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The Sweet Smell of Success at JEP Productions

Read on to find out how the company's inventiveness led to a new ink product that's as appealing to the nose as it is to the eyes.

"Taking screen printing beyond the obvious." That is the mission of JEP Productions, LLC, a Dallas, TX-based garment-printing business that, in a few short years, has risen from very humble beginnings to become a successful operation known for thinking out of the box. The company's accomplishments include not only high-quality garment graphics, but also the introduction of a new scented-ink product designed to open the doors to a world of opportunities.

Humble beginnings

JEP was founded by Josh Hewitt, Ernie Dinsdale, and Patrick Watson--screen printer, CPA, and entrepreneur, respectively. Hewitt got his toes wet in the industry as a teenager when he worked as a screen printer for T-Shirt Promotions (TSP), Richardson, TX. He worked for TSP for the next five years, then, through a friendship with Watson's son, he was introduced to Patrick Watson. The pair immediately hit it off and within six months, they decided to combine Hewitt's printing experience and Watson's business savvy to launch their own screen-printing company. To ensure a strong financial foundation, they brought on Dinsdale as partner and formed JEP Productions.

The trio opened JEP with literally nothing but its name and one account that Hewitt brought to the table. The first challenge they faced was to find screen-printing equipment and a facility to house it in. That's where Hewitt's connections in the industry paid off well. Hewitt learned of a Denver, CO-based screen-printing operation that was closing its doors and selling all of its equipment and supplies. He visited the company and decided to purchase the machinery and related materials, which included an eight-color automatic M&R Challenger press, MaxiCure electric dryer, 75 Newman roller frames, squeegees, flash-cure units, an exposure system, inks, and other production supplies. The entire collection was loaded into a truck and delivered to Watson's driveway, where the truck remained parked until the group located a 4800- sq-ft facility to call JEP's home.

The next challenge surfaced when JEP moved its newly acquired "screen-printing shop in a truck" to the new facility, only to realize that the shop was not equipped with the proper electrical service to support operation of all of the equipment. Expanding the electrical service was a proposition that would have set the company back $20,000, so JEP invested in a smaller, used electric dryer that wouldn't overextend the breaker box. A year later, they added a larger, gas-fired M&R Sprint dryer, which is still in use today.

"When starting a screen-printing shop, you really better know what you're doing," Watson says. "I just don't think the average screen printer utilizes the industry. There's so much knowledge out there, whether it's how to run your small business or how to make your press run better. [Suppliers] are falling all over themselves to give out that information."

Once the equipment was set up and ready to go, JEP was faced with yet another obstacle. They wanted to equip their automatic press with an M&R registration system; however, the press was an older model and the printheads were located too close to each other, making it impossible for the registration system to fit. The only practical solution was to weld extensions onto the arms of the press. They hired a welder and, in a single day, disassembled and moved the press out of the shop, added extensions to the arms, returned the press to the shop and reassembled it, then bolted it back onto the floor.

With a Rolodex containing only one business card, and no business cards of their own, Watson and Hewitt knew it was time to begin pounding the pavement and drumming up business. They began by contacting their sole client, a broker who represented the 25 Hooters restaurants for which they printed garments.

"We always wanted to be in the niche of knowing how to do all the latest and up-and-coming styles of prints," Watson says. "This forced our hand because [Hooters] always wanted something new and different. We were doing a nice piece of business with this one customer."

Unfortunately, nine months after JEP opened its doors, Hooters changed its print-buying practices and JEP lost its only customer. But despite the major setback, the founders of JEP were determined to press on, secure new accounts, and maintain a viable company serving niche markets. This focus on smaller, specialized markets is still the company's focus today and is evidenced by the fact that JEP doesn't have any signage to identify its printing operation.

"If you want to stay in niche marketing, you can't really advertise, because it's too hard to tell any customer 'no.' Before long, you're doing a bunch of stuff you never wanted to do, and you're just like everyone else," Watson explains. "It takes a little longer, and it's a little harder, but when you use word of mouth, and you network by attending trade shows and reading trade publications, the industry has a lot to give back."

During the next four years, Watson and Hewitt used their industry connections and networking opportunities extensively to grow their client list. And the hard work began to reap rewards. To support the company's growth, JEP expanded its equipment line-up and capabilities to function as a full-service print house and hired additional staff. It also relocated to a larger facility in 2002. Today, the company has five employees and an equipment lineup that includes its original eight-color automatic press (Figure 1) and gas dryer, a six-color manual press, two flash-curing units, more than 100 retensionable frames, Epson inkjet printers, and a heat-transfer press. The shop's art department features capable Macintosh computers with a full assortment of graphic-design programs, as well as a device for outputting film positives.

To support the workflow and growing production volume of the business, which ranges from 1000-10,000 pieces/day, JEP often pulls in help from a large pool of friends and relatives, and well as from vocational-school students interested in making some extra cash. Watson and Hewitt trained the majority of JEP's full-time and backup production staff. The pair begins the training process by introducing novices to the fundamentals of screen-printing technology. New workers might begin by cleaning screens, scooping ink, and breaking down presses, but eventually work their way up to more involved job duties (Figure 2).

JEP works exclusively through print brokers representing clients that span a wide range of markets. For instance, one client, Bandwear.com, is a full-service merchandising company that specializes in creating unique branding products and ad-specialty items. Through this client, JEP prints various apparel items for well-recognized companies, such as Sony Records, Warner Brothers, Clear Channel Radio-Dallas, BMG Music, Nokia, and McDonald's. JEP customers typically have a store front, active Website, and an in-house marketing department that creates and delivers artwork to JEP. Customers also supply blank garments to JEP; however, JEP's staff is always willing to help customers locate a reputable source for blank goods.

Inspiration for innovation

The JEP crew was working with a piece of artwork one evening, trying to come up with ways to get it to look and feel like a strawberry. Their goal was to produce a design with a smooth, flocked surface and a sugary look on the top portion of the strawberry graphic. From this brainstorming session emerged the idea to make the design actually smell like a strawberry. And that idea compelled JEP's owners to take screen printing beyond the obvious and develop a permanently scented ink that could be applied to virtually any fabric. Over the next few months, the company experimented with a variety of formulations and eventually developed a gel carrier that could be mixed with various agents to produce a broad range of fragrances.

Once the new coating was a reality, Watson and Hewitt immediately applied for a patent for their product, which they called DuraScent. They gave the name ScreenScenting to the process used to apply DuraScent to a fabric. The process involves fusing virtually any scent onto almost any material, including apparel, bedding, linens, kitchen and bath products, promotional products, and more. On Sep. 7, 2001, Watson and Hewitt visited Rich Hoffman, president of M&R Sales and Service, to get his impression of their new product. According to Watson, the response they received was, "You've got lightning in a jar!"

Watson and Hewitt rushed back to JEP, printed several samples of DuraScent ink on T-shirts, and took it to the streets, showing the samples at trade shows, local events, and everywhere else they could go to spread the word. The fun-loving and charismatic pair dressed up like the characters from "Men in Black," sporting black suits over T-shirts that read, "Smell me." Unfortunately, the beginning of their promotional efforts coincided with the Sept. 11, 2001 and the subsequent Anthrax scare, and the people to whom they were showing their product were reluctant to sniff anything, even T-shirts sported by a couple of jovial characters. This initial lack of response was disheartening to Watson and Hewitt, but it didn't stop them from tapping other resources and continuing to show off their product.

Watson and Hewitt finally received a patent for DuraScent and ScreenScenting on Nov. 14, 2003. They then decided to form a new company to market the product and process and license others to use it. The new venture was named the Ekin Group and was formed with a new partner, Everett Wilder, a fellow entrepreneur and a senior art director for The Richards Group.

At the same time, Watson and Hewitt began discussions with representatives from the Wilflex Division of PolyOne Corp. to produce DuraScent inks on a larger scale. After a series of meetings, the Ekin Group and Wilflex/PolyOne reached an agreement under which Wilflex/PolyOne would manufacture DuraScent ink. In June of this year, Wilflex also introduced the Ekin Group to the company that would become the first licensee of DuraScent and the ScreenScenting process--D.Lab, a producer of non-licensed decorated garments for national retail chains.

Attracting attention

For more than four years, the folks at JEP worked to promote DuraScent and the ScreenScenting process by visiting trade shows, putting themselves face to face with industry giants, and maintaining positive word-of-mouth advertising. But their persistence paid off by leading to both local and national media attention.

DuraScent made its first public debut on a news station in Dallas, TX. Later it was featured on AM and FM radio stations in Chicago and Atlanta. Ekin Group even delivered DuraScent-printed pajamas to the Regis and Kelly show. The crew at JEP recreated the hosts' favorite scents on a pair of pajamas--peanut-butter and crackers for Regis and chocolate for Kelly.

Ekin Group has already found an impressive list of uses for its DuraScent product and ScreenScenting technology, from apparel to house wares to commercial applications. The company soon plans to offer licenses for DuraScent and ScreenScenting technology to other screen-printing operations that are interested in the product and meet certain production criteria.

The official launch of DuraScent will focus on novelty items, then Ekin hopes to explore opportunities in the fashion and aromatherapy markets. Attendees at the upcoming MAGIC Show, scheduled for Feb. 5, 2005 in Las Vegas, NV, and Image Wear Expo, slated for Feb. 17-19 in Orlando, FL, will get a sneak preview of the product and its capabilities.

A nose for niches

While JEP's founders are busy building awareness about DuraScent, the JEP staff remains busy filling orders, large and small, for other special-effect prints, including suede, glitter, foil, lenticular, high-density, and other attention-grabbing garment graphics (Figure 3). In the past eight months alone, JEP has boasted record sales every month, with an overall sales increase of 23%.

"The key to setting up for success is to build a strong internal foundation with a well-qualified, dedicated staff," Hewitt says. "If it were not for the combined expertise of Robert Rakestraw in print operations, Cory Irwin in second-shift print operations, Chi Meyer in our customer-service department, and Dusty Watson (Patrick's son), we would not have been able to accomplish the task of building two companies from scratch and enjoying the success we've seen so far at JEP Productions, LLC." He also credits partner Ernie Dinsdale for the "trust, financing, and guidance" that helped the shop weather the ups and downs of the past five years and grow into a successful business.

Like many shops in the garment-printing industry, JEP worked hard to find an edge that would help the company thrive in an increasingly competitive industry. Ironically, the decision of its founders to focus on markets that are "beyond the obvious" led to a product that falls right under our noses--permanently scented prints.

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