Rocky says. “Charlie gave us his card at one of his seminars and we eventually hired him to give us some tips on how to better run our business and up our game.”
Moving forward Rocky says, “I feel like we’re the newest, old shop on the block, even though we’ve technically been in the business for a long time. I still feel like we’re new in some ways. I’m learning a lot and we have a lot of room to grow. And that’s it’s exciting in a way just to not be a neophyte, but then also still have a lot of excitement about what there is yet to learn not only in perfecting what we’re doing but mastering new stuff. So that’s an exciting place to be in.”
Marcia Derryberry is a former editor-in-chief of Impressions magazine and content developer for the Impressions Expo conference program and now owns her own media communications company, Derryberry Media Communications in Blue Ridge, Georgia.
Making a Mark
Rocky and Alma Smith of Rocky Smith Productions, Dallas, have a lot of experience with the direct-to-garment (DTG) process, having been early adopters when it was first developed. After much frustration with the rudimentary technology of the time, though, the Smiths gave up on the then brand-new approach, but continued to watch as both the basic technology and quality of the prints improved.
“We tried DTG decades ago when it was in its infancy, and it became a $25,000 paperweight that almost put us into bankruptcy,” Rocky says. “I always believed in the process, but the technology had a long way to go and is now fantastic for printing small jobs with photorealistic designs. So, it took us a long time to get back into it, but now it is the decorating process we’re using to fulfill our online merch store orders.”
As is the case with many merch stores, the Smith’s online store not only provides rapid turnarounds; it also allows customers to design their own custom shirts and can be used for a variety of needs, such as community events, family reunions, rec team uniforms and fundraising and events.
In addition, because the company’s Epson DTG machine is a hybrid that can handle the wildly popular direct-to-film (DTF) process, the Smiths are also investigating using those transfers for some of their orders.
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