Hoping for a dream
Area CEO chases a dream job and saves others in the process.
From the pages of In Business magazine.
When last we interviewed Shannon Mayerl in 2017, she had been named president of Top Promotions after working her way up the ladder for 17 years. Filled with ideas and ready to move the promotional product company into the future, Mayerl had taken the reins from Craig Reisdorf, whose family she grew close to through the years. “I don’t want to let them down,” Mayerl stated at the time. “It’s their legacy and we want that to continue.”
So, when we learned earlier this year that Craig Reisdorf, whose family founded Top Promotions, was back in charge and Mayerl was gone, we couldn’t help but wonder what happened.
In short, Mayerl followed her dream.
“I always wanted to own the company I was working for, including Top Promotions,” she explained, “but over time it became apparent that as a single person I couldn’t get enough together to do it.”
When she finally realized that she might have to look elsewhere for that type of ownership opportunity, it didn’t take long. Choose Hope, a local for-profit company launched by three friends 20 years ago, was an e-commerce business and also a longtime Top Promotions customer.
In February, Mayerl heard rumors that Choose Hope’s leader and co-founder, Paula Lundberg, planned to retire in March and close the business.
It did not shut down.
Instead, Mayerl found the opportunity she’d long been waiting for, purchased the company, and saved jobs and future donations to cancer research in the process.
A hopeful backstory
Linda Nielsen and Chris McHugh were diagnosed with breast cancer just months apart from each other in 1997 and became fast friends through an online cancer support system. Lundberg, who often accompanied her friend, McHugh, to her chemotherapy sessions, then met Nielsen and the beginning of a business partnership formed.
Choose Hope was the brainchild of McHugh, who was looking for a way to inject a little humor into understandably depressing chemo rooms. One day in 1999, the trio gathered around a kitchen table and began making buttons — some funny, some inspirational — to distribute around the hospital.
Choose Hope evolved out of their experiences as patients and caregivers who saw a benefit in products designed by cancer survivors for cancer survivors.
Unfortunately, McHugh lost her battle in 2003, but the company carried on in her memory. Nielsen retired from the organization several years ago, and Lundberg remained at the helm until striking the deal with Mayerl.
Mayerl was well aware of the group’s backstory, but never dreamed that at the age of 43 she’d own the business. The rumors, however, proved true. “Paula wanted to retire and there were no employees willing to take it on, so we started talking. It was just meant to be,” she says.
The deal came together in 60 days and closed on April 30.
“Who buys a company in less than 60 days?” she chuckles. “I left Top Promotions — a company that has a tremendous purpose and mission to help blind employees — to join another organization doing something really important.”
While it was difficult to leave the only company she’d ever known since college, her desire to take control of her own fate was too strong to ignore. “I refinanced my house, took out an SBA loan, and just pulled it together,” Mayerl says. The SBA loan allowed her to put 10 percent down on the purchase price, and finance 90 percent over 10 years, but she intends to pay it off in seven.
“I would not have been comfortable buying a flower shop,” Mayerl relates, “because I don’t know anything about flower shops. I may not know Choose Hope’s customer base, but I felt comfortable taking this risk because I know what it takes to run a business of this type.”
At the time of this interview, Mayerl was one week into her new role. “We have customers call in and our staff may spend a half hour on the phone with them,” she explains. “They are so empathetic. This is not an environment where we push people to get off the phone. If a person needs to talk, listen!”
That alone is different than most business models where time is money, she acknowledges.
In June, Mayerl moved the company from Sun Prairie to the Middleton business park — kitty corner from Top Promotions.
“I had a motivation,” Mayerl shares. “Choose Hope will continue to work with Top, and I will save thousands on shipping because now I’ll be able to wheel product across the parking lot!”
The new space is intentionally smaller than its previous location, which saves on rent, too. “Our lease was up in Sun Prairie and frankly, the building was way too large for our needs. We were on Main Street and paying for it.” Walk-in traffic will be reduced, she notes, but that’s okay because nearly all of the company’s products are shipped, including internationally.
Color her proud
The acquisition means the e-commerce company will be around for years to come, selling cancer-support products including T-shirts, hats, and jewelry for people stricken with cancer and the people who deeply care about their welfare.
“One point of pride is that we carry products in every recognized ribbon color,” Mayerl says. Breast cancer, of course, is associated with the color pink; kidney cancer, orange; pancreatic, purple. There are 27 other colors, as well, each representing a different type of cancer.
The company designs all of its own products including one trademarked slogan, “No One Fights Alone,” which is printed on hundreds of items. Staff also designed a pin they named the “colors of courage” made up of all 30 ribbon colors.
“Wristbands (silicone bracelets) are our top seller by leaps and bounds,” Mayerl states, with printed T-shirts coming in second. One popular shirt reads, “I have chemo brain. What’s your excuse?”
Slogan’s aren’t always so in your face, however, because there’s nothing funny about cancer, she acknowledges.
“We have gift packages that don’t scream cancer because many people are very private about their journey and battle,” Mayerl says. One such package, for example, might include blankets, skin care lotions, woolly socks, or books.
Seventy-five to 80 percent of Choose Hope’s customers are either cancer patients, survivors, or medical professionals, she relates. Staff fills and ships orders every day, while a quarter of its business is wholesale and sold through hospital gift shops or boutiques here and around the country. Wholesale presents the company’s best opportunity for growth.
But she understands things take time. “This was an asset purchase,” Mayerl explains. “The checkbook was at zero when I took it on, so this first year is for building so I can push the boundaries later.”
Through the years, Choose Hope has donated just under $1 million to a select group of cancer research organizations. While that’s not insignificant, Mayerl believes it can do so much more. “The for-profit model works because the more the company makes, the more will be available to donate.”
Product sales have been running in the $2.5-million range annually, but Mayerl is setting her sights on $3 million and hoping to grow the company by 5 percent a year. She’s also working on a more transparent plan for consumers so they understand how much of each purchase goes toward cancer research. Another goal is owning her own building in the future.
“Leaving Top Promotions was hard,” she says, “but the company recognized that this opportunity landed in my lap and I’d be crazy not to pursue it.” No bridges were burned in the process, she laughs, and she couldn’t be happier.
“I’m old enough to have the experience behind me to support Choose Hope, but young enough to have 20 years ahead of me to invest in this venture and put in the legwork required. I want it to grow and I have a lot of energy to put into that.”
2140 W. Green View Drive, #10
Middleton, WI 53562
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