John Bruellman (inset) doesn’t have to think hard about what motivates him each day. “I don’t love to get up in the morning, but I do love where I go,” he says.
That would be Showdown Displays (asi/87188), the perennial standard of signage excellence in the industry. The company’s nearly 400 employees feel the same way as their president and CEO, carrying the Anoka, MN-based supplier to annual double-digit growth while cultivating a legion of devoted distributors. As a result, the company maintains five-star ratings in every ESP performance category, ranging from overall satisfaction and communication to delivery and problem resolution. “As a distributor without any production, we rely completely on our suppliers being proactive and non-threatening partners in our sales process,” says Justin Zavadil, executive vice president at American Solutions for Business (asi/120075). “Showdown exemplifies this partnership to the utmost.”
Everyone at Showdown Displays rallies behind the company’s core values: accountability, respect, integrity, teamwork, innovation and, most importantly, a passion for excellence. “It’s on my mind every day that it’s up to me to set the direction and culture for our company to keep us on that road for success,” Bruellman says.
It’s that same company-wide passion that makes Showdown Displays the Counselor Supplier of the Year.
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Blown Away by the ‘Design Storm’
Showdown Displays was founded in 1998 by serial entrepreneur (and current majority shareholder) Ed Flaherty. (The company is a subsidiary of Sign-Zone, Inc., and one of three companies under the Sign-Zone umbrella). Bruellman joined Showdown Displays eight years later. A U.S. Army officer who then worked as a generalist for different Fortune 500 companies, Bruellman wanted a change of pace, preferably something smaller and independent with potential to grow. He saw a product line and capability that he felt had yet to penetrate the North American market: portable, lightweight, large-format print displays, banners and signs.
“It was a really good and attractive combination: a relatively new product capability and a very big market channel that was just starting to embrace this product line,” Bruellman says.
Customers gravitated to Showdown for its products, but “our exponential growth was causing some quality issues and our customers could feel that,” Bruellman says. As soon as he joined the company as president, Bruellman (a recent Minnesota Business Magazine Executive of the Year winner) focused on managing the company’s growth by instituting a true quality control system, along with operating metrics and process documentation. He also beefed up the leadership team with highly qualified, passionate members and broadened the company’s focus. “People thought of us, and sometimes still do, as a trade show display company,” he says. “But we’re really a promotional display company.”
That mindset reveals the resistance of Showdown Displays to be confined to a niche – and its refusal to stay stagnant. The company is constantly focused on product evolution and adapting to clients’ needs; Bruellman says the company introduced 80 new products in 2016 – a record high.
In order to conceive and develop the latest items, the company fosters an innovative atmosphere, incorporating ideas from employees in all divisions. After traveling coast to coast visiting the ArtCenter College of Design in Pasadena, CA, and the Rhode Island School of Design, Bruellman and Showdown Displays combined elements of the schools’ think tanks into its own “design storm.” For two or three days during the year, employees participate in events aimed at creative thinking and new product development. From these events spawned one of the company’s most lucrative concepts: EuroFit, a dye-sublimated fabric on standardized framing systems of all sizes and shapes.
The mentally stimulating, all-inclusive nature of the company has contributed to Showdown Displays’ annual membership on Counselor’s Best Places to Work list, as well as being named one of Minnesota’s Best Places to Work by the Minneapolis/St. Paul Business Journal. Stemming from his own desire for independence (which led him to Showdown Displays), Bruellman relies upon his employees to follow their instincts and assert themselves in situations that will benefit the company. “It would be the height of folly to have a highly educated workforce and then say ‘you can’t make any decisions,’” Bruellman says. “We demand and expect and encourage people to make decisions on a daily basis.”
But Bruellman admits that stocking such a talented workforce has been his toughest challenge. To achieve consistent growth, the company has had to adapt with the never-ending advancements in technology and the strains of a tight labor market. “It requires you to get in front of that growth with a large capital investment,” Bruellman says.
Showdown Displays’ biggest source of growth has come from expanding relationships with existing distributor customers. “John has done a terrific job taking Showdown Displays to the highest echelon among industry vendors,” says Ross Silverstein, president and CEO of iPROMOTEu (asi/232119). “Our affiliates love Showdown, which is evident from the dramatic sales increases with Showdown during each of the past several years.”
Others feel the same way. Wendy Wells, director of supplier relations at Facilisgroup, a community of leading distributors, describes it as a “wonderful partnership.”
“They offer the key variables that make them who they are and why we chose to partner with them – amazing customer service, reliability and a unique product offering,” Wells says. “They are there to help our distributor partners and are wonderfully easy to work with. We have a great relationship with Showdown Displays that grows stronger and stronger every year.”
Bruellman attributes his company’s success to collaboration amongst employees as well as clients. The company is also defined by its slogan: On Target, On Time, Every Time. With an estimated on-time delivery rate of 99.5%, the company prides itself on adapting to the frantic turnaround pace of the digital age. “Our standard lead times are very competitive anyway, but when an order is required in 24 hours, we are almost always able to work with our customers to find a solution,” Bruellman says. “You order with us and we’re going to give you a very good product and it will be there, without fail, on time.”
The overwhelmingly positive ESP feedback has been supported by distributors who value their profitable relationships with Showdown Displays. “They are unbelievably responsive when our sales associates request help and very proactive when it comes to growing our business,” Zavadil says. “In the very infrequent event of an issue, they always stand behind their work and our partnership.”
In January, Top 40 distributor Safeguard Business Systems (asi/316203) hosted 150 Minneapolis-based customers for the distributor’s Ignite Your Brand end-user show at Showdown’s corporate facilities. It’s the result of a great business-building relationship, says Forrest Fairley, head of promotional products sales for Safeguard. “Showdown has spent a great deal of investment working directly with our Safeguard network, both in the U.S. and Canada, teaching, mentoring and educating our network on the annuity-based business that signage is,” Fairley says. “Our sales have continued to increase in double-digit fashion practically every year of our relationship.”
Bruellman anticipates an even brighter future with distributor clients, as Showdown Displays has over 300 new product ideas in the pipeline. This year’s major initiatives include: a line of Point of Sale displays for merchandizing, expanded line of fabric displays with new shapes and sizes, and a line of golf cart accessories and related products.
“The most effective way for this entire industry to compete in the next 10 years will be for suppliers and distributors to work together to streamline processes to ensure that we’re collectively providing end-user clients with phenomenal products at a reasonable overall cost,” Bruellman says. “Every day, every week, every month, we need to be thinking about how Showdown can make our customers’ lives easier.”
Investing in the future has been fundamental for Showdown Displays, both inside and outside the office. For several years, the company has partnered with Common Hope, a MN-based charitable organization focused on helping impoverished families in Guatemala. More than half of the country’s population is below the poverty line, and 23% live in extreme poverty, according to the CIA World Factbook. Under the partnership, employees can sponsor children, giving them access to education, medical care, improved housing and nutrition. The company pays for half the sponsorship, and covers most of the cost for annual visits to Guatemala where employees meet their sponsored children and perform community project-based work like building houses.
”It’s a life-changing experience,” says Showdown Displays’ CEO John Bruellman, who will make his fourth visit in March. He sponsors two kids living in the rural village of San Rafael el Arado. Their homes consist of corn stalk huts with dirt floors and no plumbing. One of the families has an average reported income of $150 a month, which is supposed to be spent on eight children. “Families know education is the way out, but they’re faced with the reality of [deciding] which kid they can send to school,” Bruellman says.
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