Class of 2014
Kris Nelson, owner of Custom Accents Promotions and Apparel in Waite Park, started the business in her home. She also is board chair of the St. Cloud Area Chamber of Commerce.
What are you doing now?
Things are pretty much the same in the last six months. (The Class of 2014 was recognized earlier this year.)
How did the 5 Under 40 award affect your life?
The 5 Under 40 award was such an honor. It has given my business greater visibility. My client relationships are stronger. Community recognition is a huge piece in addition to the opportunity to network within St. Cloud.
Other big changes since you received the award?
The staff at Custom Accents is growing. Our revenues are up and our clients are seeing results as well.
What will make the St. Cloud area greater in coming years?
Economic development is really the key to a strong community. We continue to have our area leaders and organizations working to attract and retain businesses in St. Cloud bringing jobs, vitality, tax dollars and additional leadership into our community.
Originally ran: January 18, 2015
Kris Nelson is a natural to run a promotions and apparel business. Ever since she was a teenager growing up in Ortonville, she would spend hours trying on and looking at all types of clothing she could get her hands on.
"My mother always would say she didn't know what I was going to do with all those clothes," Nelson said.
Now, she's got access to more than ever as owner of Custom Accents. Wearables represent about two-thirds of the business, which helps supply companies with advertising specialties and promotional products in more than two dozen categories — from automotive antenna balls to yo-yos.
"It's a passion and something I love," Nelson said. "I love different and I love new. That's what our customers are looking for."
Nelson came to Central Minnesota to attend St. Cloud State University and never left. She jumped from an internship at Aria Communications into experience with a couple of companies and was halfway through her master of business administration when she had her first child and decided to start her own business. That was more than 11 years ago. Now she's board chair of the St. Cloud Area Chamber of Commerce, and Custom Accents has four employees with the promise of many more.
How did you get your business started, and what sets you apart from other companies that market promotional material?
I had worked at another promotional company that is no longer in business and I did a short stint at an ad agency. I decided it was time to take the plunge. I had interviewed and received several job offers from other promotional companies in town. They all wanted me to sign a noncompete (agreement), and I know I couldn't do that. I couldn't tell them someday I might go out on my own. So I just decided to do it. I officed out of my house for three years. That worked pretty well but, as you grow, you need to add staff and that's awkward in a home setting. My first office was in the DanTree Court and we purchased this condo four years ago. We've had a staff of four for about three years now and we're looking to grow. I think you do that, and then a recession hits and you kind of have to back off and have a recovery time. We're out of that now so I'm nervous because we could very quickly outgrow this space.
We're really strategic in responding to what our customers need. Our industry is so vast (so) we specialize in promotions and decorated apparel. We do it better and faster than our competition. We're not going to get into signage and printing or be a design house. This is what we do and we do it really well. That makes us unique because so many houses try to be a jack of all trades. When you are, you're really a master of none. You get pulled in different directions. We're very strategic in helping our clients.
How do your campaigns generate ROI for your clients, and what are some examples of your success?
One of the big things we've expanded into is the athletic market and working with associations. They're looking to do a few things. They want to promote their association and outfit their parents and kids, but they also need to fundraise. We've found by keeping the pieces and designs unique and trendy, their sales doubled over what they were doing before. We make sure they have samples that everyone can try on and that everybody is happy in the end. But then you look at last year and the design was so great and everybody loved it. They want to just do it again. I'm like ‘No. That's not how you're going to make money this year.' This year it has to be completely different and better than it was last year ... if you just put the same sweatshirt with the same design out there, nobody's going to buy it, because I already have it in my closet. It might be getting a little worn out, hopefully. But I'm not going to buy a new one. We try to get people to think about their apparel and fundraising differently from year to year.
We work with the Central Minnesota Youth Soccer Association, St. Cloud Area Youth Basketball, we do a couple of hockey associations and we've gotten into high school sports from Big Lake and Becker through Tech and Apollo to Rocori. We've had a lot of fun partnering with entrepreneurial classes at area high schools. They are in charge of setting up a business and have had huge success when they partner with us. For example, the (Becker) football team just went to state. Let's make the coolest T-shirt and mark it up 100 percent and you've got a successful project.
What plans do you have for growth?
One of the biggest issues in our industry is our reliance on vendors. We are a distributor. I'm not physically purchasing machines that decorate mugs and hats and pens because you need a different machine for each. We're partnering with vendors all over the world to provide the right choices. Apparel is about 65 percent of our business. One of the biggest challenges we have is decorating and our vendors can't keep up. So we're looking at bringing that screen-printing and embroidery in-house with laser machines. The square footage and manpower it would take to start something like that is significant, so it's hard to dabble in it. Our clothing mills and manufacturers have even suggested this to us because they see the need and it could open up new business. We're in the planning phase right now, but if we start our own decorating facility in the area in the next few years it would probably add 15-25 jobs.
How did you become so involved with the Chamber, and what perspective do you bring?
The Chamber serves small business well for networking. That was my initial interest — the Chamber Connections and the Business After Hours were great ways to let people know I'm here. It's a great value. You can't buy that kind of advertising. But as you get more involved, you realize there's more to the Chamber than just networking. They have the recognition committee and the golf event, and the farm show is the biggest fundraiser and agriculture is still booming in Central Minnesota. But also when you start to get more involved politically, you see the impact and the reach of the Chamber. I took a trip to (Washington) D.C. ... We go while everybody is in session and we bring with us all the issues our members want brought to the attention of our elected leaders. Because we go every year and in such a large group, we have a strong voice and they listen to us. We want to do what's best for business, acknowledging there are a lot of sides. But at least our concerns get heard.
How do you see Central Minnesota business changing in the next three years?
With the development of the Greater St. Cloud Development Corp., my hope is that we're going to attract manufacturing and new business again. Right now, we're struggling with some workforce issues and worker shortages, but we have the infrastructure to support those businesses looking to expand — hopefully in St. Cloud. One of my goals this year with the Chamber is to build a stronger values statement for big business.
Family: Husband, Darell Nelson; daughter Samantha, 11, and son Sawyer, 9.
Education: Bachelor's degree in marketing from St. Cloud State University.
FYI: Chair of the board for St. Cloud Area Chamber of Commerce; served on the marketing committee for two years with United Way of Central Minnesota; serves on multiple committees and teaches vacation Bible school at Westwood Community Church.
She and her family are active in youth sports and participate in CrossFit training. To learn more, visit www.customaccentsinc.com.