Della Simpson and Kari Brizius are a mother-daughter duo who long dreamed of building a business around their passion for the environment and health.
Brizius, 38, a former student-athlete at South St. Paul High School, graduated from West Point in environmental engineering, then spent eight years in the Army, including a tour in Iraq.
She was working for a North Carolina-based modular-building company when she and Simpson started thinking about joining forces. Simpson was selling equipment to the food service industry. Neither was thrilled with her day job.
And in 2011, they took a deep breath and bought a near-dormant company that made a few products out of discarded vinyl banners.
“We wanted to do something in business that was good stewardship of our planet and that also fed our soul,” Simpson said. “The only way we get out of this mess of garbage and unsustainable, consumptive living is to do something that’s part of the circular economy.”
The new owners of Mendota Heights-based Relan (relangreen.com) invested an unspecified six-figure sum and went without salaries for three years. They changed the old Relan business model and slowly started to attract clients.
This year, Relan, which contracts with corporations for old vinyl banners and turns them into a variety of products, will produce positive cash flow on about $250,000 in revenue. Next year, the owners predict a doubling of sales based on new and repeat orders. In addition to the owners and another employee, the growing company employs more than a dozen contract sewers from St. Paul.
Relan gets the vinyl banners and signs for free. Workers clean, cut and refabricate that into products such as bags, coolers, cardholders and even surfboard covers. The donor companies buy the finished products from Relan, often bearing their companies’ names and logos, and sell them through company stores and websites or distribute them as gifts. The former company, instead of getting the clients to buy the products, struggled to find retail outlets. Simpson and Brizius literally get buy-in from their banner donors.
Relan’s growing list of clients includes Land O’Lakes, United Airlines, the Minnesota Wild, the Minneapolis Institute of Art, the Smithsonian, the Getty and other museums, Target, Mini Cooper, Reef, Meet Minneapolis and the University of Minnesota.
Brizius, married and the mother of two, concedes that she was able to get through the early years when many small businesses fail, thanks to her husband’s good job and benefits. Regardless, the timing proved right. Businesses, which generate an estimated 600,000 tons of vinyl stuff annually, are searching for ways to cut waste, save on their garbage bills, and bolster claims they are “green.”
“We help our partners deal with a waste stream that some of them didn’t even see,” Simpson said. “And we work with them to tell their story.”
Alissa Thielman, marketing specialist with Land O’Lakes’ Mazuri Exotic Animal Nutrition, which makes feed for zoo animals, among others, said the Relan relationship satisfies several corporate goals.
“It aligns with our conservation message, provides different gifts, such as iPad cases, business card holders, duffel bags, luggage tags that we give to retirees, or business partners and customers,” Thielman said. “And we also like doing business with another Minnesota business that is owned by a veteran, and employs people with disabilities, and uses Hmong and other local women to do the sewing.”
At Relan, CEO Simpson is the operations director and Brizius is the marketing and business development leader.
“It’s been worth the sacrifice,” Brizius said last week. “We bootstrapped everything and we had to invest in the business for a few years … a lot of savings. We hope there will be a financial benefit in the future. I think it’s important enough to make the sacrifices so far because we believe we’re making a difference. We have a purpose and there’s an environmental benefit.”
Relan is part of a growing movement.
Minnesota’s “reuse, repair and rental” economic sector has grown rapidly in recent years to nearly $10 billion in sales and about 78,000 related jobs, according to the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency. It also generated about $1.5 billion in taxes. It has doubled in size over several years.
The sector of several thousand companies ranges from thrift stores to used building material outlets, repurposed fabric makers, refurbished consumer electronics outlets and a business that overhauls tractors. Buying used or refurbished goods is economical for business and increasingly trendy for environmentally minded and cost-conscious consumers.
A trade group called ReuseMn.org has sprung up in recent years to help match consumers and businesses in the reuse and rental businesses.
Relan was a charter member. The group also includes TechDump, the electronics recycler and refurbisher that just opened a second retail store in Bloomington; Arc’s Value Village and other thrift stores; and the used building-supplies arms of Habitat for Humanity and Building Better Futures, among others.
Even Tennant Co., the floor-cleaning manufacturer, has added a line of refurbished and used equipment.
Neal St. Anthony has been a Star Tribune business columnist and reporter since 1984. He can be contacted at email@example.com.