Build Your Business:

Main Street Mogul

How a female entrepreneur turned a single decorating business into four separate companies in just six short years

By By Marcia Derryberry, Contributing Writer

Walnut Creek’s Nikkie Chadwick says the Beloit community as a whole has been a big part of her company’s success. Photo by Harper Lauren Scott

January 11, 2023

It’s one thing to build a single successful business in a half-dozen years…but four successful businesses? That’s been the reality for Nikkie Chadwick, president of Walnut Creek Apparel & Gifts, Walnut Creek Awards, Walnut Creek Campus Collection, and Walnut Creek Hardwoods: all located in Beloit, Wisconsin, a small college town an hour and a half northwest of Chicago.

The four companies began in 1980 as a single woodshop owned by Chadwick’s father, who made plaques for the taxidermy and awards markets.

“My brother and I bought the business six years ago with the intent of him taking over the woodshop and me starting the awards business and running it separately,” Chadwick says. “So, we did that, but when [my brother] passed away unexpectedly five years ago, I took over the business completely and brought my husband in to run the woodshop, while I was continuing with the awards business.”

Heat-pressing equipment and apparel

The fact Walnut Creek does its decorating on-site facilitates fast turnaround times. Photo by Harper Lauren Scott

Another year or so after that, Chadwick’s main competitor decided to sell its business in downtown Beloit, and Chadwick acquired that as well. “I bought it basically for the customer list and because it had a storefront. So, I moved the awards business out of the woodshop into the space and converted it into Walnut Creek Awards,” she says.

Thus, was Walnut Creek Apparel & Gifts born, as the company’s engraving customers began asking for personalized apparel and accessories, and Chadwick answered the call by adding screen-printing, embroidery and sublimation services to her repertoire.

“People can come in and customize personalized gifts, because we offer sublimation, engraving and embroidered options,” Chadwick says. “All school apparel can be name dropped or personalized for a sorority or fraternity member. Because we have a heat press, we can create designs on site in a matter of minutes. We also sell preprints with a bunch of cool graphics and designs that they can choose from off the wall.”

To fulfill custom screen print and embroidery orders, Chadwick says Walnut Creek outsources heat transfers from Howard Transfers on orders under 100 and does small embroidery orders (20 or less) in-house on a Melco single-head embroidery machine. For larger orders, like those done for businesses, school fundraisers, fun runs and chamber events, the company outsources its embroidery services.

“We really do well with fundraising events,” Chadwick says, “and it’s not just the college. Other schools are big business for us, too. We provide apparel for hockey, baseball, any sort of sports as well as providing apparel to the sport moms, dads and brothers and sisters. Everyone wants to show their pride. There really isn’t anything that we don’t do when it comes to local businesses.”

Finally, complementing its production efforts, the firm also offers basic art services to beef up company logos or event designs. “Just 10 minutes ago, we had a customer come in who had a landscaping business, and she’d cut something out on cricut. It just said ‘Alex’s Landscaping’ with a circle around it—very basic—and she wanted something a little bit more detailed. We were able to get her ideas down, and we’ll do a better design and get it approved.”

Walnut Creek Apparel and Gifts, Beloit Wisconsin

Walnut Creek’s downtown apparel store offers customers a wide array of options. Photo courtesy of Walnut Creek

Looking ahead, Chadwick says she wants to get into more digital printing— either direct-to-garment (DTG) or direct-to-film (DTF). However, physical space in the store is an issue, to the point where, filled to the brim with inventory, equipment and supplies, she’s looking at taking over yet another location to both expand her decorating services and hold her growing inventory. As evidence of how tight things are, much of what is on display in her store is blank apparel, not only to show customers the hottest styles available, but provide that much more storage space for keeping blanks.

“Customers can buy right off the rack already printed. But the majority of our inventory is on display in different shirt options,” she explains. “People can choose their shirt in the showroom, try it on and have it printed with one of our transfers.”

As far as popular styles, Chadwick says Sportech or Eddie Bauer pullovers are popular, while SoftStyle T-shirts have taken over the tri-blend craze. “We’ve switched everything over in the showroom to SoftStyle, because it’s not that much more expensive and it’s super soft and printable,” she says. She notes price point is very important in a town where a large part of the consumer base is college students with limited incomes. “We use Gildan or Port & Co., because that seems to be the best value that people really want,” she says.

Speaking of students, Walnut Creek Campus Collection, a retail store located in Beloit College’s “Powerhouse” rec center, is run entirely by Beloit students, with an inventory that includes a wide range of preprinted Beloit apparel, as well as gifts and accessories, such as socks, hats, mittens and scarves.

“By hiring the students, I’m able to act as a bit of a business mentor to them,” Chadwick says. “It empowers them to become entrepreneurs and not be afraid to go out in the world and follow their dreams. I really don’t do much at the store other than come up with the merchandise we sell, so it teaches them many aspects of running a retail business and what goes on behind the scenes.”

As for marketing, Chadwick says word of mouth has sustained her four businesses thus far. However, Facebook also plays a major role, especially with younger customers.

“We don’t really update on the campus, awards or hardwoods businesses, because those are so specific to the order being placed. It’s our apparel and gifts page that gets updated a couple of times a day with specials or design ideas,” she says. “For instance, sometimes we might run a special on a collegiate engraved tumbler or certain style of garment that can be customized, whatever the case may be. I try to put different things on there just to keep giving people an idea of what they can stop in and see and purchase.”

Walnut Creek Gifts and Apparel embroidery machine

Walnut Creek does small-run embroidery jobs on-site as well. Photo by Raya Broad

To determine how its online efforts are performing, the company doesn’t use a code for specials to track the feedback from the site. Rather, Chadwick says she relies on the young, digital-centric minds who work for her to keep up with the page.

“Everyone who works for me comes in each morning and ‘likes’ what I put on Facebook for that day. That way, they know what to ask customers and how to gear them toward specials and add-on sales,” she says.

“Right now, I need a rack cleaned off because I want to get some more kid and youth apparel options into the store. So, we’re doing 50 percent off all preprinted items on our clearance rack just to get them out the door. We have a small enough crew that they just know what we’re doing every day, or they can check Facebook and see what that the specials are.”

As for the strength and loyalty of her customer base, Chadwick says it is in many ways a result of the nature of Beloit itself, an old mill town that fell on hard times but has since been revitalized.

“A local billionaire who started her business here in Beloit and happened to do really well owns a lot of different businesses and properties in and around town,” Chadwick says. “She’s fixed a lot of the roads and remodeled several buildings, which has helped businesses, because it brought in high-end hotels, boutiques and different storefronts. That obviously attracted more jobs, which brings in more people and opportunity. So, I think our community credits her with a lot of its growth.”

Looking ahead, Chadwick says, “I think now I feel like we’re getting to where we want to be and maybe grow a little bit more, but we’re going to keep it about this size…When I look back at where we came from in five years, I mean, that’s potentially grown quite a bit, and I guess I’ve gotten lucky. We’ve got a community, too, that is really supportive of local businesses. During COVID when everybody was worried about closing and what they were going to do, I feel like our community gravitated toward small businesses in our downtown area and made sure to come in and make purchases and support them.”

Marcia Derryberry is a former editor-in-chief of Impressions magazine and content developer for the Impressions Expo conferences. Marcia now owns and runs her own media communications company, Derryberry Media Communications, in Blue Ridge, Georgia.

Making a Mark

Even as Nikkie Chadwick’s local decorating businesses continue to grow, the Walnut Creek Awards business remains the place where it all began with its standalone retail storefront in downtown Beloit.

Walnut Creek decorated wood products

Walnut Creek does small-run embroidery jobs on-site as well. Photo by Raya Broad

“Our growth went a lot more quickly than what I had thought it would,” Chadwick says. “But now we’ve got a showroom specifically designed for awards. The law firm across the street was looking to downsize, so I jumped at the chance to take over that space, which is close to my other downtown locations.”

Chadwick notes that in addition to serving as a retail shop, Walnut Creek Awards provides on-site engraving services as well.

“We offer engraving services on acrylic, leather, crystal glass, sublimation, nameplates, signage, perpetual plaques…that sort of thing, so customers can walk in and actually see everything that that we offer,” she says. “In the previous place, we just had a small area for displays and engraving so it’s nice to have more space.”