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Build Your Business: Shop Talk
Peaks and ValleysThis entrepreneur has navigated the highs and lows of doing business in this industry and still is printing her way to profitability.
Schenck-Benson created this design after the 9/11 attacks on the United States and started a fundraiser for New York firefighters.
Wendy Schenck-Benson’s first adventure in screen printing occurred in late-spring 1983 in Salt Lake City. The area had record-breaking snowpack that melted because of a warm spring descended the mountains. Streams overflowed and ice-cold, waist-deep water raged onto Salt Lake City’s main streets. Then a 23-year-old college student, Schenck-Benson watched with worry but was astounded by how the community came together to overcome the situation.
“The idea came into my mind, as I watched them fill thousands of sandbags, to print a memorial-type design directly on the burlap bags,” says Schenck-Benson, CEO and founder of Koala-Tees Inc. “I figured out how to print and manufacture my first product, which I named Sandbag Handbags. I sold hundreds of them, and then I was hooked on the screen-printing process.”
Schenck-Benson received a $1,500 loan from her grandfather to purchase her first used screen-printing equipment and set up shop in her parents’ basement. She began cold-calling mid-sized corporations and schools, and bidding on state jobs. She signed her first lease for a commercial building in 1986 and hired her first employees. After marriage, she brought her husband, Andrew, into the business. Today, he runs the embroidery department and does all of the accounting.
The couple grew the company through the 1980s and 1990s, purchasing two embroidery machines and two automatic screen-printing presses. Annual growth was about 10%; eventually, Schenck-Benson purchased banner- and sign-printing equipment, as well as a printer for business cards and brochures. Meanwhile, the company grew to 10 employees.
When the economy took a dive in 2007, Schenck-Benson was faced with the choice of going out of business or making some crucial decisions in order to keep the doors open. She decided on the latter, but needed to get rid of certain assets.
“We subleased out our automatic and sold our other automatic,” she says. “We reduced our building by half, leasing out the other half. We cut our staff down to bare bones. It was a very long, painful recovery and many lessons were learned.”
Ten years later, Koala-Tees purchased a new automatic press and three new embroidery machines. Schenck-Benson and her husband have rolled up their sleeves and done much of the work themselves. Profit has increased, with 2% sales growth in 2019.
Schenck-Benson enjoys the art-creation process on multiple levels, from illustration and hand-cutting stencils, to creating screens and printing. But the business lessons came fast and furious when she started the company.
“I soon learned that this industry, as well as most industries, was run by ‘good-old boys,’ a.k.a. men,” she recalls. “I was rejected a lot as a young lady selling to ‘man’ industries such as construction, trucking companies, mechanic shops and even banking. They would not even give me a chance, due to the fact that I was female. I was horrified — and mad!”
Schenck-Benson pushed through; she started bringing samples to client meetings, targeting the same types of companies with the intention of writing orders on the spot. To this day, she says, construction companies write the largest orders and constitute her most loyal clientele.
“I have not had to even think about the gender issues since the 1980s,” she says. “I take pride in making a connection with my ‘competitors’ (men or women) by calling them and sometimes even taking them to lunch to discuss how we can help each other. This has worked out great in most cases. I’d rather play on each other’s strengths and help when in a bind.”
To stay ahead of the game, Koala-Tees researches and targets companies that show a great growth rate and have been in business for a long time. The company’s bread and butter is in screen printing, followed by embroidery. Schenck-Benson also emphasizes effective customer service.
“At Koala-Tees we make it a point to fulfill our clients’ needs,” she says. “We get to know each person in order to create the perfect product to accomplish their goals. I am proud to call many of my clients my friends.”
In 2016, Schenck-Benson started doing service projects in Africa with Global LifeVision, the humanitarian arm of Ideal LifeVision. With assistance from a friend, Robert Mensah — who started a screen-printing business in Accra, Ghana — she helped set up a screen-printing operation in Kenya in a 12′ x 8′ room with no running water.
“I had the privilege of meeting Robert in person when I went to Ghana in 2019,” she says. “I have had the opportunity to mentor him [from afar] for a few years now. He is such an inspiration to me. He produces such great printed items, even with many challenges. He exposes his screens with sunlight. He has no running water and no press, yet he prints images with halftones.”
Schenck-Benson recalls an example of a successful project for a great cause. “When 9/11 happened, the entire country came to a screeching halt,” she says. “I was watching the news and felt very inspired by the flag hanging over the Pentagon. I created a design representing the flag I saw that day and decided to have a little fundraiser for the NYC firefighters.”
She even contacted the local Sandy City fire department, which jumped at the opportunity to help. “We printed for six solid weeks alongside volunteers and Sandy City firemen, and sold well over 20,000 tees.”
Schenck-Benson then flew to New York, spoke to firemen who had been at the Twin Towers site after the attack and presented them with a $60,000 check.
In the near future, Koala-Tees will hire two key employees, and continue improving and expanding the company’s social-media presence. Online stores for clients will be created as well. It’s nothing but smart growth and continued success for Schenck-Benson and her team.
Jennifer Morrell is an award-winning writer who has written for a number of national consumer and trade publications. For more information or to comment on this article, email Jennifer at email@example.com.
Koala-Tees Inc. at a Glance
Company Name: Koala-Tees Inc.
Address: 9544 South 500 West, Sandy, Utah 84070
No. of Employees: 5
Decorating Methods Offered: Screen printing, embroidery
Company Website: koalateesinc.com
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