Sunday, January 27, 2002

Former coach puts sport into awards


Company sells unique products via the Web

By Jenny Callison
Enquirer contributor

        BATAVIA — Jimmy Stewart's stock in trade is memories and motivation. Building on his experience as an athlete and coach, Mr. Stewart has fashioned a line of distinctive sports-related products and awards.

        For this entrepreneur, personalizing goes beyond engraving the recipient's name and team on a rectangle of shiny metal. Sometimes his trophies are built from sections of gym floor, or have shoe spikes mounted on them. Volleyball players can be recognized with a plaque that bears a section of the net.

        “When I was teaching I found you could motivate students so much better with encouragement, a pat on the back and an award,” he said.

PRODUCTS & PRICES
  Here are a few sample products and prices: <
  • Two-inch soccer bag tag with player number — $3.95. <
  • Basketball locker ID magnet — $8.95. <
  • 4-inch-by-5-inch Oak plaque with basketball leather front and a piece of rim — $11.95 <
  • Home plate baseball award with brass-plated spike — $7.95. <
  Jym can be reached at www.CoolStuff4Sports.com or (513) 732-1097.
        As a basketball coach, he constantly searched for ways to recognize hard-working players. At one point, he took an old locker and replaced its metal door with glass. Each week he featured photos and the jersey of a team member whose rebounds, free shots or hustle had made a difference.

        Players and their parents loved it.

        When Mr. Stewart's teaching job was eliminated a decade ago, he decided to start his own company. It was only natural to stay with sports. He named his company Jym, a combination of his name and his career in physical education. But the transition from educator to businessman wasn't without a couple of missteps.

        “First I started a jump-rope business. I had a basic knowledge of what I was doing, but had no knowledge of business,” Mr. Stewart said.

        Demand was disappointingly weak. Realizing that knowing the ropes was a far cry from running a successful company, Mr. Stewart cut his losses and decided to turn his motivational ideas into products.

        He started small, with a limited line of awards that were inexpensive and easy to produce. Working out of the basement of his Batavia home, he invested less than $1,000 in an engraving machine and materials and started turning out prototypes.

        But once again he was frustrated.

        “I started first with mail order, especially to schools,” he said. “I didn't find them very receptive because schools are on a budget, and some don't even give awards at all any more.”

        So Mr. Stewart refocused his marketing on youth sports. He started attending coaches' clinics with his product portfolio. He persuaded a couple of catalog companies to carry his items. As his merchandise began to sell, he expanded from volleyball and soccer into basketball, baseball and football.

        Ideas were never in short supply.

        “I think awards and recognition; that's the way my brain works,” he said. “I try to take something from a particular sport and add it to the award. It's more meaningful, not only to the athletes but to the coaches. And the player's number is very important to him or her.”

        One basketball award incorporates a piece of the rim; one plaque has basketball rubber glued to the wood. Mr. Stewart's popular soccer-bag tags feature a player's number and some also bear the player's name.

        Catalog sales and direct marketing have landed Jym in the ballpark. But like any good coach, Mr. Stewart knows the need to adjust his game plan. His new strategy involves a transition from catalog-based to Internet-based selling at www.CoolStuff4Sports.com. He hired a Web designer to construct a site and is now tweaking his Web presence to increase his visibility.

        “I've been on the Internet a couple of months now. This is my opportunity to branch out. Anybody of any size can compete through the Internet.”

        Gone are the mass mailings Mr. Stewart relied on early in his business career. He has replaced them with carefully timed postcard promotions to narrow lists of coaches and with basketball-leather bookmarks bearing Jym's Web address that he passes out at coaches' clinics. Gone, too, are the brochures. Now that his catalog is on the Web, marketing is both simpler and less expensive.

        While his merchandise still sells through catalog companies, Mr. Stewart believes that direct relationships with customers are Jym's future. He is unstinting in his service, from customizing orders to shipping those orders quickly.

        “He gets stuff out right away and always takes care of problems,” said longtime customer Ansel Lovell, owner of Soccer Locker and Sports in Myrtle Beach, S.C. “His soccer-bag tags fit right in with what I do. I've got oodles and oodles of bag tags, some even cheaper. But the number part of it, having the player's number on the tag, that's what makes it go.”

        Part of the reward for Mr. Stewart is the ability to work at home and attune his endeavor to his own personal rhythms. On many mornings, he's at his workbench by 5. His wife, Patti, principal of Williams Elementary School in Norwood, accompanies him on marketing forays during the summer, when she's on vacation.

        Mr. Stewart jokes that his is indeed “a wonderful life.”

        “But the final benefit is that some kid feels good about himself,” he said.

       



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