Star, the Brooklyn Park-based marketing company that specializes in creating trade show and retail environments, pulled off the seemingly impossible last year: In a mere six weeks, Star transformed an abandoned New York City pier into 74,000 square feet of gleaming event space where J.C. Penney hosted 1,600 Wall Street analysts, celebrities and media types for a celebrated brand unveiling.

Penney’s stock soared, Star’s work earned a top industry award and Star founder and CEO Mark Johnson and his leadership team decided to make a formal business offering of its long-standing but previously unheralded willingness to take on complex, short-turnaround, high-stakes projects.

Star is now rolling out what the company is calling its Fast Pass program (with a nod to Disney’s Fastpass virtual queuing system) to move companies or their agencies to the front of the line when seemingly impossible projects with unimaginably tight deadlines land on their desks.

“Think what you will of the company, but that was an extremely successful event,” Johnson said, alluding to Penney’s firing of CEO Ron Johnson, a former Target Corp. and Apple executive, after his brand reinvention of the struggling retailer ultimately flopped. “If you have a short-term, big, crazy project, we’re the ones that can handle it. We want to be known for that.’’

Quick-turn premium

Such quick-turn work earns a premium over more run-of-the-mill jobs, of course, so that’s one incentive for Star to capitalize on its penchant for nerve-racking assignments. (“That was not cheap to pull off,” Johnson said of Star’s role as “implementation partner” for the pier transformation.) It’s also where Johnson sees the industry going.

“With the recession, clients have cut marketing staff and have to do more with less, and people don’t have enough time,” Johnson said. “The timelines are getting shorter and shorter. We want to jump ahead and take a leading position in that arena.”

Star creates trade show and retail environments, corporate interiors and events and also offers marketing, mobile marketing, strategy and communications services. It designs, fabricates and stores sets and props in its 186,000-square-foot offices, which include production and warehouse space. The company has 93 employees. Johnson projects an 18 percent increase in revenue this year over last year’s total of more than $25 million.

The Fast Pass program is part of Johnson’s organic growth strategy. He’s aware of and hears from potential acquisition targets. But he’s protective of Star’s entrepreneurial, values-based culture and the family-style atmosphere among employees. “My commitment has always been to grow enough that I don’t lose any key person or people due to them not having the opportunity to grow and develop here,” Johnson said.

He’s also committed to celebrating the company’s 20th anniversary with a yearlong series of events and development opportunities for employees, clients and prospects. Johnson founded the company in 1993 with friend and business partner Tom Pechacek, who died of cancer just three months after the company opened its doors.

‘Integrity pricing’

One key to staying in business for 20 years was the founders’ use of what Johnson refers to as ‘‘integrity pricing.’’ Under that policy, Star shares the cost of the labor and materials of each element of every property or event it makes. That transparent approach helped the company win over early clients such as 3M’s medical imaging division, Pillsbury and General Mills, Johnson said.

Brett Beaudette, design manager at the Mall of America, said Star has been a reliable partner in helping to develop modular “retail-in-a-box” systems that are affordable and easy to install and uninstall for smaller businesses, and in designing and building retail carts and kiosks for the megamall. Star also works with the mall’s event team.

“As a retail designer, they’re a great team to work with because they understand it,” Beaudette said. “Their customer service is so strong. It’s important to them to sell you the right product and make sure you aren’t having problems.”

Darryl Ricca, marketing manager for Sears Craftsman, said Star’s contributions to such projects as the launch of the Craftsman’s Bolt-on tool system at last year’s New York Comic Con popular culture event and the rollout of a new lawn tractor at the Detroit Auto show helped drive attendance and consumer engagement, generate copious media coverage and set social media abuzz.

“Our challenge, like many companies, is how do you break through the clutter of all that’s out there,” Ricca said. “Star has been able to help us approach these events differently than we might have otherwise.’’


Todd Nelson is a freelance writer in Woodbury. His e-mail address is