Nora Norby, president of 25-year-old Banner Creations, has restitched her business of reusable shopping bags, tablecloths and banners, despite a business decline since the Great Recession.
Her passion for a “greener” society tops her passion for green money.
Norby, 70, had to let go of a few workers after the recession. She cut her pay to $15,000 a year, much less than her remaining nine production and two salaried employees. She couldn’t make ends meet without collecting Social Security.
“Even when we did well, I only made about 15 percent more than my next highest employee,” Norby recalled. “My mother was a communist and I have too much Finnish blood running through me to not share. That’s not a good retirement plan, I will add.”
Norby is driven by mission. And it looks like business has finally turned upward after bottoming in 2013.
Norby expects, based on strong orders so far, that sales will rise this year about 15 percent to more than $800,000, thanks to growing interest in her Scrappy Products division that makes various types of tote, utility and grocery bags, scarves and aprons. It’s made-in-America fabric that Norby buys from two U.S. factories that use recycled plastic jugs and bottles.
“I work because I love my product, and I do this for my three grandchildren,” said Norby, a single working mom since the 1970s. She is on a double-barreled campaign to curtail throwaway plastic bags and create reusable products from containers that otherwise are landfilled or burned.
Norby’s patience could yet pay off. Customer interest is growing. And a number of cities around the country have banned plastic bags. They clog recycling equipment and seem to end up as often in the street or a stream as they do in the garbage. Some grocery stores accept returned bags. Still, critics estimate that less than 5 percent of single-use plastic bags are recycled.
Minneapolis and St. Louis Park may consider later this year joining the ranks of cities banning them.
“We should have done this years ago,” Norby said. “There are Third World countries that have banned them. And I’ve been using cloth bags for shopping for 30 years.”
Norby started Banner Creations in 1991 with a couple of former partners after working in sales for two other flag-and-banner firms. She began her environmental-commercial journey 20 years ago when she decided to quit using vinyl for signs and banners. It is cheap, half the cost of other fabrics, including the “eco” fabric she uses. But it’s made from petroleum, imported from China, “stinky,” and the waste after cutting to make letters or shapes can’t be recycled. Norby said.
That put Norby at a cost disadvantage to her competitors. And her business really started ailing after the 2007-09 recession, which disproportionately hit retailers and malls, some of which folded or reduced holiday decorations and signage.
Banner’s Scrappy Products division, begun in 2009, has snared consumers and stores with an environmental bent. They pay $15 to $25 for a tote, a grocery bag, an apron or colorful growler bag (think a dozen Northeast microbreweries) made from recycled plastic bottles — fabric that Norby buys from Aurora Textiles in Illinois or Carolina Specialty Fabrics of North Carolina.
In addition to individuals who buy online or at street fairs, Scrappy Products’ client list includes the Presbyterian Women’s Convention that bought 750 bags for its Minneapolis convention this summer, Mother Earth Gardens, Bibelot, the Linden Tree, the University of Minnesota, Harvard University, Macalester College, St. Catherine University and RBC Financial.
“The ‘sustainable’ part of our business is growing up to 15 percent annually,” said Norby, who employs several production workers making $13 to $17 an hour.
“I finally feel like I’m doing something positive for my grandchildren,” she said. “We’re using millions of bottles diverted from landfills. The bags we make replace those horrible plastic bags. Our bags are washable and don’t fade and they can be recycled if they ever wear out.”
Norby once was dubbed the “queen of green” by her industry trade association. Nobody has ever called her greedy. The Northeast Women’s Business Association plans a visit next month to Banner’s 5,900-square-foot factory in the century-old Thorp industrial complex on Central Avenue NE. in Minneapolis. Norby’s late father worked there for Northern Pump during World War II.
Mike Evers, the retired dean of the University of St. Thomas graduate school of business, is an old friend who invested in Norby’s business in 1991 and was a longtime adviser.
“The products are just excellent and they last,” Evers said. “She’s up against larger businesses that have a lot more resources. Nora tends to do customized, personalized products. She’s just done a great job of surviving. I admire her tenacity and creativity.”
Of his investment, he said: “I didn’t make any money, but I have no regrets. She is a great person and employs good people. My only regret was that she never made much money in the business.”