A Transcript For The Readers:
Welcome to Success Stories brought to you by S&S Activewear. I’m your host Marshall Atkinson, and this is the podcast that focuses on what’s working. So you can have success too.
Have you ever wondered who was handling the apparel programs for some of the largest and most well-known brands? The answer can be found with one Atlanta branding and promotional merchandise agency, Icebox.
Founded in 2001, they have been building turnkey solutions for corporate clients that include product sourcing, in-house design, production, warehouse, fulfillment, and global distribution.
Their 125-person strong agency has helped brands such as Delta airlines, Hooters, Buffalo Wild Wings, Moe’s Southwest Grill, (welcome to Moe’s!), and AT&T… with their apparel programs and other needs.
On today’s Success Stories podcast we’ll learn more about how these programs work with Icebox co-founder Jordy Gamson.
So Jordy, welcome to the Success Stories podcast!
Thanks, Marshall. I appreciate it.
Yeah. So, um, how was everything in Atlanta these days?
One of the best byproducts of COVID is that our traffic problem has subsided. So I don’t look forward to that returning anytime soon. So it’s, it’s really nice to drive, uh, used to be “rush hour”, then it became pretty much “rush always.”
Now you can pretty much get from one side of the city to the other, and there’s very little traffic, so I’m loving it.
Oh, that’s awesome. That’s awesome. And so do you think that will return to craziness anytime soon. What’s the projection?
I mean, there’s no empirical data in my projection, but I think that it’ll probably come back slower. Because I think that people are getting used to working more remotely and they like it, and they still want to work in offices and have interpersonal collaboration face-to-face but maybe not every single day.
So I think that traffic will not get back to pre COVID levels for a long time. But it will return at some point, right?
Yeah. I’ve been to Atlanta a gazillion times and it’s such a fun city.
Hey, let’s talk a little bit about Icebox, right? So you founded the company in 2001 with your partner, Scott Alterman. What got you into this business. And since then, how has it evolved into what you guys are doing now?
So what got me into the business was Scott and his brother, Greg at the time…and they, I was in a completely different industry. And I worked across the hall from a small office that Greg and Scott were working out of.
And these were, small office…like 300 square foot office-like suites. And I was in a completely different industry working across the hall and we just became closer friends.
I had known them previously, but we became closer friends and they would walk across to my little suite and blow off steam either. They, you know, were crying on my shoulder because of a misprint or because of any bumps and bruises in the day-to-day operation of a business.
And then I would do the same and we just realized that we had similar business philosophies we learned, and as we continue to, uh, learn more about each other, We’d always talked about maybe doing something together one day.
So when that opportunity presented itself, that’s when we started the Icebox back in 2001, and the whole idea was to provide branded items that were much cooler, much more fashion-forward, much more relevant than what was available at the time.
And at the time it was limited. It was a very limited offering of cooler products. So that was the foundation of when we started the company we wanted to bring in the most creative people we could early on and the very best that we can afford, which that was something that I think ended up serving us well, because we brought in a level of talent that was probably could have come a little bit later, but we, we made some sacrifices. This is early on.
Okay. And so it’s really about getting the right people in place. No. It’s like the Jim Collins book, right? So you want the right people on the bus and the right seats.
Right. And that’s an always, uh, evolving, challenging, probably the most difficult thing of anything that, that most businesses go through is the people and the seating and who, who stays on the bus and who gets off at the next.
So somebody listening right now, you started small and now you’re doing stuff for these mega brands. Right. So how did you get the first one going? How do you earn that trust with brands where you’re doing these big programs run, but you gotta start somewhere. So walk us through kind of how that evolved.
So it all comes down to, I mean, sales is trust. And, you know, when we started, we were very, very small. I think we did maybe $200,000 – $300,000 in revenue our first year, which was, um, you know, nothing, nothing to be ashamed of, but definitely nothing to brag about.
And so when you’re trying to land larger customers, you have to build that trust. So when they. When the purchasing person or the supply chain person or the marketing person that sticks their neck out and invests in their reputation and their own company. Uh, we have to make sure that we deliver.
So our first big break came from building trust with one particular guy who we followed in his career and he kept growing in his career and he kept bringing us along with him.
And he finally got into, uh, some pretty large brands and leadership roles and he was able to bring us in. And, um, we were able to land our first large uniform program that will put us on the map.
Once that happened, then we were able to reference, sell, and grow from there. But you do need someone to give you that break and it all comes down to trust and you can’t let them down and you have to be forever grateful that, that, uh, they trusted you and they gave you that opportunity.
Just thinking just holistically here. What do you think are the biggest challenges right now? Uh, with doing programs for brands, and what are you doing to solve that?
So there are lots of things, challenges. There’s, I mean, there are lots of challenges. So you have a lot of things going on. So you’re aware in a COVID environment right now.
So there’s a lot of fluidity in different brands. So you have certain companies that are changing personnel, downsizing, rightsizing, whatever. So you have to stay in the relationships because if you have a single-point relationship, uh, could be, there could be some vulnerabilities there.
So we have to make sure that we are building a broad, uh, breadth of relationships within any organization you have with the locations that the types of customers that we attracted.
A lot of them are franchise organizations with locations all over the country and even beyond. So with the Wayfair Act, you have to keep up with all the sales tax stuff, which is a little cumbersome. You have to make sure that inventory it’s something that may look good on the surface, but when you look in the warehouse and you realize there are hundreds of thousands or even millions of dollars of inventory, that, Uh, isn’t moving at the velocity that we had planned for our hope. You have to be on top of that.
And, um, it’s just, it’s really easy to say yes to customers. And then you look back, you know, a year or two down the road, and you realize that there’s a lot of little things that go into doing programs that you learn, expensive lessons along the way.
Do you guys do some work process, mapping that stuff out where you chart, everything out, you have a process, you have the, this is the “Icebox Way” that we’re doing it. And that way it’s, uh, because everything we do in this industry is all custom and truly how we approach things that have to remain the same…and that way, those standards help us accelerate and do things correctly the right way.
So are you adjusting some of that right now with what’s going on?
We are, and we do. And it’s interesting. Cause I literally just got off of a call because we are doing we’ve been, uh, our management team has, has voiced that some of the, uh, things that are happening that are born in the sales department.
That information isn’t translating into the ops team and the warehouse team until it’s too far into the process and where too much time is evaporating. So, we are tweaking some of our software for some critical mass planning.
We have our standard onboard process where we make sure that all the stakeholders within our organization and within the brand’s organization are all up to speed and as close to real-time as possible.
Uh, but inevitably what happens is we are in the sales business and we’re in the customer service business and customers are going to ask for things and they’ll ask for things, not realizing how it affects our world and in a competitive environment, you want to jump through hoops to make their lives easier…the customer’s lives easier.
And sometimes that creates some havoc on the other side of the fence, meaning our side of the fence.
So we’re doing our best, but you know, when customers, especially a new customer that we’re onboarding when they come up with a last-minute request or whatever, you really want to be in the position to say yes and accommodate it to where it doesn’t affect your other customers.
So that’s a, that’s an ongoing challenge. We’re always trying to rise to the occasion, but it is challenging.
So how much of that time, especially during the onboarding process is spent really educating your customer about what the possibilities are, where the choices they make have time or logistics or cost or some kind of there’s a back end cost to what I want.
Right. So do you spend a lot of time kind of just showing them the ropes about what’s possible and the consequences of maybe these actions further down on the road?
So we do, and it’s an ongoing education. Although sometimes educating the customer can be. Perceived as these, you know, your delay of giving us information or these choices, or if you come out of the gate and with a new program and it’s 800 SKUs, here’s what it means for us.
So we don’t want to make it seem like we’re whining and complaining, but at the same time, we have to be good leaders. And if we lead them properly, they will follow.
And if, and if we lead them properly, we will be able to successfully execute on where we’re leading them. So that is not only an educational process for the customer, but it’s also an educational process for ourselves because our capabilities are constantly evolving and tweaking and you know, not everybody is well-versed on the entire 360 scopes.
So we’re also learning. When to bring in other subject matter experts into the conversation. So we can make sure that our own people aren’t learning through their own mistakes. When someone in a department maybe that sits across the, uh, the, the room or now, you know, virtually, uh, would have that knowledge and could help expedite or save a lot of downstream aggravation.
So the educational process is constant on both sides on the customer side, in on, and internally.
So how are you using technology to your advantage these days, you know, to be more efficient, save time, save labor, do things correctly?
Um, what are you guys doing?
So we, um, we’re constantly evaluating our technology. We have our main ERP. That is the backbone of the company, but we have all these plugins that, I mean, we read that the call I was on, uh, just before this was all about our critical mass planning and visibility from all aspects of the company where anybody can come in and see like a company-wide calendar.
And I don’t mean like holiday party stuff. I mean, which customers are doing initiatives and which departments that affect, and what their role is. So to where there’s a lot more visibility. So we’re constantly, I’m personally not a technology guy, but we, fortunately, have a lot of technology people here and, Yeah, we’re leaning on as much of the technology that we can vet out and it’s hard to implement things. You can’t just kinda, you know, bring new technologies in without properly vetting them.
And then also it has to work as holistically as possible. You don’t want to have too many independent technologies running because it gets very cumbersome.
So yeah, we are, we’re doing our best there. I would say that we have a ways to go, but we have. You know, we definitely are, uh, constantly trying to figure out better ways to do things through technology.
Yeah. So I’ve been to a lot of businesses, uh, you know, cause I’m a coach and stuff and weren’t the things I see a lot of times is that a lot of companies struggle because they don’t have enough subject matter experts in the technology that they’re using.
So what happens is only one or two people really know the program and then everybody else kind of halfway uses it. And then that causes a lot of heartaches and struggle because. There isn’t that standard there isn’t that training. You’re supposed to be doing it this way.
And then they either don’t know or they just, they try to take a shortcut and that causes some mistakes down the road.
Has that kind of, uh, happened in your company and what did you guys do about it?
It has happened and it does happen on occasion. So now what we do is with any. With any, what we would call a code red situation, which is not necessarily an emergent situation, but it’s, it’s something that is going to have a significant financial impact on the company, whether it’s a new, large customer or a, a large initiative within an existing customer.
So we do meetings on the front end that involve all the stakeholders, our accounting department, our warehouse team, our sales team, our IT team.
So all of these departments can be together on the front end to make sure that we build the path together, uh, because to your point earlier, everything is custom and some customers want things partially on their own system.
Some customers want us to handle parts of the equation that other customers don’t want us to handle.
So there’s, there are lots of different, uh, exceptions to the rule. So we, we try our best to bring everybody in on the front end, which creates a smoother overall experience.
But, you know, there are always issues. If it was so easy, then everybody would be doing it successfully. And that’s not the case.
Yeah. So it’s really about mapping out what clarity and success looks like down the road and then working backward from that.
Yeah. Last question. If you could go back in time and, uh, have you and Scott and Greg, uh, kind of, you could talk to you guys, your younger self, what would you say to yourselves that might be different that would set you up for success?
Now, so it’s really about what advice would you give you guys?
So it’s just, it’s just gotten, I, Greg has been, um, out of the company for many years now, but for one thing this year, as I would say, as, as ridiculous as it sounds, you may want to consider having a pandemic plan, which we did not.
But we’ve been able to maneuver what I would consider pretty successfully through this, but it has not been fun.
So there’s that. And I would say that, you know, when you’re starting a company from pretty much nothing, you, you don’t know what you’re gonna, you know, there’s different iterations of the company.
And as the company grows, the company needs more resources. So I would say that we tried our best. As we started to bring in the very best people we could.
But when the reality is we were a very small company. And then in the big scheme of things, we’re still a relatively small company, but in, in our world and in our industry were, you know, more of a midsize I guess. And. It’s important to think like a big company. So if you’re going to scale a company, you have to think you cannot think mom and pop scale.
So things like gut feel, which you can always lean on intuition, but you can’t make decisions in a scaled environment because, we have to, we have to look at the data and we have to be able to quickly have access to the data, open transparency and be able to make quick decisions.
And I think that going back to 2001, if we had a little bit of a big boy mentality, we would have maybe gotten there a little bit faster.
I mean, we’re a 19-year-old company and I think that I’m proud of our success, but I think that that mentality would have, uh, served us well.
And now we’re having to retrain some of the ways we think, and it’s hard, it’s hard. And it’s like, uh, breaking old habits and, and changing, um, the way we think and the way we behave and act.
And I think that if we had been like that more from the very beginning, we would be able to bypass [00:19:00] that changing our neural pathway.
Yeah. It’s hard to turn the battleship.
If you were thinking about that, would that be your people that you’re hiring, would that be your structure? Would that be investing in technology or a better operating system sooner?
You know, for somebody listening, I want them to get what tactical thing would you probably invest more time and resources in.
All of everything you just said, and we do, and we do that. However, you know, at some point you have to prioritize and at some point, you have to pull triggers. And I think that that’s where having that global mentality.
Would make it where a sales and marketing organization first. And that’s what we became the day we started. And we will always be that that’s in our DNA. So going out winning business, doing biz dev, building relationships, high touch, high service, that’s what we built our success. And that’s who we are as a company to scale that requires constant evolution of all those things you just mentioned.
So sometimes what happens is you can bring in, you can have too many customers at the front door and you gotta be able to make the burgers. We, we use the expression, we use that analogy is “we got to get the burgers out the door” and we do, we do get them out the door.
And I would like to think the customer finds the majority of them delicious, but they may not, they may not see that the dehydration of the chef. Or the, you know, the, all the other little issues that happen behind the curtain that we constantly need to work on and evolve and grow as a company. And I’m, I’m being a little bit hard on us.
I will say we do a pretty good job and. And we do get the burgers out the door, but we’re, you know, I think it’s important to have a, a healthy dose of, uh, being self-critical, uh, but not to a, uh, destructive level and also a healthy dose of fear every day is what drives us. So, you know, we want to make sure that our customers love us every day and are all the stakeholders, all the stakeholders and it’s, and it’s a little bit more challenging when you don’t get to see people in our, you know, in an interpersonal environment.
So. These are, this is hopefully the temporary abnormal.
Well, you know, I’ve had the pleasure to actually work with you guys, both as a contract print partner, like forever ago. And then also just as somebody in the industry, I’ve been to your, your, uh, office downtown and also your print production facility.
And you guys have an amazing team and everybody is critically focused on making your customers happy. And that’s just such a joy.
Thank you. Yeah, we try and they do a fantastic job. We do have a great team and we’re very proud of that.
Okay, great. So thanks so much, Jordy, for sharing your story of your success today.
So if somebody wanted to learn more about Icebox or even you, how would they get a hold of you and learn more?
So they can go to Icebox Cool Stuff, dot com. That’s our general website. And it tells a little bit of our story and it shows off photos and some videos of our facilities. My email is Jordy, J O R D firstname.lastname@example.org and our Telephone number is (404) 460-1275 (404) 460-1275.
And my direct number is (404) 665-2406.
Awesome. Hey, thank you so much. Uh, and our best wishes for you and Icebox success for the future.
Thank you, Marshall. I appreciate it. You too.