This Texas entrepreneur turned a casual pastime into a booming business.
February 21, 2017
She smokes cigars and drives fast cars. But looking past the wafting smoke clouds and revving engines reveals a different side of Suzanne Whatley, owner of Branding Matters! LLC.
She’s also a stay-at-home mom turned business owner, and community and compassion are at the heart of it all.
Her story began with a Press-A-Print machine, which she found at a home-and-garden show 13 years ago. “I had always worked,” she says. “I had been a stay-at-home mom for three months and got bored.”
With her interest sparked by her find, she thought she’d start a new hobby, maybe print golf balls or shirts for her family and friends. The machine didn’t get much use at first — Whatley jokes that she didn't print a single golf ball — but that all changed after she sat down at her daughter’s first softball game that season.
“They were getting their uniforms right before they played ball on opening day,” she recalls. “I thought, ‘We can do better.’”
Whatley’s true priority was ensuring every player got a uniform. “There were some girls that couldn’t afford them,” she says. “My goal was to make sure every kid could play.”
Believing she could help the players, provide better quality, customer service and delivery time, she stepped in and — with help from her son — finished her first job out of her garage: uniforms for the youth league.
From there, Branding Matters! — which was called Print Matters! at the time — took off. By April 2005, the company had become a registered DBA, operating in Sugar Land, Texas, as a home-based business. Within six months, it grew to include custom screen printing and, by 2007, added embroidery and heat-applied graphics services.
Getting in the Fast Lane
During the next two years, the company acquired more than 100 diversified clients, including additional local sports leagues and corporate businesses, such as Memorial Hermann Hospital, Technology Support, Team In Training, Briggs & Veselka and more.
By 2009, with years of experience and growth under their belts, the team left the garage, rented 1,000 square feet of space in a local building and officially changed the company name to Branding Matters!
Today, the business operates in a 3,000-square-foot space — a former Exxon gas station — in the heart of Sugar Land, near the historic Imperial Sugar Char House. Whatley and her team continue to work with the girls’ softball league that marked the start of their booming business.
“They have my heart,” she says. “It’s special when you watch a 5- or 4-year-old girl play and they’re wearing your shirt. You don’t want them to worry about their uniform. You want to do such a good job that they are just out there playing ball.”
In addition to sports leagues and corporate businesses, the company has contracts with two school districts and works with the city, a gig that originated when Branding Matters! purchased its current facility. Business still is primarily driven by screen printing, with about 70% of jobs requiring that decorating method, Whatley says.
Her team includes full-time production manager Suz Ann Lahrmann, master screen printer Greg McCoy, four sales representatives and multiple part-time contract employees, including students who help around the shop.
“When I started this, my son would bring his friends in and they would screen print and do other things,” she says. “They were mechanics; they were tinkerers; they would fix my machines. We love bringing kids through.”
Passion for Teaching
Whatley’s passion for the business is evident in her desire to teach others. Beyond helping young people in the community, she is building mentoring programs for women in the industry. She hopes to encourage other female business owners to take her hands-on approach. “A lot of women in this business aren’t screen printers,” she says. “They source out [their jobs].”
Whatley says it’s paramount to know what you’re selling. All of her employees take a screen-printing class so they understand the process behind the product.
“It’s important to not just sell stuff,” she says. “Know what you’re selling. Educate your people that you’re selling with.”
While Whatley has taken a more hands-off approach to the business for the past four or five years, she stays involved on the shop floor. Recalling a recent challenging job where she worked with McCoy on a design’s halftones and highlights until 2 a.m., she says, “I can still think outside of the box and I can still figure out how to do it. The challenges are there every day. You’ve got to play with it; you’ve got to waste some film; you’ve got to lay some screens and do it right.”
The team is open to working with a variety of substrates. “I always say ‘Anything we can lay flat for 30 seconds, we can print,’” says Whatley, crediting Lahrmann’s dedication to product sourcing and McCoy’s commitment to perfection.
Whatley says the company’s success is the result of her team’s passion and “can-do” attitude. “We live our business,” she says. “We love it. We don’t turn anything away. Period.”
Beyond her business, Whatley loves cars and recently bought a Shelby Mustang and got a racing license.
“That’s my thing,” she says. “I think one thing the business has done for me is allow me to do more of the things I love to do — and that’s just this year.”
Branding Matters! At A Glance
Company Name: Branding Matters! LLC
Address: 8034 Hwy 90A, Sugar Land, Texas
No. of Employees: 3
Decorating Methods Offered: Direct-to-garment printing, custom rhinestones, vinyl, heat-applied graphics, embroidery, screen printing
Company Website: brandingmatters.biz