The biting aroma of printing ink being seared into cotton wafts through the humidity of a Memphis summer as Susan Bowen, the 45-year-old chief executive officer of Champion Awards Inc., stands in front of her corporate headquarters, speaking of her 42 employees in a soft Tennessee drawl. "Most of them grew up alongside my own children," says Bowen, whose company retails and wholesales trophies, advertising specialty items, and silk-screened T-shirts. "My major problem as CEO is accepting that they're now all adults."
Maternal instincts represent more to Susan Bowen than mom-and-pop atmospherics, however. Her rainbow coalition of blacks, whites, men, women, and handicapped workers is responsible for transforming a company that started out assembling $40,000 worth of trophies inside a barn 15 years ago into America's fastest-growing corporate fashion house, with $3.1 million in sales for 1985.
Like many entrepreneurs, Susan Bowen started her company in her spare time, but soon discovered that demand for her product exceeded her capacity to produce, so she put her two children to work. "Mom told us that it would be lots of fun to screw trophies together after school," says Mike Bowen. He and his brother, Ken, became Champion's first employees. "It's hard to say no to my mom." But even with the help of her children, Bowen could not meet the mushrooming demand, forcing her to quit her job as a clothing designer in 1971 to devote all her time to assembling trophies.
"Our first customers were local saddle clubs," she recalls, suppressing a laugh when she explains how her early clients had to "walk through all the cow manure" to get inside the barn. Many of her best customers, surprisingly, wanted a trophy whether or not they had won a competition. "People always come in wanting a trophy for themselves," she says with a chuckle. "Folks wanted the oddest things mounted -- old shoes, broken tennis rackets; we even did a 'Saturday Night Live' conehead trophy. It took us forever to find cone heads."
The next family member to join Champion was Susan's husband, Marris. After working with Susan part-time since 1977, he left a secure, $45,000-a-year job as an executive at J. Strickland Co., a corporation that specializes in cosmetics for black women, to become Champion's vice-president in charge of production in 1982. Marris's first move was to purchase Custom Sportswear Lettering, a silk-screening shop, from another employee at Strickland. He then branched out and started a chain of five retail T-shirt stores in the Memphis area. "This fella had come to me originally for advice when he wanted to start out on his own," Marris explains. "He felt that I was the one to talk to because of Susan's success. Then I ended up buying the store from him for $35,000."
Custom Sportswear's specialty was heat-pressing rock-and-roll symbols and silly slogans on poorly made T-shirts, but the Bowens realized that the operation could boom if quality materials and target-marketing techniques were employed. They gambled that there were any number of corporate clients that were prepared to pay handsomely for a striking corporate logo silk-screened on a quality T-shirt or base-ball cap. "We knew that silk-screened tees were a staple of the American culture beyond rock 'n' roll," explains 28-year-old Mike Bowen. "No matter where an American comes from, every one of them wants a tee for something in their life." It took three years for Champion's new division to show a profit, because, says Susan Bowen, "we had to prove our credibility in competition with the many fly-by-night companies in Memphis."
The Bowens closed their chain stores in 1981 and housed their trophy and T-shirt operation in a building six miles down the road from Graceland, Elvis Presley's estate. "The trophies brought the customers into the store, so it was best to incorporate everything under one roof," says Mike Bowen, who left an executive position at Wendy's International Inc. to become Champion's head of sales. "People who buy trophies are doers, and our fashion lines are directed toward that market, corporate or individual."
With the ability to do all their hot stamping, screen printing, die cutting, and photoengraving in-house, the Bowens began scooping up boxcar loads of unimprinted apparel from manufacturers. Speedy turnaround and quality control allowed Champion to feed its hungry market in a fraction of the time it normally took customers to receive imprinted apparel. Art and production departments were added to further quicken turnaround time and to give customers the opportunity to sit down and work out their design ideas with a professional art director.
Champion's gambit checkmated the competition. Its new corporate fashion clients -- which had been buying trophies from the company for years -- came to include Federal Express, Schering Plough, Auto Shack, Nike, Kroger, Digital, and 1,500 Holiday Inns around the country. Today Champion's trophy business accounts for the smallest part of the venture, cultivating a healthy $500,000 in sales for 1985 in a local market flush with 30 competitors. Advertising specialties, which run the gamut from personalized coffee mugs to leg warmers emblazoned with corporate logos, will bring in another $600,000. T-shirts and other silk-screened apparel heads the list with $2 million in sales. Champion's inventory is a corporate quartermaster's dream: 10,000 assorted caps, jackets, golf shirts, under-wear, and aprons that can be designed for any promotion or event. There are always at least 60,000 T-shirts on hand, ready to be propelled through the company's six color auto screen printers, giving Champion the capacity to crank out in the neighborhood of 12,000 T-shirts a day.
"We have been able to grow at such a rapid speed because of our ability to service the many needs of our corporate customers on very short notice," Susan explains. "We have five outside salespeople and three inside salespeople who get to know their cusomers on a personal basis and go out of their way to service their needs."
Champion's tack is to concentrate on corporate accounts, because these customers are more interested in service than in price. They receive more than designer apparel: The Bowens offer complete promotional programs, and keep their clients and propects abreast of new design trends by mailing them monthly fliers with special prices for bulk orders.
Memphis's national reputation as a major industrial distribution hub for the United States (Federal Express Corp., for example, transships all its parcels out of Memphis) has also spurred Champion's growth. Earlier this year, a major athletic-footwear manufacturer concluded a nationwide search for a company with the capacity to manufacture 10 million silk-screened apparel items in 1986; the reps left the Bowen's 25,000-square-foot showroom/factory with an open-ended contract to produce an estimated 2 million pieces a year. "They told us that we were the only silk-screen plant in the country that was air conditioned," Susan says incredulously. "Treating people well shouldn't be something out of the ordinary, but they were impressed how fast and just plain nice our employees worked."
"The reason we work 14 hours a day," says Jerald Shindledecker, Champion's 32-year-old art director and longtime friend of the Bowen family, "is because we believe Susan. When she tells us that we're all going to have a piece of our future, we know it's for real. Hell, the woman's my second mother. How can you not believe your mom?"
"I came to Champion after years of designing Army training manuals," adds Shindledecker, putting the final brush strokes to a new design for Federal Express T-sharts. "Goll dawg, I didn't have any real future until I came back to Memphis. Designing commercial tees isn't high art, but Susan allows me to experiment and to work on grander designs that we can sell to the retail market directly. Susan lets us all work to the best of our ability, and that's what really makes Champion a success."
Shindledecker's sentiments echo throughout the shop floor. Champion's workers -- from the machine operators who wander the floors during their breaks, wiping up spilled ink with rolls of paper towels, to the sales force in the front office who forgo lunch to close a deal -- feel that their future is secure with Susan Bowen. "Last year, we paid out over $10,000 in bonuses," enthuses son Mike Bowen, who is in charge of developing a profit-sharing plan targeted to take effect in 1987. "We want to reward our people. They're the ones who've assumed the responsibility that has made Champion a success."
Susan Bowen, despite her hopes of reaching $10 million in sales by 1990, cannot relieve herself of a feeling of awe over the growth of Champion, a situation that Mike calls" organized chaos." A couple of pairs of sneakers, a set of Holiday Inn coffee coups, and a pile of Federal Express jerseys that need attention give her office the look of a locker room. "This office is closing in on us," she says, pushing a clutter of order forms off a chair. "I find it so hard to let go of the responsibilities in owning a business. That's been the hardest thing. It was difficult to let others make mistakes, to find their own level of growth. And then I found it hard to accept the fact that our employees do the jobs I once did a thousand times better than I could have ever done."
Expansion of Champion's corporate offices and show-room will be completed by the end of the year; Susan Bowen's new office is about double the size of her old one and, she says, will probably be twice as messy. The big difference will be the large picture window overlooking the sales floor. "They might all be doing a better job than me," she says, "but I'm still hanging on to the money, and I want to see what's going on."