Brooklyn Center firm grows by helping companies reach out to at-home workers

Imprint Engine had to pivot during the pandemic.

Before COVID-19 hit, most of the Brooklyn Center company’s business was creating company banners, apparel and other branded items for events.

With in-person trade shows and conferences shut down, the company was able to work with clients for a new purpose: connecting with employees and customers who were, like many Americans, working from home. A pressing need was helping to virtually onboard new workers.

Revenue from the welcome kits and other products from its new human resources business grew from 10 to 50% of all sales.

The pivot, along with working with its marketing customers on new ideas, helped Imprint grow during 2020 and 2021. At the start of 2019, the company reported $5 million in annual sales. In 2021, sales were $13 million.

“And we are on track to do $18 million to $20 million this year,” said co-owner Zach Sussman. The workforce has grown from 25 to 75 employees in four years.

“The pandemic had a huge impact on our business,” Sussman said.

Small and medium-size businesses were especially hit hard with pandemic challenges. The Minnesota Chamber of Commerce reported last month that 41% of small and medium-size companies have not seen sales recover to pre-pandemic levels. More than 15% said they don’t expect full recovery until 2024 or beyond.

Fast thinking and customer outreach at the beginning helped some companies more than others.

The three Imprint owners found part of the answer in the welcome kits, which include items such as T-shirts, water bottles and backpacks printed or embroidered with customers’ names and logos. The kits were mailed to employees’ homes.

The company also made changes to sync their technology with clients’ systems to make for seamless ordering and delivery for customers such as Cenex, Poached, Thumbtack and Metropolis, Sussman said.

Gradient Financial Group in Arden Hills is one of those customers. COVID-19 meant the cancellation of two important 2020 events in Florida and California for 400 financial advising clients.

“COVID hits and all our events stopped, and stopped drastically,” said Brian Lucius, Gradient’s chief distribution officer. “Suddenly, we’re not going to see our 200 best clients twice a year, so what do we do? We did an online virtual meeting and [had Imprint] ship out 250 ice cream makers to these clients.”

Other mailings followed with different types of gifts and mementos for clients and also employees deserving of rewards.

“Before COVID, Imprint did 20 percent of our shipping. Now they do 80 percent of it. Our revenue to them has probably doubled,” Lucius said, noting that he ultimately spent less, because he no longer had to have 15 of Gradient’s staffers pack the swag into kits for the in-person events.

It proved a lesson, he said.

“It’s one of those things where COVID shoved you into it, and now you are happy that it happened. We should have been doing this all along,” Lucius said.

Imprint also was able to keep business going with other event customers through marketing gift bags or “employee appreciation” and “employee engagement” kits. The kits might include plants, candles, mini meditation kits or other items for home offices.

The need for different types of employee outreach is likely to stay with hybrid work plans or the growth of work-from-home positions at many corporations, Sussman said.

Such outreach is seen as a smart way to connect with workers and to ward off turnover, a problem that has become so rampant economists refer to it as the Great Resignation, human resources experts say.

“At the moment most organizations are still struggling to attract and retain the talent they need,” Kate Bravery, a Mercer Global Advisory Solutions & Insights leader, said in a report last week. “Nearly all executives, 96 percent, say we are in an employee-centric labor market and 70 percent of HR professionals are predicting higher than normal turnover this year, most notably with regard to younger workers and those in the digital space.”

Finding different ways of engaging talent makes organizations “relatable,” she said.

Meanwhile, event business is starting to return as well.

To be ready for an expected increase in business, Imprint tripled its footprint in January by moving its printing and warehouse headquarters from St. Louis Park to Brooklyn Center. This month, it opens a new logistics center in Dublin, Ireland, to serve clients across Europe.