Paul Taunton did all right with his first business, building a lone athletic apparel store in Willmar into a chain of 104 locations in 17 states that he sold to Foot Locker in 1998 for more than $30 million.
For his entrepreneurial encore, at Chanhassen-based Business Impact Group (BIG), Taunton is using his product experience and manufacturing connections to help companies build their brands through client- and employee- recognition products and programs. The company also offers custom-printed brand materials and uniforms and footwear for high school, college and even company sports teams.
“I was too young to retire,” said 51-year-old Taunton, who was 36 when his Athletic Fitters chain sold. “How do you ever find something that’s going to stimulate you as much as that did? What do you want to be when you grow up? I looked hard and said, I wanted to impact businesses. Let’s be a branding agency that impacts businesses.”
Taunton, who launched BIG in 2003, started with something he knew from Athletic Fitters — uniforms — and turned to domestic and offshore manufacturers he’d worked with before to get polo shirts, button-downs and other workwear made for corporate clients. (Five years later, Taunton bought out the 50 percent stake of silent partner Tom Petters for $550,000, with those proceeds going to a trust managed by a court-appointed receiver to benefit victims of Petters’ $3.65 billion Ponzi scheme.)
BIG subsequently moved into recognition programs, including custom “celebration in a box” kits for clients or employees and BIG LIFT (Learning, Incentives, Focus, Teamwork), an employee engagement program that BIG says can drive innovation and encourage employee retention. “It’s unarguable that a happy workforce creates a more loyal consumer base for your business,” Taunton said.
Taunton maintains a sharp focus on customer experience, making sure that a uniform shirt or a leather jacket is well-designed and well-made from high-quality materials while also presenting the items neatly bagged or wrapped in department store-style boxes or packaging.
Wanting to further ensure a good customer experience also was behind his push to develop and manage easy-to-use online stores where companies or employees can order branded products.
Last year, BIG, now recognized as a national leader in branding and recognition, shipped more than 750,000 polo shirts — both work uniforms and casual Friday wear — in multiple colors to more than 10,000 online stores. Clients consist of Fortune 500 companies and regional and local smaller businesses and include Cargill, Best Buy, Buffets Inc., Dairy Queen and Famous Dave’s.
BIG, which has 100 employees, had sales of more than $40 million last year and plans on 25 percent growth in 2013 and succeeding years, primarily through referrals, Taunton says.
Adding market share
The recession became an opportunity to expand. As competitors went under, Taunton built a building and added a new division in team sports apparel.
“We stayed focused on being financially responsible, but also looked at it as a time where we needed to not let it stifle our long-term vision,’’ said Taunton, who is the twin brother of Snap Fitness founder Peter Taunton.
Scott Burnett, regional director with Jackson National Life, a Michigan-based insurance company, said his company bought as much as $7 million in promotional products from BIG last year, reflecting the growth of a business relationship that dates to BIG’s early days. Burnett said he had recommended BIG to people at other companies who have admired the shirts, golf clubs, towing ropes and other items BIG has produced for Jackson National, all with the company’s logo.
Burnett said he appreciated the one-stop shopping, with BIG sourcing, warehousing and shipping everything, and the ease of ordering from BIG’s website.
“Nobody comes close, with all they bring to the table,” Burnett said of BIG.
The expert says: Mike Porter, director of the master of business communication program at the University of St. Thomas Opus College of Business, said Taunton’s retail experience, manufacturing connections, emphasis on customer service and experience and online store management appear to separate BIG from other companies that have offered branded products and merchandise for customer- and employee-retention programs.
“This holistic approach, the understanding of all of those elements combined, allows him to deliver higher-quality goods in a more cost-effective way,” Porter said. “Not everybody can do the sourcing and delivery. You have to care. Clearly he’s doing that or he wouldn’t be able to work for companies like Best Buy and Dairy Queen.”
Todd Nelson is a freelance writer in Woodbury. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.