In the northeast corner of West Virginia, The Tygart Valley River and the West Fork River join in the town of Fairmont, seat of Marion County, to form the Monongahela River. Buffalo Creek, a tributary of the Monongahela River, flows through the northern part of the city. Nicknamed the Friendly City, its population is just under 20,000 people, but it is also nearby two other towns, as well as West Virginia University, infusing the area with youth and energy and an almost metropolitan population. When the university needs awards for its ambitious student body, they head up County Road to Winner’s Choice, the local awards shop, which has been owned and operated by Brian Martin for over 31 years.
The businessman and business alike do the town’s nickname justice, exemplifying the easygoing congeniality and casual manners often associated with the South. They also do their university clients proud by constantly engaging in educational opportunities and experimenting with new technology. Here are a few of the things they have learned over the last three decades.
A BUSY BEGINNING
In many ways, the story of Winner’s Choice mirrors the progression of the awards industry during its most transformative era, from pantographs to lasers, from trophy shops to awards businesses.
“As Winner’s Choice, we’ve been in business for 31 years. We started in April of 1982, and I was involved with the awards industry for four years prior to that,” says Martin. Explaining his history in the industry, Martin says that his father was and is a serial entrepreneur. He owned several businesses, including a sporting goods store and a bowling center, the latter of which is still in the family.
“Since we had a sporting goods store and a bowling center, we thought we might as well sell trophies. Primarily, the customer there was the bowling center, and we did it that way for about four or five years. While I was in college, I decided I wanted to start my own business, and I had taken a liking to the awards business. I was the only one who did the engraving. So, I decided to branch that aspect out and start an all-out awards company, as opposed to sporting goods, bowling and trophies.”
The other half of “we” is Brian’s wife of over 31 years, Susan. You may have noticed that they have been married the same number of years Winner’s Choice has been in business.
“Susan’s been a partner with me in this business the whole time. She’s been the bookkeeper and office person the entire time, and she’s done a lot more than that (she went into labor while using the company’s Xpres machine to sublimate plates). We started the business in April and got married in May,” says Martin.
It was a busy time for the newlyweds. Back in those days, May was by far the busiest month of Winner’s Choice’s calendar year.
“In fact, we did more than 30 percent of our business in just the month of May, due to the end of school and various sports,” Martin recalls.
Soon after they began to grow the business together, Brian and Susan began to grow a family. “I remember saying, ‘We can’t do anything else in May.’ Well, two of our boys were born in May. It’s not quite the issue it used to be-we’ve been able to spread business out over the year-but May is still a busy month around here.” Martin adds that while he does all of the talking, his wife’s work behind the scenes has always been essential to the success of Winner’s Choice.
Earlier, it was mentioned that Winner’s Choice has taken part in the awards industry’s most transformative era. When Martin began engraving bowling trophies more than three decades ago, he did so on a New Hermes (now Gravograph) pantograph.
When his father first added awards to his sporting goods and bowling businesses, Martin was the only one who knew how to use the pantograph, and that often led to him being stuck at work. One of his favorite characteristics of modern engravers is their ability to be taught to more than one employee with greater ease.
Remembering the old process, Martin says, “It required a little more training and skill to use the pantograph as opposed to today’s computerized engravers. We had two different ones, but as soon as I started Winner’s Choice in 1982, at the end of that year, going into ’83, we purchased our first computerized engraver. They had only been around since the late ’70s, so when New Hermes (Gravograph) jumped into it, we bought their first machine out, their Concept 2000,” says Martin.
That wasn’t the only segment of early awards industry technology in which Winner’s Choice invested. Martin was an early believer in the potential of sublimation.
Martin remembers that, “When Xpres came out with their first roll-sublimation machines, which were basically converted copy machines that they had reversed the optics on, we bought one. It was one of the first ones they ever produced. We went down to this tiny little office in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. We had a double-digit serial number, so we were pretty early on that.”
Martin recalls that the Xpres machine used single-color copies. The colors could be changed, but it was still a single copy. However, he says the main difference between using sublimation then and now is the way in which artwork was obtained.
“When we started, we were using either hand-drawn artwork or a camera to enlarge the artwork, and then we used press-on or rub-on types. Then we started getting into little tape printers that printed letters. It was something. Creating the artwork was the biggest holdback to the whole sublimation process,” says Martin.
When Macintosh came out with their first desktop model, Winner’s Choice jumped at the opportunity to own a personal computer. “We did the same thing with the laser engravers; they started in the early ’90s. We started with one of the early Epilogs and went from there.”
Martin says that sort of drastic progression has been the same for the business approach of the whole awards industry. “When we started, typically, you bought your awards and engraving services at sporting goods stores or jewelry stores. There were very few all-out awards companies, standalone businesses that just sold trophies and plaques. We were one of the earliest full-on awards stores in West Virginia. The other ones were sporting goods stores that had a trophy department or jewelry stores, that type of thing. It’s been kind of neat to see the industry transfer to full-fledged businesses that do awards alone.”
ALWAYS MOVING FORWARD
Martin invested in all those fledgling technologies due to his strong belief in business diversification as a means of progress and growth. He adds that he attends trade shows every year in order to keep up on the industry’s latest advancements.
Explaining his outlook on diversification, Martin says, “I think it’s the only way to survive and grow. The old adage still applies: if you’re not moving forward, you’re going to be left behind. You’ve got to stay on top of it. I know of some shops that were pretty good businesses, but they never went to lasers or sublimation, and they’re not there anymore. It’s been an advantage to us, because we’ve picked up a lot of business from that. We still stay on top of whatever else new is out there, going through the same process as 30 years ago.”
Proving that he backs up those beliefs with investment dollars, Martin shares that Winner’s Choice offers its customers rotary engraving, laser engraving, sublimation, screen printing, digital graphics and abrasive etching. Martin estimates that at the moment, digital graphics is the most profitable of those categories. “There are pretty good margins there.”
Specifying, Martin says, “Since our emphasis is still awards, we’ve kind of moved it into the awards end. We purchased a router about a year ago, and we cut out a lot of shapes from acrylic and PVC and different types of signage material, and we’re applying the vinyl graphics to those pieces to create awards.”
While Winner’s Choice does banners and some signage, Martins says that he doesn’t consider his business to be a sign shop.
“I really don’t go after all-out signage jobs. But we’re utilizing that equipment and bringing it over to the awards industry. We’re real big on mixing the processes.”
SCHOOLS, BUSINESS AND DIRTBIKES
Winner’s Choice uses its array of personalization processes to provide awards to an array of customers, from team trophies to universities to corporate clients.
“We’re in a small town in a small state, so we do a little bit of everything. Our biggest niche is the awards we create for race and event promoters, mostly motocross races. That’s a niche that we cater to all over the country. If there’s something that we’re known for, it’s specialty awards for motorcycle racing. Locally, our university business has been real strong, and small to mid-size businesses have done real well for us, too,” says Martin.
Explaining how he got into motorcycle awards, Martin says it was a personal hobby that he passed on to his boys, who found they had a talent for the sport. Martin has three boys, the oldest of whom, Logan, is now a co-owner in the business. His two younger sons have decided on different career paths, although the knowledge they’ve obtained in those careers has been put to work at Winner’s Choice.
“They all worked in the business growing up. I still rely on the other two very heavily. My middle son, Tyler, is a HR specialist, so he’s my go-to guy when I’m hiring or having employee issues. My youngest son, Jordan, is an engineer, so he’s my go-to guy on any IT problems and engraving issues. They both help a lot,” says Martin.
It’s been a continuing pleasure for Martin to watch his boys grow up in the awards industry, but his own is not the only family he has seen come of age in this business.
Noting that Winner’s Choice is heavily involved in the industry in a number of ways, Martin says, “Through our work, we’ve met families all over the country that have become very good friends. We have watched their kids come into the businesses, and in some cases, now the kids are taking over the business. It’s been a lot of fun to watch that.”
MARKETING AND EMPLOYEES
Having been in the business for more than three decades, Winner’s Choice has utilized a number of marketing methods.
“Over the years, we’ve run the gamut of everything. In recent years, we’ve relaxed a little and relied more on word-of-mouth, which has done well for us. However, we’re currently working on some new marketing programs to pick that area up a little bit. We just made a couple of hires and are working on direct contact via phone and email with our customers,” says Martin.
One of Winner’s Choice’s marketing tools is its website.
“It’s been a real good tool,” says Martin, “but it’s one of those things where you say to yourself, ‘Hey, I’ve got a website. That’s good; check that off the list.’ Well, it doesn’t really work like that. It’s a great tool, but it’s something that continually needs to be worked on, updated and changed.”
Part of Martin’s chagrin with his website has to do with the Winner’s Choice showroom. Nine years ago, the company moved to a new building and as part of the process, designed an exquisite showroom that Martin says is as nice as any showroom he’s ever seen, for any business.
“Now, instead of coming to the showroom, many of our customers call up and say, ‘I’m on your website…’ So, it’s been a good marketing tool, but sometimes I wish it wasn’t quite as effective so people would come in and visit us more,” says Martin.
In addition to seeing the company’s awards displays, he’d also like people to come in and meet his staff, several of whom have been with him for many years, while there are also a few new faces.
On the subject of finding and keeping quality employees, Martin says, “Employees are the single biggest challenge, probably for any business, but certainly for our business. We’ve been very fortunate to have really talented people here who have been here quite a while and do a really great job.”
That said, Martin adds, “We’ve struggled in the last four or five years to find good people to work sales and in the showroom, our customer service end. In our production end, we’re great; I think we’ve got the best around. But, we’ve struggled on the front end.”
As an adjustment, Martin says he has pursued employees in a different way, seeking folks who will fit in well with his other workers being the most important asset he considers.
“I’m looking for a person who can do the job, but in addition to that, I’m looking at how they’ll fit in to our family here. I’ve really gotten to the point that I think that’s as critical as their skills,” says Martin.
Martin says that he and his wife, Susan, like it when they can hear the Winner’s Choice employees at their work. “We hear them. It’s just a rowdy bunch. They’re having a good time; they’re loud; something’s always going on, and that’s what we look for. We’re happy when we hear that. They laugh so loud you can hear it throughout the building. And, they’re getting their work done. They know they have to get those orders taken care of because we’re a deadline business; they know that and they get it done. They get a little carried away every once in a while,” he laughs. “We’ve seen some things flying across the room, but on whole, that’s all right with us.”
THE TRY-ALL ATTITUDE AND OTHER STRATEGIES
Over the years, Winner’s Choice has developed an open-minded approach to the creation of awards. Martin says that experimentation has strengthened the skills of his production staff.
He explains, “On the production end, we try a lot of new things. We never say no. We may find out it’s not something we want to do, but we’ll always give something a try. If someone asks us, ‘Can you do this?’ we always answer, ‘We’ll give it a try.’ And, it’s always a great learning process. Even if it doesn’t work out, we learn things that help us with other projects. We’ve tried a lot of things that are now sitting in a box out back. But, we’ve got others that we now use all of the time. When the manufacturer reps come in here and see some of the things we’re using the machines for, they say, ‘We never thought about that!'”
That’s Martin’s advice on the production side of things. As far as running the business, he says he has learned to not try to get too involved in too many things, and he now consciously avoids micromanaging his employees.
“This falls under the don’t-do-as-I-have-done category: you can be too involved in what’s going on. Here in recent years, I’ve been trying to get my business in a way that it will run well without me. When you’re an entrepreneur and you start a business, you want your hands in everything. That can become a real detriment as you try to grow or as you try to transition out of the business. I caution guys that are growing businesses about that and suggest they try to give their employees the responsibility to do their jobs, and then let them do it and step out of the way. It’s tough to do, especially for me. But, I use the mindset as if I wanted to sell my business. You can’t sell something if 90 percent of it is in your own head. The other perspective I try to take is, what if I get run over by a truck? If I get hit by a truck, is my business going to survive? I probably kid myself that they can’t get along without me. They’d actually do very well,” Martin laughs, “in their minds, they probably think they’d do a little better without me.”
Martin adds that he has already begun that transition of the business to his oldest son, Logan.
Thirty years is a long time to run a business, and as the orders and projects add up, it’s hard to recall any specific event. However, Martin says that what he has enjoyed most about the awards business is that 99 percent of the time, it deals with life’s happiest occasions, and it’s been very enjoyable to him to have a career that has contributed to so many special achievements for so many extraordinary people.
“The other day, we got a rush order, and I mean rush. We got it that morning, and it went out later the same day. It was a trophy for a motocross race that same weekend. We got a text from the artist that weekend. He was watching the race on TV, and he saw the award he created, which was a really unique piece. He was pretty excited, said he’d texted to let us know he was famous. That’s what I’m talking about. What other career gives you that?”
As Winner’s Choice transitions from Brian’s stewardship to that of his oldest son, Logan, “that” is something the Martin family and the staff at Winner’s Choice will continue to contribute for decades to come.