DULUTH (AP) -- You'll find Duluth businessman Nathan Bentley's handiwork on the sleeves of State Patrol troopers and Brownie troop members alike.
His business, Advantage Emblem Inc., supplies patches to clients nationwide. The company's client list includes the FBI, Girl Scouts, Boy Scouts, U.S. Customs officers, the 1996 Summer Olympics Committee, federal penitentiary staff, rescue squads and law enforcement agencies.
Today, Bentley's business employs 24 people, and he said sales are on track to hit $2.5 million by the end of the year -- up 25 percent from the $2 million in sales it recorded last year.
Bentley, 31, said Advantage Emblem's talented and committed staff deserve most of the credit for the success of the business.
Advantage Emblem custom designs, screen prints and embroiders T-shirts, bags and all sorts of garments.
There's no mystery to the company's growth, according to Shellie Milford, assistant director for the American Birkebiner. She hired Advantage to produce shirts, hats and fleece jackets for the ski race the past two years. "Initially we were attracted to their price and the fact that they offered artwork design."
But she said the Birkebiner's continued relationship with Advantage also has much to do with its ability to accommodate changes, including last-minute orders.
Bentley's business had a modest start, however. At the age of 18, he launched it from a bedroom in his parents' Duluth home.
"I was on one of those get-rich-quick mailing lists, and I got a letter from a guy in New Jersey who was looking for people to sell patches," Bentley recalled.
He responded and soon was working as a sales rep for the New Jersey businessman. Bentley sold his first batch of patches for the 1989 Lake Superior Boy Scouts' Klondike Derby and quickly landed other accounts.
Bentley's interest in sales got the better of his studies during his freshman year at the University of Wisconsin-Superior.
He dropped out and took a job as a janitor and operated his business out of a walk-in closet.
In 1990, Bentley teamed up with a Duluth screen-printing business -- On the Limit -- and began selling their products, in addition to the patches from New Jersey.
After a year, he went off on his own, renting a small office in a strip mall. Today, Advantage Emblem occupies 24,000 square feet of space in the same building.
To help make ends meet, Bentley initially worked an additional full-time job at a grocery store in Cloquet.
"In 1992 and '93, the business started growing like wild," Bentley said.
Instead of ordering patches from a distributor in New Jersey, Bentley realized he could make better money by working directly with manufacturers in Taiwan. But Bentley needed more capital to make his move.
Conventional lenders turned him down, citing his lack of collateral.
Acting against the advice of colleagues, Bentley took out a loan with brutal terms. He said his annual interest rate was 48 percent.
"By 1994, I was in deep doo-doo." Bentley said.
Although his annual sales were between $60,000 and $70,000, those revenues were eclipsed by his debts. In August 1994, he filed bankruptcy, seeking protection from about $750,000 in debt.
But Bill Sweeney, a friend and attorney who had assisted with the bankruptcy, encouraged Bentley not to give up.
"I had a lot of faith in his abilities and his business sense," Sweeney said.
An outside investor, Cliff Lanthier, also recognized the opportunity to turn Bentley's business -- which had been called Medallion Emblem Co. -- into a profitable venture.
Lanthier stepped in, rented the same space Medallion had occupied, hired Bentley and launched Advantage Emblem.
This time around, the cash flow was headed in the right direction, and one year later Bentley was able to buy out Lanthier's interest in the company with the help of Sweeney, a silent partner.
Advantage has grown and diversified. In 1996 it began doing its own screen printing. Then, in 1999, the company entered the stitching business with the purchase of Duluth Embroidery.
Brainerd Dispatch ©2013. All Rights Reserved.