John Stangle gets most of the compliments for his work second-hand. Take the 18 plaques he sent out the door for the National Baseball Congress World Series, in a design that called to mind those in Cooperstown.
"This is for the all-star team," Stangle said. "The general manager over there said they just love these."
Stangle, co-owner of Creative Awards & Screen Printing with David Burks, has been in the business of helping people recognize accomplishments since buying the company in 1994. He'd been a computer programmer for Met Life before deciding he'd "just had it with the corporate world."
He might get to wear shorts to work these days, he said, but "I've never worked so hard."
That's especially true the past couple of years, when the recession hit the awards industry. Historically, that business had been immune to downturns.
"This is the first time we've seen a dip in business," Stangle said. "Almost everybody we've talked to is down 18 percent."
To get by, Creative Awards has diversified by increasingly emphasizing the garment embroidery and screen-printing part of its business.
Still, the backbone of its work remains the trophies, plaques, medals and other awards that Stangle assembles and personalizes with a laser engraver — a device that he said revolutionized the industry.
"I'm on my third one now," he said.
Other trends include hand-painted resin sports awards rather than the painted plastic trophies, and trophies with bendable characters for young athletes. Some start at $5, and Stangle said "kids' eyes light up" when they receive them.
Clients include big corporations, small businesses, youth sports teams, individuals, churches and nonprofits. Creative Awards also has landed quite a few accounts with clients outside Wichita. Stangle said that's not due to any broad marketing effort, but rather the result of referrals from customers who've left the area for jobs elsewhere.
And despite the economy, Creative Awards is moving to a new location at Central and Volutsia with 5,600 square feet, or nearly double its current space. It also features more parking and visibility. Creative Awards' current location near Kellogg and Oliver was nearly hidden by neighboring businesses and required a round-about route to reach.
Of course, there aren't a whole lot of people who drive by and suddenly decide they want a trophy or plaque. Instead, much of the business comes from repeat customers.
Stangle said the personnel at McConnell Air Force Base are known for their creativity in coming up with awards to commemorate humorous events. But the shop also worked on a much more somber task — plaques honoring soldiers who have been killed in the line of duty.
"You know it's going to be seen by not only co-workers but the family as well," Stangle said.