TKO makes moves even a boxer would be proud of
By Gus Pearcy
TKO Graphix has enjoyed great success over the years, but it suffered a nearly fatal blow when the economy tanked in 2008. It took hard work and a little ingenuity to bring the company off the mat.
Starting on the far eastside of Avon in 1985, TKO Graphix, (TKO is the initials of Tommy, Kent and the Old man) was a fledgling business that painted and then did high-quality wraps for cars and trucks. Tommy, and his cousin Kent, worked very hard and eventually grew the business moving to a warehouse in Avon and then booming to Plainfield to respond to demand.
“This building is twice the size of the Avon building,” Tommy Taulman said from the headquarters in Plainfield TKO built eight years ago. “At first we only took 30 thousand of the 50 thousand total. About a year later, we had to take another 10 thousand and by two years we had to build in full. We’re busting at the seams now.”
All that changed in 2009, the worst year the company had ever seen since the 1980s. Taulman estimates TKO lost 60-80 percent of their business. Hauling goods was stymied. In the past, TKO would survive downturns because of mergers in the fleet carrier industry. Bigger companies would by struggling smaller carriers and then hire TKO to switch the graphics. That wasn’t happening either in the latest recession.
“It was to the point that we went down from 120 employees to 60 employees,” Taulman said.
After much contemplation and selling an ownership interest to four principals in the company, Taulman and the team began to look for ways out of the recession. The first strategy was to purchase Plainfield Signs, in 2010, and hire the owner Lee Faulkner. It turned out that Lee’s customers needed more work from TKO and TKO customers needed more in the way of signs.
“Almost every business has a sign,” Taulman said.
TKO Graphix added TKO signs and became a one-stop shop for business. Taulman said that one customer was opening a new terminal in Tennessee and was so busy with hiring drivers and getting the place ready, he just asked TKO to take care of the terminal signage.
Then, in 2012, TKO brought on Jack Woodlock, a promotional products guru with 25 years of experience.
“Now, we’ve got a customer like Great Dane with seven factories in the United States,” Taulman said.
“They’ve got 30 or 40 branches. Well, they’re rebranding everything. Now they can call us up and we can do their new signage for their building, which we are doing; we can do their truck wraps and change things over; and now we can promotional products for their open houses.”
Then, realizing that much of the work TKO was doing was just a portion of the entire marketing budget, Taulman and company went after more marketing dollars by opening a marketing department.
“A lot of our companies want that kind of service, but don’t want to go to the big ad agencies,” Taulman said. “They can come here and we can get them into a website and social media. We just became that great little marketing company. Pretty much, what we tell people, is anything that has got your logo on it, we can do it for you now.”
The plan has worked. The diversification strategy has worked to bring TKO back. Fleet graphics is still the core business, but building relations with current clients has given the 29-year-old company a new revenue stream that can hopefully weather all economic storms in the future.
What’s the best advice you ever received?
When we began the company in 1985, we chose our initials TKO as our name. But the mistake we made was calling it TKO Enterprises. I’d make sales calls and prospects would say, “Who?” or ask, “What do you want?” I was advised to change the name to TKO Graphix, and as soon as I did, people stopped asking who we were and what we did. They became a lot more receptive.
Best business decision you ever made:
In the beginning we painted letters and logos on vehicles. It was a painstaking and time-consuming process. Against the advice of many and bucking industry trends, in 1986 we took a risk and purchased our first graphics computer and haven’t looked back since.
Worst advice you ever received:
To concentrate on one product. We became nationally recognized for fleet graphics. It wasn’t the only thing we did, but it was the biggest percentage of our overall business. Then in 2009, when the economy tanked, we found we had a lot of eggs in one basket. Since then we’ve concentrated on diversification by looking for products that fit our customers’ needs and our competencies. We’ve added TKO Marketing Solutions, a promotional products division, TKO Signs, and TKO Marketing Services offering marketing help like website development, collateral materials, and social media initiatives. The economy looks strong and our business is better than ever, but if there is a downturn we’ve positioned ourselves to weather the storm.
In five years, I want …
To watch all TKO divisions continue controlled and manageable growth. And when I say watch, I mean occasionally from the golf course. My role continues to evolve from working in the business to on it. Thirty years ago I was painting letters, and twenty years ago I was the top salesperson. That’s not my job anymore. My job is to direct the organization and share a vision for the future … sometimes from the golf course.
My secret to success…
I gather good people around me. No one can be great at everything. The old days when the boss knew every aspect of his business and could solve every problem no longer exist. To be successful today, you must be able to attract, retain, and rely on people who know more about their chosen field than you do.
Finally, can you list either five books, or five movies, or five albums that have had an influence on your life. Your favorites in one category only.
Rich Dad Poor Dad
Trump: The Art of the Deal
Rich Dad’s Guide to Investing
Tin Cup Dreams
Golf is not a Game of Perfect