Press Releases & Media

The Dallas Morning News
Ideas at Work by Cheryl Hall (edited for the web)

 

Sign Language: The Store Decor's graphics and sculptures point the way.

Bob Potts watches with pride as a specialized printing machine rolls out a huge aquarium scene, inch by intensely colorful inch. When it's finished, 3-foot goldfish, angelfish and iridescent cichlids will dart through lush underwater plant life on a PetsMart wall that's half the size of a football field.

Mr. Potts plopped down more than $400,000 in cash for this machine because the pet-supply megachain wanted to create graphic banners up to 150 feet long. And when a key customer has a hankering, the owner of The Store Decor Co. does his best to satisfy it.

"Our entire mission is to help our customers' customers buy more," says Mr. Potts, 69, who launched his business career as a Fuller Brush man.

Bob in the News"It used to be the merchandise that created the excitement. Now it's the store. You have to make the shopping experience special."

The Store Decor is one of those thriving area business that most of us have no idea exists. Its corporate domain is a series of 11 metal buildings tucked away in the industrial outskirts of Rowlett where pasture and civilization meet. The buildings - including woodworking, painting,printing and sculpture shops- line both sides of the street used mostly by concrete trucks from a neighboring mixing plant.

Yet if you shop at Elliott's Hardware, Tom Thumb,OfficeMax or PetsMart, you've seen the company's handiwork in interior signs,large-scale graphics and funky sculptures. The Store Decor churned out 500 waist-high Saint Bernard's and smaller tabby cats used by PetsMart to collect money for its pet-charities campaign. Drivers along Interstate 30 got an eyeful a couple of years ago when a giant gorilla rumbled into downtown on a flatbed truck, headed to permanent habitat at The Tilt game room in the West end. Then there's the sculptured façade that greets horse racing fans at Lone Star Park.When you need a 10-foot angry ape head with foot-long fangs or a 6-foot horse's head worked into an elaborate filigree design, Store Decor is the place to call.

Every month or so, a truckload of Styrofoam or Gatorfoam comes into the sculpting department, then it will be carved, shaped and sanded into creatures and food items.

"Those are the fun things," says Mr. Potts, "but we make our money off the decor and signage."

That's because the bulk of Store Decor's business -about 80 percent - is indoor signs that provide road map's for shopping. When San Antonio-based HEB opens its fleet of grocery stores here, Store Decor's sign will point the way in 8-foot letters to meat, milk and produce.

Charlie Bond, president of Elliott's Hardware Inc.,says that in a multilingual world, standout graphics are increasingly important.The signs at the just-opened Elliott's in Plano are made-to-scale wrenches,bolts and screws or paint cans and brushes.

"It's easy to recognize each department when you first walk in," he says. "Anybody can identify what it is no matter what language they speak."

Nice and Polite

News ImageIn a climate that worships youthful high flying risk Robert P. Potts presents a strong argument for vision honed by hard-taught insight. He graduated from North Texas State University (now the University of North Texas) with a business degree in August 1950, just as the Korean War broke out. Unable to find a job, he became a Fuller Brush salesman working downtown Dallas. He figured that with more women working, the office towers would be promising new venues for direct sales. So late each afternoon, he'd meet with an office manager or two, leave a brochure and ask if he could return the next day with free brushes for the staff and an order sheet.

"Believe it or not, if you were nice and polite and didn't overstay your welcome, they'd say, "Sure," he recalls. His biggest sellers were three-for-99-cent toothbrushes; even so, he managed to make a pretty good living.

Then he went to work for a company that was remodeling drugstores across the United States. Mr. Potts, who always enjoyed art and graphic design, wanted his stores to look better than anybody else's. Sohe'd rent a Styrofoam cutter from a local florist to make big letters for the walls that spelled out cosmetics, sundries, soda fountains, prescriptions,etc.

That work led him into retail graphics with The Store Decor in 1983. The retail design firm, which is still located downtown and continues to design drugstores, college bookstores and hardware stores nationwide, came off without a hitch. Store Decor's success would take years to achieve.

By 1985, Mr. Potts was ready to close the graphics business. Sales slumped to less than $100,000 that year, with two employees holding on for dear life. Real estate had tanked, and small stores were being eaten alive.

"I knew the idea was good, and I believed in it, but you've got to look at things from a business standpoint," he says. "I couldn't figure out how we were going to make a profit out of this." Fortunately his wife persuaded him to hang on for a while longer. "A while" turned out to be four years, when along came BizMart, the office-supply superstore chain. "We did 80some-odd stores for them. Then we found out that's how you make money," he says with a laugh.

PetSmart had a store next door to a BizMart in Tucson, and the ball really started rolling, with sales growing at 40 percent 50percent for the next several years.

Popular figure

News ImageFor the first time, the company recently completed afiscal year ahead of projections, posting sales of $15 million, up nearly 25percent. Profits at the privately held company showed similar improvements.

On a recent workshop tour, several employees call out to "Mr.P" to say thanks. He responds to the workers by name, asking about daughters in college, a wife recovering from illness and after-hours schooling.Strolling through paint-spray chambers, wood shavings and foam remnants, Bob Potts may seem out of context in his pristine navy business suit, but certainly not out of contact.

Out of earshot of their boss, employees say Mr. P is the best guy they've worked for. They add, however, that he expects hard work in return. Those who don't live up to their end of the bargain don't last long.

Passion of retailing

That would go seriously against the grain for Mr.Potts, the grandson and son of grocers in Gatesville, Texas, who figures that his passion for retailing is an innate thing. Mr. Potts paid cash for new printing equipment. "The Lord's blessed us, "he says. "We don't owe anybody. We own our property and our inventory. If we need something and can afford it, we buy it."

Last year, he almost built a 100,000-square-foot corporate and manufacturing facility under one large roof to replace the storage shed-like building. "Glad I didn't," he says simply." I would have had to get a little bit in debt, but I've been there, done that, been burned before." The road to starting his own business wasn't always easy. In fact for three years while he was trying to get his business off the ground, he augmented his income as a front-door greeter at the original Elliott's Hardware Store on Maple Avenue.

The company would also have given up its unique flexibility: When The Store Decor gets a new big account, it builds another building. Lose a major client, and lease a building out. And in a world where companies outsource just about everything, Mr. Potts believes that his people can do it better for less.

"My good friend Jerry Elliott (of hardware store fame) taught me that whatever there is, there's a better way, and there are young people out there thinking it up. My job as an older guy is to search it out and bring it home."