In business, we find ways to make things work. And through working, business finds us.
Such was the case with Mrs. Johnson, who started engraving key caps for her husband’s computer company back in the late Sixties, early Seventies from the basement of their home. It began as a hobby—just something to keep her busy in her spare time.
When Mr. Johnson didn’t have key caps for his wife to engrave, she’d create displays for nurse and uniform shops and began engraving badges for healthcare workers, which led to her inscribing trophies and plaques.
She wound up needing to upgrade from a basement business to office space. One day a man, who was in business next door to Mrs. Johnson’s shop, walked over and said, “We have a catalog we send out to medical offices. We want to add badges in there.” We understand you do badges here. Do you sell wholesale?”
“Of course, we do,” Mrs. Johnson replied. Truth be told, she’d never sold wholesale. In fact, she had to ask her husband what selling wholesale meant.
Years later, that same customer that distributed the catalog came to her and said, “We want to put refrigerator magnets in our product line. Do you guys do that?”
“Absolutely, we do that,” she assured him.
“Great!” He stated, “We will start sending you over information.”
Long story short, the Johnsons’ ended up buying a die cutter and figured out how to print products their customers inquired about. And that led to Halls & Company, also known as the ID Line.
From time to time, her son, Eric, and two daughters would help out with the business.
But Eric eventually went a separate route. He was enrolled at the University of Minnesota, but took some time off and moved to Arizona. He was working as a luggage wrangler at a dude ranch when one day he said, “This goddess walks through these large, wood doors in this rustic dude ranch. Actually, she flowed in wearing this long skirt.” Eric’s eyes following her every move. “She went up to the front desk, talked to Diane—who worked the desk—for about fifteen or twenty minutes. Then she left.”
Afterward, Eric went up to Diane and asked, “Who was that and when will she be back?”
Diane told him, “Oh, that’s my best friend, Connie. She works down the road at the bank. She’ll probably come by after work every day.”
For the next three months, Eric made sure he was in the office every day hoping to catch Connie and talk to her. Just when he was hanging up hope, she walked inside the dude ranch on his day off—only he happened to be there. Eric said hi to her, but that was the extent of it.
Being a workout buff, it might have been that relatively tight T-shirt he was wearing that prompted Connie to ask Diane, “Who was that?”
The three months Eric had been eyeing Connie, she’d yet to notice him. Because the ranch was seasonal, he headed home to Minnesota. But the following summer, he returned to the dude ranch in Arizona to “ruin Connie’s life,” he says as they both laugh.
And then she followed Eric back to Minnesota, where she was actually born and lived until her family moved away to Arizona when she was ten years of age.
While back in her home state and looking for an apartment, Mrs. Johnson let Connie work for the ID Line. Putting pins on badges was her introduction to the family business.
Wedding bells rang on August 12th, 1989, when Eric married his goddess!
In December of that same year, he moved her back to Arizona where he took a job in medical software sales. Connie was employed at a bank. During that time they had their first child, a son they named Colin.
Not expecting to leave his job in medical software sales, Eric reconsidered when he was approached by his two sisters, who had been working the family business that their spunky entrepreneurial mother had started.
“Hey Eric,” they said. “We want to get more involved in this thing called ad specialties. You’re doing medical software sales. We’d like for you to do sales with our company.”
Inheriting the same ambitious drive as his “Original Gangster” mother, Eric didn’t turn down an opportunity. Wearing the orange badge to indicate they were non-exhibiting suppliers, he attended the SSAI show in Dallas along with his two sisters.
After walking the entire tradeshow floor, the three created a business plan detailing ownership and responsibility. The only downside: with their factory based in Minnesota and Eric residing in Arizona, working remotely in the mid-Nineties wasn’t working well for him. No fax machine. Only a landline telephone. Email was on the brink of coming into existence.
Another decision had to be made. Eric and Connie Johnson sold their home in Arizona, packed up and moved back to Minnesota. By a mere fluke, they ended up about a half a mile from where Eric had his hair cut as a child. The irony about that: when Connie was a child, her family lived within a stone’s throw from that place; however, it would be years and a few states later before their paths would cross.
Relocating to Minnesota made it easier for Eric to do his job, but harder for Connie. With a week off here and there, Eric’s absence was difficult for Connie to raise children when he was traveling upwards of three months doing industry tradeshows.
Eric recalls a time he had been on the road for about two weeks solid. “Our son was eighteen months old. Back in the days when you could actually go to the gate, when I walked off the plane and out of the jetway, Connie was standing there with my son on her hip. I walked right up to her. Colin was looking at the man behind me—gazing and waiting to see me. He didn’t recognize it was me standing right in front of him. Talk about demoralizing.”
Not long afterward, they had their second child, a daughter, Erin, who also now works for a distributor company in the Minneapolis area.
Connie confirms, “Bringing a kid into the industry back then was hard. We scheduled flights to my parents’ house in Arizona around their nap times so we never had a child issue or anything on the plane. People would say, ‘Omigosh! Your kids are so good.’ And I would tell them it’s because we travel during their nap time.”
Eric says, “Connie was always so good. You see people getting on a plane with strollers and bags and all that stuff. She would roll onto the plane with one kid walking, one in her arms, the diaper bag, and that’s it.”
While Eric was traveling to work tradeshows, Connie and the two kids would board a plane to Arizona to visit her parents for a week or two and then spend time with the Johnsons, who had a winter home in The Grand Canyon State. Such regular passengers to the friendly skies, the Johnson children had frequent flyer numbers at two months old.
But traveling with children was getting old, too.
Before Eric’s mom had retired, she had purchased embroidery equipment and was personalizing lab coats for a customer. Connie was so efficient, Mrs. Johnson asked her if she wanted to take over her embroidery business. She did! And from there, Connie picked up more of the hard goods and eventually became a highly successful promotional products distributor.
Over the years, their daughter worked in production while their son worked in the marketing area for a while. Yet it seems Colin caught traveling fever with all those trips he took as a kid because now he is a commercial airline pilot.
Seasons change. At the end of 2021, there was a changing of the guard. Eric and his sisters sold their company to his nephew, who is going to be a third generation owner.
“So now I’m at a bit of a crossroads in my career,” Eric says, “because Connie’s business is taking off. And the questions are: do I go to work for another supplier? Do I start doing consulting? Do I help her with her business? Do I become her assistant now?”
Although Eric is still working at ID Line, still traveling and has events planned all the way through October 2022, he’s exploring his options.
“I’m active on all the different industry pages, and I do get business from it. I see people posting who are looking for products. If we have an item that fits, I throw a suggestion out there,” Eric says. “But I actually take it one step further. Not a lot of people will do this on social media, but I will recommend other supplier companies.
“For example, if someone is looking for a specific item, and I’ve just seen a video presentation from this company that has that product—and I’ve known the person from this company for twenty-five or thirty years—I will say, ‘You should probably call this company here. I think they might have a solution for you.’ And I’m getting a thank you from the VP of vendor relations from that company saying thanks.
“That’s the type of thing that I always feel this industry needs more of, especially in this day and age with supply chain issues, stock issues, customer service issues and everything else. You’re really looking for that recommendation from somebody who’s been there and done that.”
With all his savvy, wisdom and years of experience in the promotional products industry, Eric Johnson would make a great business consultant!
Connie can work from most anywhere. Her office is loaded in her imprinted backpack. Who knows? Maybe they’ll board a plane to Hawaii. Connie can work remotely. Eric can consult. And this beautiful couple who are wonderful assets to the promotional products industry can kick back for a while.