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How a frame company made it to $6 million in three years

  • http://media.charlotteobserver.com/smedia/2013/09/01/23/08/MR321.Em.138.jpeg|210
    Matrix Frame USA -
    The NASCAR Hall of Fame commissioned Matrix Frame USA's biggest project to date: a single frame and graphic of a race track and crowd that is 30 feet tall and nearly 400 feet long. It took two and a half weeks to install.
  • http://media.charlotteobserver.com/smedia/2013/09/01/23/08/wvdhO.Em.138.jpeg|210
    Matrix Frame USA -
    Jack Thomas, co-owner of Matrix Frames USA, made many of the light-box frames and prints used in Belk's headquarters. Dori Tilson (left) and Cheryl Decker are from XP Retail, Matrix's primary dealer.

Since opening Matrix Frame USA in 2010, company president Jack Thomas has outgrown his space six times.

The 56-year-old Charlotte resident started the small business with two employees in a 3,300-square-foot building off Billy Graham Parkway and Interstate 85.

Now he has 15 employees and a 20,000-square-foot space off Westinghouse Boulevard that the business is “filling up pretty darn fast,” Thomas says.

Matrix Frames are made from lightweight aluminum that can be molded into any shape. They’re edged in silicon and made to encase printed fabric.

To design the fabric, the company fuses polyester with ink at 450 degrees, so the ink becomes part of the fabric fibers, and doesn’t just sit on the surface. The result: eye-catching bright colors and vibrant design, Thomas says.

Matrix also offers “light-box displays,” or frames equipped with internal LED lighting to go behind the fabric.

A shoe department in a department store, for example, might use vinyl signs to advertise a sale, but would hang a Matrix light-box frame and print on the wall to highlight a model donning the season’s latest wares.

Many customers will buy the frame and have new prints made periodically.

The frames are popular in retail stores, exhibits and museums, and the company has dozens of high-profile clients, including BMW, the Smithsonian American Indian Museum, the GAP and Charlotte’s NASCAR Hall of Fame.

The size and price of their prints and frames vary based on size and technology. Though they don’t make many of them, a simple household frame could cost $75 to $100, Thomas says. A retailer’s 9-foot-by-60-foot light-box frame could be more than $25,000.

ShopTalk spoke with company president Thomas, to find out how, in just three years, he’s built a business so bustling that it’s on track to make $6 million in revenue for 2013.

A proven product: Charlotte resident Thomas co-owns Matrix Frame USA with André America, who lives in the Netherlands, where Matrix Frame originated.

Nearly six years ago – when Matrix Frames were produced only in Europe – Thomas, who ran an architectural sign business, became a Matrix frame dealer for the U.S.

But, he says, it was difficult having a supplier across the Atlantic Ocean speaking a different language, operating with a different measurement system and using a different currency. Not to mention the time zone difference.

“I’ve got a question in the afternoon, and they’re in bed,” Thomas said. “It was difficult.”

So, after three years, Thomas and America decided to start a U.S. operation, a completely separate business called Matrix Frame USA that would service North America.

Experienced distributors: Thomas says he makes the frames and prints, and sells his products through hundreds of experienced dealers and resellers around the nation.

//“I couldn’t afford to put 200 sales people on the ground at one time to try to go and call on every single retail company in North America,” said Thomas.Dealers are “people (who businesses) like to buy from already. They’ve got credit terms set up with them. ...They’ve got solid relationships.”

Their primary dealer, Charlotte-based XP Retail, helped Matrix snag major clients such as Belk and Calvin Klein. They also connected the manufacturer with the NASCAR Hall of Fame, which commissioned the company’s biggest project to date: a single frame and graphic of a race track and crowd that is 30 feet tall and nearly 400 feet long and took two and a half weeks to install.

Trade shows and competitor-partners: Thomas says attending trade shows – three in particular – has been critical to Matrix Frame’s exposure.

The first, “Global Shop,” is a show where the visual managers of major retailers like department stores come to find ideas for holding, displaying or lighting their products. Thomas has dealers with him at the booth.

Then there’s the “Exhibitors Show,” where companies who want to attend other trade shows look for ways to make their own display booths more cutting-edge.

The third trade show is the “Specialty Graphics Show,” where large format printers come to find new ideas and equipment. It’s there, Thomas says, that he meets competitors and often ends up partnering with them. For example, if another printing company has to complete an order for 13,000 graphics at one time, Matrix Frames might help with 2,000 of them. And some companies that print but don’t sell frames will connect with Matrix to offer the whole package.

“We’ve had tremendous success,” Thomas said.

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