25 Years of Diving Deep
Connect Business Magazine celebrates 25 years of promoting local business.
In 1994, local businessman Jeffry Irish decided to finally pursue an idea he’d been considering for a while: starting a business magazine.
Irish couldn’t have known how much of an impact publishing Connect Business Magazine would have on the business community in the Minnesota River Valley. However, he figured it wouldn’t be too much extra work. After all, as owner of the Nicollet-based graphic design firm Concept & Design, Irish already had the skills and staff needed to put together a magazine. It was something they could even do during downtime.
Two key reasons motivated Irish to create the magazine. First, he believed area companies needed a magazine that would be delivered directly to business leaders, which would allow them to advertise specifically to a regional audience, according to the publisher’s note at the beginning of the first issue.
“The second is that many area businesses operate in relative obscurity,” Irish writes in that first column. “Time and again I have encountered companies who are completely unaware that a particular product or service they require is being produced literally in their own back yard.”
Connect has grown and evolved over the 25 years since it started, but it has remained committed to these two ideas on which it was founded.
A Broad Range of Businesses and People
Currently under the direction of Editor Lisa Cownie, the magazine’s rotating lineup of local writers continues to produce articles about local companies and businesspeople. Many are established figures in the local business community, such as Marty Davis of Cambria; Angie and Dan Bastian of Angie’s Artisan Treats; and even Glen Taylor of Taylor Corporation and his niece, Deb Taylor, the company’s current CEO. Other profiles though, feature more obscure names and identify emerging businesses that help keep this region unique and growing.
In addition to adjustments in editors and writers throughout the years, the publishing staff also underwent a change. When Irish retired in 2015, he passed the torch to the remaining Concept & Design staff — Illustrator/Photographer Jonathan Smith, Graphic Designer/Photographer Kris Kathmann and Office Manager Becky Wagner — who have continued to support the local business community.
“Jeff’s vision was … connecting the area businesses to each other, making it more of a community in just getting to know them. I think that can have benefits,” Smith says. “And Mankato does seem to be really aware of everyone else now. I think we’ve probably played a role in that.”
Kathmann also sees the advertisements as important, maybe more than some would think. “If you pick up Vogue or the New York Times, they’re speaking to the nation — they’re not speaking to your local area. So I’ve heard people say, ‘I love looking at the ads.’ They see people’s photos and they get to know who they are,” he says.
What is important, is that people look forward to receiving the magazine, according to Wagner, who oversees production and circulation for Connect Business Magazine.
“They enjoy reading about the business leaders we’ve profiled, hearing about their successes and roadblocks and how they overcame them,” she says. “I think that’s a big part of doing our job of connecting businesspeople in the area.”
An important part of the job is showcasing the broad range of people and companies. Although the magazine features many prominent members of the business community, it also profiles many others who have a story to tell, even if they’re not household names. A recent example of this was the article about Wu Lin, owner of Tokyo Sushi & Hibachi in Mankato, according to Smith. The restauranteur’s passion was clear in the November 2018 cover story.
“It’s not about who is the biggest and who has succeeded the most,” Smith says. “When you look at this story on Wu Lin, it’s the road he’s taken, the adventure, and it can be any size. You see his enthusiasm, so it’s a great story to read.”
Over the past 25 years, the publishers, editors and writers have worked to tell these stories. Connecting business professionals has required new and exciting additions to the magazine. This includes not just growing the distribution area but also innovating through frequent magazine redesigns, social media and video.
Connecting a Larger Area
The total print run for the first issue in 1994 was 600 magazines. At that time, it was simply called Connect Magazine.
“We added the word ‘Business’ to our name in July of 1996 to drive home the fact that we are a business magazine,” Wagner says. “Before the addition of this word, (former editor) Dan Vance was worried that to the casual observer, Connect Magazine could have been an electrical supply or computer trade journal.”
Now the magazine prints more than 12,000 copies and mails them directly to area business leaders in 15 counties — having recently added four counties in southern Minnesota and two in northern Iowa.
This continued expansion was a goal from the beginning. In his column in the first issue, Irish expressed a desire for Connect to take readers “beyond city limits to a larger business environment that encompasses Mankato, North Mankato, St. Peter, New Ulm, and surrounding satellite communities. This broader view offers greater opportunity for buyer and seller alike, without overreaching the practical advantages of close proximity and rapid response.”
The expansion into Lyon, Redwood, Cottonwood and Jackson counties in Minnesota and Dickinson and Emmet in Iowa was strategic. Most of these counties to the west and south of the magazine’s existing distribution area — Sibley, Nicollet, Brown, Le Sueur, Watonwan, Blue Earth, Waseca, Martin and Faribault counties — did not have a business magazine serving their area. However, the residents still have important business relationships in the area, Smith says.
“The idea being, we can reach them and bring them into the fold,” he says.
According to Kathmann, it added value for the readers, companies profiled and advertisers to expand to these communities. “Marshall is probably the biggest one in that direction, so we’ve done a couple stories out there already,” he says.
Through the expansion, the magazine has furthered its goal of bringing together the local business community and promoting area companies. However, it has also started to employ other methods to do this that are more high tech.
Connecting Through New Methods
For a number of years, Connect Business Magazine has maintained its online presence by social media posts and regularly updating its website, which has an archive of issues dating back to 1996. Last year, it added a brand new feature: Connect TV.
Connect TV finished its first season in January 2019. The five episodes have highlighted each business featured in the magazine through an interview with Cownie, who has a background in broadcast journalism and is currently also a morning news anchor for KEYC News 12. The idea to add video content originated from conversations that Cownie had with staff at True Facade Pictures, a Mankato-based video production company.
Kathmann recalled that not long before Cownie approached the staff at Concept & Design about adding the videos, he had watched a similar video online. Although he was unsure about adding video at first, he thought that if they could so something similar, it would be a good addition to the magazine.
“Before we started doing it, I was visiting the Star Tribune website, and I saw the article about their restaurant of the year winner. The feeling of it was a lot like a Connect Business Magazine article: it had a lot of personality to it. The video at the top of the screen was only a minute or two, and was kind of a complement to the story text, and I thought it really added to the story,” he says. “Lisa and the True Facade guys knew exactly what I was talking about.”
Connect TV offers a unique look at the businesspeople profiled in the magazine, but it can’t replace the in-depth storytelling found from cover to cover in an issue of Connect, according to Smith.
“We’re not looking at Connect TV to ever replace the magazine,” he says. “We see it as one of many possible ways of dipping our toes into new and different media, to supplement the quality of the magazine’s brand.”
‘What is the Worth of Connect?’
As Connect Business Magazine has grown over the past 25 years so has the business community it covers. “It seems strong,” Kathmann says. “Mankato seems like a pro-business area — and the surrounding region.”
Things are booming, and there is an ever expanding number of enterprising professionals who have a dream to offer some new product or service. Sharing people’s successes and unique viewpoints on how to run a company will continue to be the priority for Connect Business Magazine, because it helps others understand how to start or grow a business.
One piece of advice that sticks out to Kathmann comes from a profile of Fallenstein and FUN.com in the May 2017 issue. Succeeding in business, he paraphrases, is less about genius or inspiration than it is about hard work and attention to detail.
“People always talk about their million dollar idea, but the execution is always more important than the idea. You can take a mediocre idea and execute it really well and be successful,” Kathmann says. “You don’t hear people saying that very often.”
Back in 1994, Irish shared a similar sentiment in that first issue. Reflecting on what drove him to start the magazine, he writes: “Ideas are like pennies, there are millions in circulation but only a few that are rare enough to be of any real worth.”
After discussing those two main motivations — giving companies a local forum and making business leaders aware of others in the area — Irish acknowledges that it’s not for him to decide whether the magazine is successful.
“What is the worth of Connect Magazine? That assessment will be made by you the reader and advertiser,” he writes. “If we do our job well, the information contained within the pages of this magazine will strengthen your own local business connections and provide tangible benefits to your organization.”
Concept & Design celebrates 40th anniversary
While Connect Business Magazine has been publishing consecutively for 25 years, the company that produces it is celebrating a larger milestone. Concept & Design, a graphic design and photography studio, has achieved 40 years of serving the business community in Greater Mankato and beyond.
Jeffry Irish opened the design studio in 1979 in a two-story brick storefront in downtown Nicollet. The company moved directly next door to a new one-story building in 1984, just after Jonathan Smith started working there.
Just before Smith graduated from South Central College, Irish visited one of his classes, scoping out possible employees. He looked through Smith’s portfolio and hired him to be an illustrator on the spot. Back then, of course, the profession was very different, and the new building housed many art supplies that are no longer necessary.
“We had our light tables and wax keylining and airbrushing,” Smith says. “I used to wear a gas mask because the particles from the airbrush were so thick in here.”
“And all we heard was the hum of the airbrush compressor,” adds Becky Wagner, who was hired in 1986. “It was an everyday sound.”
By the time Kathmann joined the team as the final member thus far, most of the tools of the trade had become digital. He started as a graphic design artist for the company in 1996, picking up more and more of the photography duties over time.
Although it has been around for 40 years, Concept & Design has not rested on its laurels. It continues to evolve to this day and grow its services — as well as the magazine — to better meet the needs of area businesses.
“Being a small company, to survive you have to push the boundaries and learn new skills. Otherwise you’re not going to have an edge up on anyone if you’re just doing design work,” Kathmann said. “We just try to be creative and push ourselves to do the best work we possibly can, and people recognize it and stick with us for that reason.”
Connecting Area Editors and Writers
Since the first issue in March 1994, numerous area journalists have helped make Connect Business Magazine what it is. “Over time there have been a lot of people who have contributed,” says Jonathan Smith. “Our editors have steered the magazine over the past 25 years: Angelia Fredrickson, March 1994 to May 1996; Daniel Vance, July 1996 to January 2015; Grace Webb, March 2015 to May 2016; Lisa Cownie, July 2016 to Present.”
Each new editor has impacted the magazine’s approach to reporting on the area business community as well as its overall aesthetic. “It has visibly changed depending on who the editor is at the time, which I think is good,” says Kris Kathmann.
A number of writers have also contributed to the magazine. These include Mary Effertz, Roger Matz, Carlienne Frisch, Mike Lagerquist, Sara Gilbert Frederick, Joe Tougas, Deb Schubbe, Erin Dorney, Anna Vangsness, and Kerry Hoffman, among others.
“We’d like to thank the people that help us put it together and make it what it is,” Kathmann adds.
New Designs Throughout The Years
Although its mission and business coverage have remained the same, the form Connect Business Magazine has taken throughout the years has changed quite a bit. It started as a 20-page magazine distributed monthly, says Becky Wagner, adding: “It’s fun to look at the first magazine compared to what it is now.”
Some of the graphics were still sketched, painted or airbrushed by hand, Smith says. “The magazine was a lot smaller back then and also only full color on the cover and maybe one interior page. The others were two-color printing process, which back then was so much cheaper than full color,” he adds.
Flipping through the pages of issue no. 1 is like opening a time capsule. There are images of old company logos, such as the previous Schell’s Deer Brand labels, and there also are businesspeople who have since retired or taken on new roles.
One thing that has not changed is the length of the articles. Connect has also offered in-depth coverage of each company it features. The publishing staff has received feedback from readers in person and through reader surveys saying that the long-form features are what they enjoy most, according to Kris Kathmann.
“When we ask them to rank the sections of the magazine, those are at the top,” he says. “I remember we were in a meeting with Jonathan Zierdt at Greater Mankato Growth, and when he came in the room to greet us, he said, ‘Oh, Connect — that’s when you want to dive in deep.’”
Connect Business Magazine
208 Pine Street
Nicollet, MN 56074
Digital back issues of Connect Business Magazine, since January 2012, are available at: issuu.com/connectbiz
Change–As Inevitable As The Rising and Setting Sun
Old soldiers may just fade away, but old publishers rise from the mothballs for a second say.
Perhaps the owners of Connect Business Magazine simply needed some filler copy, but as founder of the publication, I appreciate being asked to help commemorate the magazine’s 25th anniversary.
In the years leading up to 1994, I thought a great deal about how to improve communications within the regional business community; how to keep dollars working within the area by showcasing the products and services available in our own backyards. I also believed the entrepreneurs who took the chances, created the jobs, and generously contributed time and money to support local events were being short shifted and deserved greater recognition.
I was convinced that a focused, richly-illustrated publication was the best vehicle to achieve my aims. Yet my work experience in the printing industry was littered with examples of others who tried similar ventures and failed. High-end printing in the early ‘90s was an expensive proposition – far more so than today. The preparation cost of a single color photograph could buy a night on the town for a party of four, drinks included. But, things were about to change.
Just as the K-T boundary marks the extinction of the dinosaurs, the early ‘90s sounded the death knell for many old-line professions and long-established ways of doing things. It took the eye of faith to see the growing technological tsunami and imagine how it would reshape the landscape of virtually every business enterprise.
Desktop computers of the time were memory-challenged, slow-witted workplace oddities (much as I am today).
Cell phones were unwieldy bricks with all the intelligence and sex appeal of Maxwell Smart’s shoe phone.
Digital cameras were little more than laboratory prototypes with resolutions inferior to a Kodak Brownie.
Yet each new product release and upgrade brought staggering new capabilities. Astonishing reductions in time, cost and labor began revealing new business opportunities. The impractical became the possible.
For me, it was the right place and time. Connect Business Magazine was the product of technological change. It was the first, and is the longest continuously published full-color, business periodical to serve south central Minnesota. Under the guidance of a good writer, editor and staff, it survived faltering baby steps and gained a loyal reader base. Importantly, it also drew sponsors who recognized the value of targeted advertising.
But change giveth and taketh away. The ‘90s also ushered in the elephant that walked into the center of the room and sat down without hardly anyone noticing. The first time I saw a demonstration of the internet was on a black and green monochrome CRT. No sound, no video, no pop-up ads – just a few stuttering lines of text. When the screen froze, my enthusiastic guide stepped in much as an old professor would if his film strip broke. I was told the words on the screen had come from a computer in another state. I was told that had things worked as intended, we would have been able to communicate back and forth and exchange information. Rather than coming away with a bad taste in my mouth, I can honestly say I was impressed. It was perhaps the only time I’ve ever felt I was looking directly into the future.
I didn’t know how or if businesses would utilize the internet, but if it developed at the speed of other new technology, it would be a force to be reckoned with. Whether embraced or shunned, attitudes about utilizing the internet depended to a large degree on how you buttered your bread and how many gray hairs were on your head. It’s no surprise that the internet struck fear into the hearts of magazine and newspaper publishers everywhere. Here was a new way to instantly deliver news with minimal capital investment and no material production costs. At one point, I wondered if this change would sideline Connect before it ever got out of the starting blocks.
In retirement, I’ve found old age is not so much a matter of reaching a fixed point in time but the point at which one no longer sees change as a path to something better. I remember an old uncle lambasting a mechanical digger. “Look at that infernal machine,” he said. “Think of all the men it’s putting outta work. Where they gonna get a job now?”
When I started seeing unemployed ditch diggers everywhere I looked, I knew it was time for me to make my exit and put Connect into the hands of people who continue to see change as opportunity for new and better things.
While I cannot take credit, I am incredibly proud of the standing of Connect Business Magazine on its 25th Anniversary. The current staff has not only maintained the highest production standards in print, but has shown the vision to partner with local television and web-based services to deliver a more dynamic, widely accessible resource. Well done!
I’ll always prefer the simplicity of the printed page, but if you have age-challenged eyes like me, give ‘em a treat. Check out these feel-good video tie-ins: Hometown Business Connection on KEYC News 12 and Connect TV on YouTube.
Have a profitable day,