As the Road Tour team rolls into HDS, headquartered in Pittsburgh, founder and CEO Howard Schwartz stands at the door grinning, as two of his top executives go at it at the Ping Pong table in the company's cavernous lobby. They barely look up as one shouts out the score of the obviously cutthroat match.
Is Schwartz concerned that the duo isn't busy conducting business? Not at all. In fact, the owner of the 21-year-year-old business, which will experience double-digit growth this year, looks at things a little bit differently than most business chiefs: "I want to work in a place that makes me happy, and I want my employees to feel the same way," says Schwartz, who started the company is his parents' basement after graduating from college. At first, he figured he'd sell just keychains and license plates to car dealers.
"It was something that I was good at, and it didn't seem like real work," said Schwartz. Indeed, he was good at it, netting $35,000 his first year, and expanding into promotional products. His company has grown every year thereafter. Today, HDS has 52 employees, a new 40,000-square-foot headquarters office, and a large on-site apparel decorating facility. And, HDS is an official vendor for the Pittsburgh Steelers, among other sports teams. The company's new offices are decked out in dark red (one of HDS's colors) and its new tagline (Ideas, Innovation, and Integrity) can be spotted throughout the facility.
As relaxed as Schwartz sounds when talking about work, he and his team members obviously have worked hard to maintain this level of growth. He hires people who are passionate about what they do (one sales rep, Andy Lantzman, is a veteran screen printer and has a vanity plate on his Hummer vehicle that says "T-Shirts"), and aren't afraid to burn the midnight oil to help out a co-worker. "If someone's working on a big project, everyone gets together and helps out," says Kelly Witzel, co-director of operations (the other co-director is her husband, who she met on the job). "We just work together until something gets done."
Schwartz likes to keep his sales reps on a long leash, and lets them come up with their own product ideas, and sell in the niches where they're most effective. One salesperson recently worked with the gaming company, World of Warcraft, to come up with a talking Murdoch plush toy. "Everybody has their own niche, it's what keeps us diverse," Schwartz says.
But when the work is done, there is time for play as well. "We like to party after work," Schwartz says. "It's not unusual to find a case of beer here on a Friday afternoon, and some of us hanging out." And, of course, there's always ping pong. Schwartz considers himself among the top three players in the company. "I need to practice a little more," he says. "That's one of my top goals for the year, is to get better at ping pong. It's very important."