Eagan-based Skyline Exhibits, which bills itself as North America's leading brand of trade-show exhibit systems, last month became the smallest company to win a prestigious national innovation award, which since 1988 has gone to titans such as Apple, Harley-Davidson and FedEx.

General Mills was a finalist this year while another local giant, UnitedHealth Group, won in 2011.

The honor -- officially known as the Outstanding Corporate Innovator Award (OCI) and presented last month by the Product Development and Management Association (PDMA) -- would appear to signify just how far Skyline had come from its humble beginnings in 1980. Those were the recessionary times when Skyline's founder, the late Gordon Savoie, began selling the company's first exhibit product from the trunk of his Chrysler K car.

Today Skyline has 75 U.S. offices, dealers in more than 40 countries and more than 250 local employees and upwards of 2,000 employees worldwide. It uses cutting-edge technology and sustainable practices in designing and manufacturing most of its products in its 280,000-square-foot headquarters, where every desk faces a large, airy setup area for preassembling exhibits before shipping and highlighting new projects.

Skyline, which generates more than $300 million globally through retail sales by offices and dealers, has service centers near North America's busiest trade show venues -- in Las Vegas, Orlando, Chicago and Toronto and another center in Shanghai. Underscoring Skyline's new "Helping the World Trade" tagline, another such center could open next year in Europe. The centers offer graphics, rental, storage, setup and other services.

R, D & I

While Skyline's tools and scope have advanced over the years, the Corporate Innovator Award reflects a return to its founder's passion for innovation and design, a move accelerated in part by the Great Recession, according to president Bill Dierberger. While the industry contracted, Skyline continued investing in what it calls "R, D and I," or research, development and innovation.

"We've always seen that as a differentiator," Dierberger said. "It was part of the company's DNA from the beginning. Our founder noticed that we had gotten away from that drive of differentiation through innovation. So as a company we recommitted to going back to our roots and reminding the company, the dealers and this marketplace this is who we are. We will lead through innovation and not be market followers."

A new product development process, which emphasizes meeting customer needs with transformative products rather than incremental improvements, has seen Skyline launch 13 new exhibit systems and six complementary products over the last five years. 

The new products range from lightweight banner stands to streamlined custom modular systems for larger trade show exhibits. The latter includes the sprawling Polaroid platform developed for last year's International Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, which included a lounge where guests mingled with Lady Gaga, Polaroid's creative director. Local examples of Skyline's work include the Fox Sports North broadcast set with interchangeable backdrops representing Twin Cities' pro sports teams.

New product sales account for 24 percent of Skyline's revenue, up from 12 percent five years ago, Dierberger said. Sales are on track to grow 6 percent this year, compared with 2.1 percent industry growth projected by the Center for Exhibition Industry Research. 

The 18,500-square-foot exhibit that Skyline designed and produced for packaging equipment maker Pro Mach helped the company look its best at a key industry trade show last month in Chicago, said Peter Vilardi, marketing director of Alexandria-based Orion Packaging Systems, one of more than a dozen Pro Mach brands represented. Skyline's backlit, rotating PictureCube displays, suspended above each brand's location, drew plenty of attention.

"The impression in the show hall was amazing," Vilardi said. "All indications are that we had the best show yet in terms of lead quality and lead quantity, and I think a large part of that can be tracked back to the booth they designed," Vilardi said. "They're a great team to work with."

The expert says: Tom Colosimo, career coach at the University of St. Thomas' Opus College of Business, said Skyline's central setup area is one of the reasons he arranged a tour there last spring for more than 50 MBA students.

Seeing fully assembled exhibits in the setup area illustrated the team environment at Skyline, how its various departments collaborate to complete projects and how every function within the company is key to its success, Colosimo said in an e-mail. 

Students also learned about challenges Skyline faces as a premium brand in the exhibit industry, including how, for example, the company has responded by "being competitive in pricing and yet being creative in their products from raw materials to the architectural design," Colosimo said.

Todd Nelson is a freelance writer in Woodbury. His e-mail address is todd_nelson@mac.com.