Rockridge Group – Springfield
Gardening. Grilling. Canines.
Elvis, Garfield, KISS, the Wizard of Oz.
The Rockridge Group LLC, an e-merchant based in Springfield, owns four distinct catalogs and has a gift for any purpose, imaginatively photographed and even more imaginatively described.
Here is just one example from iGift, the group’s newest catalog: a T-shirt with Abraham Lincoln doing something it’s unlikely he ever did in life — play the drums.
“America rocks!” reads the catalog description. “And in the annals of American history, there is no greater rock star than Abraham Lincoln. This cool lightweight T-shirt is a fitting tribute to a man who understood the rhythm of the nation and kept us rocking together as one.”
Then there’s the Leonardo da Vinci watch. The Renaissance genius wrote his journals in mirror script, so this watch tells time in reverse motion.
The watch is from the group’s Music Stand catalog. (Leonardo was also a talented musician.) The Music Stand’s customer base is musicians, performers, artists and music lovers in general and features merchandise ranging from watches and key chains to décor.
The other two catalogs are Linda Anderson, a home décor and gift catalog with a primarily adult female audience, and Characters, which carries licensed merchandise from such brands as Peanuts, Disney, Elvis Presley and the Wizard of Oz.
Today, Rockridge Group employs nine individuals and is on pace to surpass the $1 million mark in sales. But the path to profitability was not an easy one.
In 2008, co-owners Gretchen Dexter, husband Phil Dexter and colleague Gary Cummings were middle managers for the catalog retailer owning Music Stand, Linda Anderson and Characters. 2008 was a very bad year for gift items as for everything else; sales slumped, and the retailer was forced to file for bankruptcy. By this time, the company’s executive team was gone, so the company’s remaining management team, including the Dexters and Cummings, were asked to stay behind to tidy up and go down with the ship.
Instead, the three entrepreneurs scraped together a $60,000 loan from family to help start up the new entity. Through negotiations with the secured creditor in the bankruptcy case, they then relaunched the three brands.
They were joined by Adrienne Crow, the fourth co-owner. Dexter also contacted the Missouri State University (MSU) SBTDC in Springfield. She remembers this time as stimulating and terrifying; terrifying because she and her partners could lose everything, stimulating because the partners firmly believed in the three catalogs.
Gretchen attended an MSU SBTDC conference in 2008 on how to write a business plan, followed by a seminar on growing a business in trying economic times and later, analyzing the competition. The four owners collectively had decades of experience in catalogs but not as much in ownership and management.
Initial consultations between Gretchen and Isabel Eisenhauer, MSU SBTDC business development specialist, focused on acquiring the bankrupt company’s property at bargain prices. This included intellectual property such as photos, customer lists and the physical inventory. Gretchen felt the previous owners hadn’t fully recognized or leveraged these brands.
Eisenhauer also helped Gretchen articulate a viable business model and work out some of the kinks of an e-business. A catalog business, especially one focused on gifts, requires large inventories and constant novelty.
Eisenhauer also knew the business required a greater infusion of capital. The initial family loan was followed by the owners’ investment of their own money, but these investments were not nearly large enough to grow the business.
The knowledge gained from the SBTDC business plan seminar was instrumental in the partner’s presentation to the city of Springfield, which granted them two loans. And this business know-how was again put to good use when Rockridge Group applied for and secured a larger loan from Commerce Bank. The SBTDC further helped the group assemble a comprehensive marketing plan and facilitated introductions to Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon and state legislators.
Gretchen’s faith in the catalogs and all this hard work began to pay off.
In its first year, the Rockridge Group recorded nearly $400,000 in sales. This amount grew to more than $530,000 in 2010 and more than $1 million in 2012, a phenomenal growth rate of nearly 200 percent in less than four years. The groups’ catalogs are so well recognized today that Amazon invited the group to be a seller.
Over the years, the group has explored many business models, including a physical one, renting space for a brick and mortar store called Ampersand in downtown Springfield. This space also allowed for adequate storage, a must in any business like this. Cost analysis, however, showed that e-sales were ultimately more profitable and the group discontinued the store in favor of drop shipment and other efficient business practices practiced by giant retailers.
And the process continues. In late 2012, MSU SBTDC business development specialist Collin Bunch re-engaged the owners with a plan to evaluate their four websites, search engine optimization and boost social media. The gift business is fueled by enthusiasm, and a robust social media presence can only increase customer awareness and fervor.
“It’s really been gratifying to watch Gretchen and her partners rebuild this business from the ground up,” said Eisenhauer. “Gretchen and her partners represent the very best of Missouri’s entrepreneurial spirit. Rather than stand by and watch their jobs and the brands disappear, they formed their own firm.”
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