Selling Self Images
At age seven, State Traditions’ growth spurt has taken its founders to more than 350 retailers across the country, and Internet sales have taken them around the world.
State Traditions partners (from left) Keith Brown, Maury Lyon and John McElrath started at the University of Alabama, matriculated into real estate and energy sales, then graduated into their own business, a retail network with a solid niche in local and regional pride.
Awaiting a connecting flight in New York City’s LaGuardia Airport, Maury Lyon is satisfied with today’s meetings — meetings on behalf of State Traditions LLC, an apparel and accessories startup launched in 2007 by his partners and co-founders John McElrath and Keith Brown.
Today the seven-year-old company has more than 350 retail stores across the U.S. that sell it products. But Lyon remembers the early days when State Traditions was three guys, a dream and a website.
“None of us went into this with any retail experience,” he recalls, by phone from the Big Apple. “We did everything back then. We made the website, learned how to source clothing manufacturers, sales, shipping, everything.”
The trio would be at FedEx offices every night personally packaging boxes for delivery. “In the early days our efficiency was not the best,” he quips, “but we developed and learned to put a personal touch on every box. We still do.”
As Lyon departs NYC, the company co-founders are busy in Birmingham. McElrath and Brown launched their company in 2007 part time, with the idea of local-pride and lifestyle apparel featuring states and other imagery of what people love about home — home town, home state or home state of mind.
From its original offering of polo shirts, company products now include hats, neckties, pet accessories, i-Phone covers and more, with imagery from all 50 states and 14 other countries. The idea connected with customers, a business germinated and three men quit their day jobs.
McElrath and Brown met while working and traveling for a real estate company. During business journeys the two bounced ideas off each other and honed their passion for entrepreneurship. “I saw a lot of college kids wearing clothes with images, symbols or something they aspire to be,” says McElrath. “Everybody is from somewhere. Instead of developing a brand with images of things people aspire to, why not develop something they already have a connection with?”
But there’s a difference. Do not confuse State Traditions’ merchandise with souvenir shop gear. “We are the anti-logo company,” adds Brown. “We do not have sport team insignias or mascots on our products. It’s what sets us apart.”
Instead, the company offers items with state outline emblems, colors and other reminders of good places to be. Colleges are not specifically used but school colors may be. For example, in the “Game Day” product line, items can be purchased with an outline of the state of Alabama in crimson or orange and blue, representing two major Alabama universities that will remain unnamed, just like on the merchandise.
Website sales vary, but during November, 2013’s post-Thanksgiving Cyber-Monday, the company cashed in 250 shipments in one day, and that doesn’t include store sales.
Team McElrath and Brown conceived the business concept in 2006, a year before the launch. In 2008, Maury Lyon made the duo a trio.
During 2002, both McElrath and Lyon were attending the University of Alabama, where they were fraternity brothers. However, says Lyon, “We did not really know each other well, and our time at Alabama only overlapped a year.” But a few years later, Lyon was one of State Traditions’ first customers.
“I loved the idea of this company when I first heard about it and ordered from it,” says Lyon. “I wanted to be a part of this. I dreamed of being an entrepreneur and had taken some college training on how to be one. But nothing prepares you for this until you do it.”
He came on board and was introduced to Montgomery’s Keith Brown, who also attended the University Alabama from 1995 to 1999.
The three stay in constant contact every day, all day, and they are still good friends. “Through it all, we still like each other,” says McElrath. And through it all, the three have developed their niches for team contributions.
McElrath, from Macon, Ga., is a good manager of people. The other two consider him a driver of the team. “I love seeing something grow from an idea to what it is now,” he says. “It’s really cool seeing all of us work together.” The company presently has about 14 employees and 75 college campus representatives, cross-country.
Brown has many business talents. According to his co-CEOs, he has a gift for numbers, steers the ship and does a great job with financial data.
“Building this organization is what I love,” says Brown. “This business is ingrained in us because in starting out we did all aspects of it ourselves.” But he adds, “It’s more than numbers. These people genuinely care for each other as well as the business. It is our life.”
Lyon, a Mobile native, is the self-described “travel guy,” hence today’s interview by phone from New York City. His background is energy
sales and he found the sales skills transferred easily to apparel.
“You must continuously self-promote the product,” he says. “No matter how much a company has grown, you cannot assume people know your brand.” His philosophy on customers, “You have to go to them. They don’t come to you.”
Regardless of job titles, the three and their employees come together every morning at 9:07 a.m. for the internal, or as Lyon calls it, “What’s Up,” meeting. The team discusses issues of the day, bottlenecks, strategies and opportunities. But that call comes more than two hours into the typical business day.
“Usually the warehouse staff arrives around 6 to 6:30,” notes Brown. “They check and complete orders, and the day churns.”
The day ends, well, some days it doesn’t end. “Usually by the end of the day, we have 30 percent more than we can handle,” Brown adds.
And Lyon adds, “We always talk shop, even when together socially. We can’t help it. It is our life.”
There are new products to develop, ideas to consider, global suppliers to monitor.
The company has experienced “huge growth,” with sales in men’s stores, outdoor specialty centers and golf shops throughout the country and overseas.
“State Traditions has grown over 250 percent last year in sales revenues,” says McElrath.
Originally housing its corporate offices in Birmingham’s Pepper Place, the firm moved to 1509 Third Ave. South, at the Region’s Field baseball park to find more space to accommodate its growth.
At this time, the trio has no plans for a company store, but they are experimenting with street market vendor sales and venues in cooperation with the baseball stadium next door.
In less than a decade, the company has harvested a customer base from Alabama to Ireland. It’s all in a day’s work for three men who started with a dream, an idea and imagery on a polo shirt.
For more information on State Traditions: statetraditions.com, 205.254.8933
Emmett Burnett is a freelance writer for Business Alabama. He lives in Satsuma.