Sherie Hackney can keep a secret.
So can her employees.
That’s why today’s 50,000 Bloomsday participants must wait until they cross the finish line to see what their 2013 shirts look like.
Sherie and Don Hackney own Wildrose Graphics, which has produced every Bloomsday finisher T-shirt since 2007 … all 350,000 of them.
Sherie Hackney runs the company, while her husband teaches at Gonzaga University’s business school.
During a recent interview, she discussed how Wildrose Graphics found stability by tapping into blood-donor centers nationwide, and what’s new about this year’s Bloomsday T-shirts.
S-R: Did you always imagine yourself in a graphics business?
Hackney: No. I earned a business degree from Gonzaga, then got a second degree in communication disorders. I wanted to work with autistic children.
S-R: What happened?
Hackney: In 1985, we bought two local T-shirt boutiques, then expanded into screen printing, and in 1992 we merged with B&E Trophy.
S-R: What inspired the company name?
Hackney: We owned some land on the Wild Rose Prairie (south of Deer Park).
S-R: Was business good from the start?
Hackney: Yes. But in Spokane, people will go someplace else if they can save 5 cents. What has helped us survive in a very competitive market is that we offer good service and the best art available. And we don’t have minimum orders – we’ll do anything for anyone. So customers come back to us.
S-R: If someone said, “A bunch of kids are going on a camping trip and want custom-designed matching T-shirts,” how much would that cost?
Hackney: Less than $10 each. And they can bring in a design or we’ll do one for them.
S-R: How has the business changed since you started it?
Hackney: First of all, most T-shirts are assembled in Haiti or Honduras instead of the U.S., so the cost is actually cheaper than it was 20 years ago. And the production process used to be a lot more labor-intensive – people using X-Acto knives to cut out art. Now that’s done by computer.
S-R: What parts are more expensive?
Hackney: Ink, for one. A gallon can run as much as $200.
S-R: What’s your bread and butter?
Hackney: Screen printing and embroidery account for 75 percent of the business. Our biggest clients are Gonzaga University, blood centers – which order about 20,000 T-shirts a month – and Bloomsday, which accounts for another 65,000. We also print shirts for Boy Scout camps all over the West.
S-R: Did the recession impact sales?
Hackney: Yes. The blood centers lost a lot of their funding, and schools cut back on trophies and awards. But you still had family reunions and Bloomsday. Gonzaga students still wanted shirts. So we probably didn’t feel it as much as other businesses. We didn’t lay anyone off.
S-R: What does it take to succeed in this industry?
Hackney: Good organization skills, attention to details, and a flexible management style.
S-R: What do you look for in potential employees?
Hackney: I look for team players. We don’t have a normal hierarchy here. Everyone has responsibilities. If there’s a mistake, we make it as a team – not just one person.
S-R: What about Wildrose Graphics are you most proud of?
Hackney: That this business supports 20 people, and we give them skills they can take with them. Not just to pull ink or answer the phone, but life lessons – to be good and do what’s right.
S-R: What has been one of your best ideas?
Hackney: Getting the blood centers’ business in the mid-’90s helped us turn the corner, because they were outside Spokane. We offer a set of designs for items the centers give to their blood donors. Most do T-shirts, but some have gotten into pens, pencils, magnets.
S-R: Any other good ideas?
Hackney: Implementing production systems that greatly reduced the number of errors. Ten years ago, we might have had as many as 1,000 misprinted Bloomsday shirts that we sold to runners for a buck each. Now we’re down to just one box.
S-R: What part of the business would you like to improve?
Hackney: A weakness has been our slowness to adopt the Internet to capture new markets. Our art department uses the latest graphics software, but I’m in an age group where technology is outside my comfort zone.
S-R: What has been your biggest surprise as a business owner?
Hackney: How fulfilling it is to work with employees. Customers are a little challenging sometimes, but my production crew is amazing.
S-R: What do you like least?
Hackney: I don’t have much free time. I probably work 60 hours a week.
S-R: What’s your busiest time of year?
Hackney: With Bloomsday, we’re usually on overtime from February to June. We can get busy in the fall, as well.
S-R: Is Bloomsday your biggest single order of the year?
Hackney: Yes. We typically do around 50,000 finisher T’s, plus a variety of related shirts that can add up to another 15,000.
S-R: When does the process begin?
Hackney: We bid the job in September, and learn if we got it in October.
S-R: How have you managed to win the bid seven years running?
Hackney: For one thing, we have a facility large enough to store the shirts. And we’ve proven we can get them done on time.
S-R: Once you have the contract, what then?
Hackney: We get the image in November, and the blank shirts arrive in December. We print them over a three-and-a-half month period, doing them full time for a week, then pulling everything to print other jobs. We have to print the front and sleeves of the Bloomsday finisher shirts separately, so it’s really like printing 100,000 shirts.
S-R: Has demand for larger shirts grown along with the average American’s weight?
Hackney: We are printing a lot more double-X T-shirts, but it’s not just because people are bigger. Tiny people might order a double-X because they want to sleep in it. This year we’re also doing toddler sizes, which is new.
S-R: Are employees sworn to secrecy about the shirts?
Hackney: Everyone has to sign a sheet promising they won’t reveal the color or design of the shirt. All the windows are covered, and a curtain prevents customers from seeing into the production area when we’re printing. A lot of them ask “What’s the color this year?” but to my knowledge no one has ever found out before the race.
S-R: Do you have a personal favorite Bloomsday shirt?
Hackney: My favorite is last year’s (deep blue, with a rust and white “2012” and pale green and blue runners, by Steve Kutsch). I like its crisp, sharp design.
S-R: One last question: What’s this year’s shirt look like?
Hackney: It’s very pretty. You’ll like it.