Keith Polister isn’t an old dog, but he is learning some new tricks. After a career in the film and printing businesses, in 2006 Keith purchased two businesses—Arrow Embroidery and Photo Express—that aligned with those professional interests. In the past 10 years, a lot has changed.
“The technology changes in the photo industry and garment industry have really been game changers for me,” said Polister. “I bought these two businesses housed in the same building on a contract for deed, which made it real easy for me to get started.
“But then, in kind of a bad news/good news deal, the economy tanked in 2008 and 2009,” Keith continued. “That was bad news, no doubt, but it gave me an opportunity to buy the building outright, and Grand Rapids State Bank was there to help me with that along with an SBA guarantee. The poor economy also forced me to run a much leaner operation: I had to get rid of things that didn’t add value.”
During those lean times, the staffing at Arrow Embroidery and Photo Express was pared back to the bare minimum: three people (2.5 FTE) now run both businesses. In the process, Keith has learned quite a lot about customer trends and how to provide services customers value in a changing technology environment.
“There are two separate businesses sharing one building,” Keith explained. “Juan and Tina Lazo started the businesses, and I had a background in film and printing and figured this was a new career option for me.”
Keith moved to Grand Rapids from the Twin Cities as a young technical school graduate. He was hired by Al Rossman in 1974 to work at Northprint and the Grand Rapids Herald-Review. The Rossman brothers (George, Al and Bob) owned both the newspaper and a printing company, Northprint. Keith’s job was photographer and darkroom technician. Keith worked with closely with Jim Kasper and Jim Balfour, the two-person graphic arts department at Northprint. In 1987 the Rossman family sold Northprint, yet Keith continued working there until 2006.
“The film business was stable for Juan and Tina, but since 2006 and the widespread use of smart phones, the film processing industry is dramatically different,” said Keith. “Other than a couple of operators in Duluth, ours is the only film processing company north of the Twin Cities. People don’t print photos the way they used to, so we’ve adapted. In addition to film processing, we produce digital prints, greeting cards and announcements from our large photo kiosk located in the store. We scan photos; we restore old photos; we do video transfers from 8 millimeter and VHS format to digital; and we produce photo gifts. This is how our film processing business has evolved.”
Moving away from the traditional film processing business was a big move, and Grand Rapids State Bank was a good partner, Keith says, in his transition.
“Over the years GRSB has helped me buy the building, invest in new embroidery equipment, and most recently purchase an automatic screen print press,” Keith stated. “These investments have helped me stay relevant.
“My business philosophy is to try being very competitive while remembering that quality is king,” said Keith. “We stand behind everything we print and produce, and that’s something that a lot of companies doing business over the internet can’t or won’t do.”
Besides the image printing, Keith has developed a substantial logo-wear garment business. A specialized embroidery machine allows him to use more than 22 colors of thread to produce customized logos and images for all types of garments (t-shirts, jackets, shirts, and letter jackets) and bags. Arrow Embroidery’s customers include many organizations—schools, local governmental units, businesses, contractors—any organization where crisp, clear logos are important.
Jean Edin works exclusively in the garment part of the business, and along with Christy Martindale, their designer, they produce thousands of articles of clothing annually. They can help design an image or logo, if the customer wants that help. Keith estimates that the three of them have roughly 90 years of experience in design and printing.
“I’m proud of the fact that we’re getting some local customers to come back to shop locally,” said Keith. “It’s tempting to look online and find some very cheap prices, but the quality of what you can find online is not consistent or reliable. Our guarantee of customer satisfaction matters to many people.”
Keith attends trade shows to look for new trends in the business and to acquire new skills. He meets software, design and mechanical vendors at these shows, and just recently signed a purchase agreement to acquire the new screen print press.
“Our old system was labor intensive, and this machine will remove a lot of wear and tear on the operator, which has been mostly me,” said Keith.
Keith’s adult sons helped him modify the shop to prepare for the installation of the new equipment, and as he checked out the progress, he took a moment to reflect on the numerous changes he’s seen in his career. He also recalled fondly the 22 years he spent as a volunteer on the Grand Rapids Fire Department. There have been many changes there, too.
“I have been so busy the last few years trying to make this business something that will survive,” said Keith. “The bank has helped me do that, both from a financing perspective and also as a garment customer.
“Being a small business person takes a great deal of energy and work; it’s a lifestyle business for me,” Keith added. “I’m taking time to consider how much has changed, and it makes me wonder what’s ahead.”
He paused and then added: “Time to get to work.”