Branded Image relocation highlights growth, expansion

Derek Spellman

Leigh Hartjes says he gets asked sometimes about starting a business in the middle of a recession.

He and his business partner, Jim Kawecki, started Branded Image, which provides logoed apparel and merchandise, in 2008. The pair had worked together as salesmen in the uniform rental business industry when they decided to branch off on their own.

And yet, the past few years have actually been good ones for their business. Hartjes, who has lived in the Verona area for 20 years, said business had doubled every year until this year. This year it is up 70 percent from the last one and “we’re still expanding pretty rapidly.”

It has grown enough, in fact, that they had to relocate Branded Image from Venture Court to larger space – at 211 E. Verona Ave. – in June.

“We manage our costs well,” Hartjes said. “We don’t have as much overhead as some places.”

In a tough economy, people “were watching their costs more,” Hartjes said.

That’s where Branded Image’s lower overhead coupled with its customer service came to bear.

The company prides itself on its customer service.

“We’ve never lost a customer,” Kawecki said.

Hartjes cited the lengths the company will go for clients, recounting stories about driving to Indiana and back in the same day, for example, to pick up T-shirts for a customer who needed them that day.

The pair already had a customer service bent from their times in sales together. Both Hartjes and Kawecki were in the uniform rental industry when Kawecki persuaded Hartjes to join him as entrepreneurs.

 “We were both with the corporate world, and to be honest, we didn’t like how they treated the customers,” Hartjes recalled, explaining that it often meant increasing prices and adding charges. “We just didn’t think they were treating people fair.”

When the pair started out, they based their business out of their homes. Initially, the majority of their business was in apparel, Hartjes said, and while apparel remains the largest portion of their business, Branded Image’s repertoire has grown to include cups, tumblers, postcards and bottle openers.

That first year, the two men built their business in part by pounding the pavement.

“We just went and knocked on doors,” Hartjes said, reaching out to clients in person, by phone and by e-mail.

Their business has grown enough over the past few years that Hartjes and Kawecki needed a larger place. They moved the business out of their homes and into a facility on Venture Court. Then they found that they needed to move again.

“We started getting pretty embedded in the community here,” Kawecki said.

They had been looking for a new location when they spotted a sign advertising a vacancy at 211 E. Verona Ave. So they relocated in June to their new 900-square-foot home, double the size of what they had before.

“Everybody knows where we are now,” Kawecki said.

“We needed the space and we loved the location,” Hartjes said of the spot on the city’s main thoroughfare.

Hartjes said he and his partner are going to have to hire additional help sometime next year. The business has been just the two of them since its inception.

“We’re growing to the point that we’re going to have to hire somebody,” he said.

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