Joan's Trophy: Awarding Success

by Michelle Lefebvre

Joan's Trophy & Plaque Co. has grown from a small “trophy shop” to a multifaceted corporation retailing all types of awards, both local and worldwide.

While technology has changed many aspects of the awards business over the years, one thing hasn’t changed—the personal attention customers receive at Joan’s Trophy & Plaque Co. in Peoria.

“With our website, we now receive more non-local orders,” says Don Gustin, CRM, owner of the company since 1977. “But even those customers still call or email. Since our products are personalized, they often want to discuss their orders with us.”

Not only has technology broadened their reach to customers, it has also enhanced the production process. In the late 1980s, sublimation and computer engraving made it possible to add logos to items more quickly. Because Joan’s had already used citation photo lathes for engraving, they had a 12-year jump on their competitors. The team generally finds themselves ahead of many technology trends, having been one of the early adopters of incorporating computers into all aspects of their business.

Through their various trade associations, they tour other facilities and offer the same consideration to their peers. But in spite of being leaders in many aspects of the industry, they both agree that there is always more to learn—whether it’s a marketing concept, production method or management technique.

In addition to their industry involvement, the company has been active in numerous community organizations over the years, including the Peoria Jaycees, Crime Stoppers, and the Peoria Area Chamber of Commerce.

Partners in Success
With 44 years of marriage under their belt and 35 years of owning a business together, Don and Diana—who also has the CRM (Certified Recognition Master) designation—are a well-oiled team. Don started his career as an industrial arts teacher, while Diana began as an executive secretary.

One day while managing a car wash in a nearby town, Don purchased some magnetic signs and became intrigued with the business of making and selling these signs. Shortly after that, he and Diana were approached by the former owners of Joan’s Trophy to buy into the business in 1977. Eventually, the Gustins became the sole owners.

While Don’s industrial arts expertise keeps things moving in the area of production and processes, Diana’s previous experience provides a solid base of organizational skills for the office operations. As a past president of the local chapter of NAWBO (National Association of Women Business Owners), Diana has continued to hone her skills through ongoing professional development. Part of what makes this long-lasting, dual-purpose relationship work is that they each have their own domain within the company. That approach has extended to their sons as well.

They also demonstrate complementary personalities, with Diana bubbling over and sharing the story of how they integrated family life into business ownership over the last three decades. Don, the quieter of the two, outlines the history and strategy of Joan’s Trophy, with Diana providing supporting insights.

Bringing In the Boys
Older brother Brent joined the company 20 years ago after spending several years working in construction. After starting in an entry-level position, he worked his way up to a leadership role in production.

“The company’s been in the family since I was little,” Brent says. “It’s all I’ve ever known. Watching my parents do this, I know it definitely takes a unique person to run a business.”

During the early years, both Don and Diana put in extensive hours at the store. With small children, she juggled the responsibilities of home and work, while he continued to work from sun up to sun down. “In fact,” Diana says, “Don only took one half-day of sick time during the first 25 years.”

And that dedication made a huge impact on their sons. “I’ve always been proud of my parents,” says Brent. “I learned my work ethic from them.” When asked what it’s like to work with his brother, Brent quietly says he enjoys it.

“Even as children,” Diana interjects, “Brent and Brice got along very well. They didn’t bicker and fight.”

Brice, two years younger than Brent, agrees. “It’s great to know that you can work through any situation together.”

Before coming on board the family business in 2004, Brice was a mechanical engineer at Ford Motor Company. Both parents had encouraged their sons to pursue their own interests and gain some outside experience, and Brice did just that. “Working at Ford helped me understand how a larger corporation operates. I also saw how efficiencies could be improved.”

A proud father, Don, quickly jumped in to praise Brice’s computer expertise and Brent’s leadership skills.

Despite their areas of individual responsibility, all four Gustins agree on one thing. “Work is work, and home is home. We try not to mix the two.”

Continued Growth
Just as a family grows, so does a business. When Don and Diana first purchased Joan’s Trophy, there were four employees. Today, they have more than 20 employees working in various capacities.

Not only do the Gustins believe in the growth of sales and number of employees, they also believe in continued growth for everyone involved at Joan’s. Owners and employees alike experience learning opportunities at trade associations and through continuing education. Employees are offered a variety of venues for learning, including visiting suppliers and other award companies for training on new processes and equipment.

The benefits of ongoing learning far outweigh the costs, which is evident in the number of Joan’s Trophy employees with more than 20 years of experience. These staff members are loyal: not only to their employers, but also to their clients.

As potential and returning customers walk through the door of the Joan’s Trophy showroom on Jefferson Street, they are greeted with a smile. While their website is a window to the far-reaching world, the showroom provides customers with an opportunity to see the products in person.

The company offers a wide range of products, from bronze baby shoes to logo-imprinted water bottles and personalized awards for businesses, athletic teams and non-profit organizations. Their products can be grouped into four main areas of specialty: corporate recognition programs, awards for associations, personalized gifts and promotional items, and awards for all types of sporting events.

The brightly-lit showroom utilizes nearly 1,200 square feet of the 25,000 square-foot facility. Here, engraving is demonstrated on a variety of awards and gifts, and each item contains the price and stock number so the sales staff can remain focused on customer relationships, not flipping through a catalog.

Past, Present, Future
That customer focus has enabled the Joan’s Trophy family to experience steady growth over the last 30 years. While Don explains that certain times of the year are particularly busy (March through May, for example), Diana indicates that growth has been steady. Certainly, the business is affected by the general economy, which will be critical to the continued growth of the company.

Looking forward, they have already gone through a succession plan and transferred the business to the boys. Both Don and Diana are officially retired, but Don still volunteers with day-to-day operations and consulting advice.

One thing is certain. They are ready for the future. And it’s clear that the company is in good hands. iBi

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