What happens when you build a business around souvenir-hungry tourists, and then 9/11 sends the U.S. tourism industry into a nosedive?
If you’re Gayle Brill Mittler, you adapt — and, in the process, guide your 17-year-old business toward double-digit growth, year over year, for the past five years straight.
“Some of us like change and some of us are scared of it, but I’m one of these people that likes change,” Brill Mittler said. “So for me, it wasn’t hard. We just had to be creative.”
When Brill Mittler launched her business, All Colors LLC, in 1997, she focused almost exclusively on designing and manufacturing souvenir T-shirts that were sold at airports, hotels and amusement parks.
That market dried up in the months following 9/11.
“We had to basically reinvent ourselves,” Brill Mittler said. “What we did was take our expertise in T-shirts and anything branded and expand it.”
That meant moving beyond souvenirs to become a full-service marketing agency that could provide a variety of clients with branded merchandise.
It also meant the Highland Park-based business needed to look for new clients. One happened to be right across the Raritan River, at Rutgers University.
The state’s largest public university is now Brill Mittler’s biggest customer and one of the main reasons behind its recent growth spurt. Her company emblazons just about anything you can think of — mugs, T-shirts, pens, folders, banners — with the Rutgers logo.
That was big business on its own. Then last year brought the merger with the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey — and with it, a good chunk of new activity for All Colors as the schools began the process of blending into one.
Despite her success in the higher ed sector, Brill Mittler hasn’t completely abandoned her tourism roots.
Twice a year, All Colors designs its own line of souvenir T-shirts that it markets to airport retailers. That endeavor — designing something from scratch and then seeing it hit the shelves — provides perhaps the biggest source of pride for Brill Mittler.
“When you do that and you sell a concept or a design to a retailer and then you actually see customers buying it — and even better than that, wearing it — it’s a really good feeling,” she said. “For me, once we were able to get enough of our products out in the stores and actually see people wearing them, that’s when it felt like we were succeeding.”
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