Photos by Kris Kathmann
After years of knocking around the Midwest as a laborer, Bill Thomas found a better niche in New Ulm.
With native artistic talent, a dash of casual entrepreneurship, a skilled crew to help and some solid sales connections, his two-year-old company now supplies screen-printed T-shirts and sweatshirts to a national market. Thomas is responsible for the graphics, which range from his original designs to illustrations furnished by customers.
Shirts screen-printed in New Ulm have gone to Miller Brewing Co., the Atlanta (GA) Chamber of Commerce, the Studebaker Museum in Indiana, Mount Rushmore in South Dakota, and Power Tel, a large telecommunications company down south. He hasn’t produced any for a national pro sports team (yet), “but we did do 700 shirts for a brew pub located right across the street from the Seattle Mariners ballpark,” he smiles. Realizing that such shirts fetch premium prices at retail, Thomas feels an obligation to produce designs worth the money. “If people are going to pay that much, the shirt ought to be something awesome!”
His company, T Productions, operates in downtown New Ulm, cramped into space occupied for many years by a hair salon at 422 Center St., half a block off the town’s main business street. Cardboard boxes full of plain shirts, ready for screen printing, and more boxes packed with finished shirts, ready for shipping, attest to the volume running through the company’s two hand-operated presses. A pair of floor fans whirr in an open doorway, pushing outdoor air toward the printers, Ross Deopere of Cambria and Jarrod Dybsetter of New Ulm. Four T-shirts are mounted on one press, half a dozen on the other, and there’s a strong smell of ink mixing with the humidity.
Thomas looks around, decides there’s really no space left for sitting, and suggests this Connect Business Magazine interview be conducted in a nearby coffee shop. He leads the way, encountering half a dozen guys in suits and ties during the two-block walk, attire that’s in stark contrast to the way he’s dressed. Thomas lopes along in sandals, a faded pair of denim shorts and an equally faded tank top. His long, straw-colored hair is gathered in a pony tail and tattoos run up and down his tanned arms.
“People ask how can I run a business and dress the way I do, but I tell them to stop in the shop once and they’ll get their answer. It’s hot in there and I like to be comfortable.”
Thomas talks about being born in San Diego, where his father was in the Navy, and growing up “all over the U.S., but mostly in South Dakota,” living for a while in places like Corpus Christi, TX, Atlanta, GA, and Denver, Co. Reading between the lines, it’s obvious that life for Thomas wasn’t always as settled and promising as it is today. He dropped out of high school and said he’s been on his own “since I was 16, building grain bins, working on construction.”
He took an interest in painting at the age of nine, but that interest failed to blossom during his childhood. “People never said it outright, but they implied I’d never make any money as an artist. Nobody ever encouraged me.”
Nobody, that is, until Jim Lieb, a high school art teacher in Dell Rapids, just outside Sioux Falls, SD, “handed me some paint brushes and told me to start painting.” Thomas did as he was told, and enjoyed his experiments with oils and water colors, although it wasn’t enough to keep him from quitting school. But he never put down the brushes and was still painting several years later while working as foreman of a concrete crew in Milbank, a small town in northeast South Dakota where his grandparents lived. That was in 1987, the year he discovered New Ulm.
“I came down here to go water skiing with some friends over at Lake Crystal and I liked New Ulm so much I ended up moving here.” He found a job at the Associated Milk Producers butter plant and continued to paint, “mostly portraits and vanity art muscle guys and things like that.” Sometimes he took his work to Doug Dybsetter, former owner of Horizon Gallery in New Ulm, for framing or critiques. Dybsetter, he said, strongly encouraged him to become an artist rather than a buttermaker.
Thomas said a back injury speeded his transformation from laborer to artist in 1992. After six years at AMPI, he enrolled at South Central Technical College in North Mankato, finishing his high school requirements there and then obtaining a two-year degree in commercial art. “It’s probably the best move I ever made because it’s made my life so much better. I still work my butt off, but I’m not wrecking my body. I’m using more of my brain than my body. Bob Williams, a commercial art instructor at South Central, really became a driving force for me.”
In 1994, Thomas accomplished three major Rites of Passage in four days. “I graduated from South Central on a Friday, the next day I married Sara Brush at Christ the King Lutheran Church in New Ulm, and on Monday, I opened Inkspot Screen Printing Co.” That shop was just around the corner from where T Productions is located.
“It was a one-man show, although some friends would help out when I needed it. I had a homemade light box and real crappy equipment, and it was probably a little bit early for me to be in business for myself. I didn’t have the money.”
Premature or not, he started Inkspot for two reasons: “I always had this fascination for T-shirts, everybody likes T-shirts, and they seemed to offer the fastest turnaround for making money on my art.” Thomas took whatever came through the door, mostly small orders for local bars and other businesses. “I had some knowledge of how it was done, but you just don’t put up a sign and hope everybody comes in.” Although Inkspot lasted only six months, it attracted the attention of Gopher Sport in Owatonna, a sporting goods company which had a screen printing division. “They offered me a job doing designs for them and at first I told them, No. I liked being my own boss. Then I kind of evaluated it and decided I could probably learn a lot more by going over there and working.” So Thomas shut the doors of his fledgling shop and commuted for three years to Owatonna.
In the summer of 1997, some friends who are in sales contacted him about designing shirts for them to sell. Those discussions ended his commuting and put him back into business in downtown New Ulm. “I said I’d do it, but I wanted to do the printing too. My motivation was to retain control of the quality.”
It wasn’t long before T Productions began doing shirts for other companies, jobbers and independent contractors. The business flourished, helped by a “networking system with sales people I’ve known for years. Sales people hang out with sales people. They check out the quality and artwork that’s on our shirts. Even if we come up with a good idea, you still have to have somebody to sell that good idea.
“These guys are comfortable knowing that when they send in an order, it’s going to be done right and people are going to like it. It’s kind of my job to make stuff look good so they move their merchandise.”
Although Thomas bought better equipment than he had at Inkspot and has two high-powered Mac computers for design programs, he says T Productions still isn’t a high-tech shop. “One thing I’ve seen in screen printing is that you can buy all the big expensive equipment that makes it go faster and easier, or get the basics and do a little hard work, keep better control of quality and not go bankrupt because you’ve got a whole warehouse full of equipment.” High-tech or not, T Productions can handle large volumes. The company’s largest single order so far was for 2,000 Power Tel shirts, 10 times more than his largest order at Inkspot.
“Thanks to my experience and the experience of my crew, we have been able to pick up the screen printing lines of other companies, doing it under their labels, giving them new looks and new designs every so many months. It’s kind of neat to give somebody ‘a look,’ to put your ideas forth to another company. They trust you to know what sells. Fashion changes every year or every month, for that matter. When I was at Gopher Sport, big six-color prints were in, and now it’s smaller designs with two or three colors.”
When customers place orders, they ship the apparel to T Productions, so Thomas avoids the expense of carrying an inventory and the need for warehousing. “It’s mostly tee-shirts and sweatshirts. We don’t do jackets and very seldom do we do hats. We have a theory about doing one thing and doing it well.”
With the help of his two Mac computers, Thomas can produce art “fast enough to do 30 designs a day. If we get a fax from the Studebaker museum that says we need 12 different designs, no problem.” Thomas frequently draws graphics freehand before scanning them into a computer for fine-tuning.
During the interview in the rear of a coffee shop, Thomas continually spread the credit for the company’s success. “The No. 1 thing that makes this go is the crew. I’m just one part of the equation. We’re a team. They know what to do, where it’s got to go and when it’s got to be there.”
The crew includes Deopere, who has an associate degree in graphic design from South Central Tech, and Dybsetter, who graduated from Savannah College of Arts and Science in Savannah, GA, and is the son of the former Horizon Gallery owner who gave Thomas so much encouragement. The team’s third member is Thomas’s wife, Sara. “Ross taught her how to print and now she’s the ‘Organizer of All.’ She does everything, prints, tracks orders, ships orders, counts shirts, cleans the screens. Everybody is cross-trained.”
The last two years have “flown by,” according to Thomas, but they’ve been punctuated with plenty of satisfaction. “We’ve processed thousands of orders, but it’s still exciting, it’s still fun. I like the idea of bringing money into New Ulm and the bigger clients we can get, the better. I’m proud to bring business into New Ulm.”
Thomas also gets a kick out of seeing his shirts wherever he goes. “There’s a lot of personal satisfaction in walking down the street and seeing 20 people wearing 20 different shirts that you’ve printed. I’ve been in different towns and states and seen people wearing our shirts.”
Although most of T Productions’ accounts are regional or national, Thomas enjoys producing shirts for local softball teams, dart leagues, taverns and other customers. “We have a big following, even here in town. A smile goes a long way with these people.”
He’s worked with August Schell Brewing Co. in New Ulm and Sleepy Eye’s Arneson Distributing Co., owners of such vintage labels as Hauenstein Beer, 1919 Root Beer and Buddy’s Orange. He enjoys working with the likes of Ted and Jodi Marti of Schell’s and Al and Rae Ann Arneson. “You get to meet a lot of different people, not only the dart teams but the CEO’s of brewing companies and work with them as a ‘regular average Joe,’ because that’s what I am.”
Thomas recently painted a mural for Schell’s new brew haus, embellishing an original logo that had been painted on a company safe years ago. He considers the tee-shirt promoting Schell’s new Firebrick beer to be the best ever done by T Productions. “It looked so good we all thought we should enter it in a print show or a print contest. But the reality of it is, we never have time to do that. We have some vendors who ask why we never go to screen-printing shows, but I guess while everybody else is there, we’re at home making money.”
If T Productions became Minnesota’s No. 1 screen-printing firm, that would be fine with Thomas. How will he know when it’s No. 1? “A prestigious client list would be the coolest way!”
©1999 Connect Business Magazine