"We just kept taking down walls."
That's how Tim O'Neill, founder of Image Masters, describes the gradual growth of his promotional products company. And he means that literally and figuratively.
Literally, as they kept expanding their operations in a building on Grogan Avenue -- to the point when the owner finally asked, "Why don't you just buy the building?" So he did. The company now operates inside 7,500 square feet of space.
And figuratively, as they showed in their recent tie-up with the Facilis Group, a consulting and software services company based in St. Louis and Ottawa that lets outfits such as Image Masters do what they do best -- create images for all kinds of uses -- while Facilis takes care of the "back office" bookkeeping chores.
Image Masters has been around since 1994. Its work is seen all over the county -- from the city of Merced logo to UC Merced T-shirts and ball caps to emblems and artwork for Safeway, Kagome, Minturn Nuts, Hilltop Ranch, the Merced Mall, Kirby Manufacturing, Merco Credit Union, LifeSpring Church, the Merced County Office of Education -- "I know I can't list them all," he says of Image Masters' hundreds of customers.
The customer list extends far afield -- University of the Pacific, Santa Clara University, Sonoma State.
And one reason for Image Masters' longevity and expansion is that it takes care of its customers. "Too many people in business focus on the transaction," O'Neill says. "Over the years, we've done a lot of transactions where we've lost money -- but I look at the lifetime value of customers who keep coming back."
He's also a disciple of the Japanese concept of kaizen -- constantly improving the product. "If you can improve 100 things 1 percent, it's like improving one thing 100 percent," he observes. "Make them just a little bit better each time."
Image Masters stamps your identity on a product -- a silk-screened T-shirt, an embroidered company jacket, a decal on a coffee cup, a name on a tire gauge -- up to 2,500 items. The universe of such apps is huge -- nearly half a million in the promotional products industry. But Image Masters focuses on its Signature Collection of those 2,500 products on which to make your mark. The firm handles about 3,500 jobs a year.
The 17 people who work at Image Masters each form part of a process. It starts with two graphic artists who design the "decoration" that will be applied to a product. Then comes a lineup of machines, each meant for a specific use: a printer that can handle a 3-foot banner; a vinyl cutter when a team wants a number and a name on a jersey; a direct-to-garment printer that leaves its image on a T-shirt, one at a time.
One workhorse is the Gauntlet Revolver, which is loaded by hand but automatically applies up to six stencils and one color of ink after another. This machine, O'Neill says, ensures that what's on the cloth won't crack or peel. "The ink should last longer than the garment," he says. "If it doesn't, bring it back and we'll replace it."
Embroidery is the most labor-intensive task in the building. Tyler Krasko sits at one table fingering the embroidered logo on a work jacket. He rubs the front, feels the back and will make changes if all's not right. "Basically, it doesn't leave this table till it's perfect," he says.
In another room the thread is "digitalized" to tell the machine how to sew the design. Programmed in are long or short stitches. Image Masters keeps thousands of designs on file so it can retrieve one quickly for repeat customers.
O'Neill, originally from Massachusetts and Southern California, came here after his wife, Marilyn, got a transfer from PG&E and he wanted to use his master's in communications. For a while he ran a small marketing agency downtown, but as his vision grew, he knew he needed more space. So Image Masters wound up on Grogan Avenue.
John Rivard was his first employee -- and the master designer is still on the premises, handling the operational side of the business. The tattered New England Patriots jersey he wore last week clearly wasn't done by Image Masters.
The founder has been involved in dozens of community activities over the years and was on one of the charter committees from 1988-95 trying to get the UC regents to locate a campus here. Image Masters became UC Merced's first licensee, and it's the company's biggest customer. "It never occurred to me when we were lobbying to get the campus here that it would become our largest client," he says.
Employees at Image Masters have been there an average of six or seven years, O'Neill says. "We try to be more of a family than a company," he adds. Image Masters has weathered three recessions. At the trough of the current one, the company dropped to 12 employees from 26 and is now back up to 17. Last year sales rose 22 percent over 2010.
Surviving that gauntlet is why his thoughts on the Big Picture are worth hearing: "I'm an incurable optimist. Obviously, unemployment here is terrible, but I do believe that our schools are doing a better job of preparing students for life and work, so that is promising. We have an excellent community college that folks can access to retrain for work and, of course, UC Merced will continue to grow and will ultimately attract and spin off new businesses for the community. I long ago bet my retirement on the Merced economy, and I'm hoping that eight to 10 years from now that proves to be a wise bet."
Executive Editor Mike Tharp can be reached at (209) 385-2456 or email@example.com