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Keys to Success: From ‘Bigfoot’ to face painting, find it at Morris Costumes

By Caroline McMillan Portillo
cmcmillan@charlotteobserver.com
BIGFOOT_3
T. ORTEGA GAINES - T. ORTEGA GAINES - 2004 OBSERVER FILE PHOTO
The legend of bigfoot originated in Yakima, Wash., but according to costume maker Philip Morris, it was his gorilla suit that sparked an international cult.

Most Charlotteans know Morris Costumes as the everything-you-could-ever-need shop along Monroe Road that contains enough rows of costumes to supply the whole county with school play outfits and props.

What they may not know, though, is that the costume shop traveling actor, entertainer and magician Philip Morris opened in his basement in 1960 is known internationally as a wholesaler to other costume companies and as a costume designer for Hollywood.

You can spot Morris’ wares in dozens of Hollywood movies and TV shows, including the original “Bigfoot” movie (they made the gorilla suit) and Michael Keaton’s ensemble in “Batman.”

Morris Costumes has 40 to 50 full-time employees who work year-round and up to 300 employees by Sept. 1, the beginning of its peak season. These days, the business is shipping more than 15,000 orders a day to customers around the world, from Mexico to Australia to Russia.

Current co-owner, Philip’s son Scott Morris, spoke with ShopTalk about some of their keys to success.

Keeping it tight: Even with 300 employees, Morris Costumes still operates like the family-operated business it is, Morris says.

79-year-old Philip Morris still comes to work every day, while his wife, Amy Morris, continues to run the retail division.

Scott Morris and his sister, Terri Bate, co-own the company and oversee all other operations.

“The problem with so many businesses today is that the managers sit in an office somewhere and don’t really understand the process,” Scott Morris said. “My sister and I are so hands-on. … We get out, help unload trucks, process orders, … and we sit back and try to figure out what changes we can make that really will improve the day-to-day operation.”

Morris even cuts the 70-acre of grass surrounding the company’s 300,000-square-foot distribution center in University Research Park – a task that takes eight to 10 hours.

“We’ve had a number of consultants who wanted to come in here and tell us how to run the business differently,” Morris said. “I already know what makes it work and not work.”

Observation breeds innovation: Morris and Bate also look to other businesses for inspiration.

A year and a half ago, Morris said he visited the Boy Scouts of America Supply Group’s national distribution center on Westinghouse Boulevard, where official badges, books, hats, outfits and tents are packaged and sold.

“I learned a lot by just walking around for three hours … just watching what people do,” Morris said. He did the same with Oriental Trading, the novelties company headquartered in Omaha, Neb. Simply observing can inspire new markets to enter or a new niche their customers might like, he said.

Exploring local growth: Though Morris has a long list of international clients, he still looks for local opportunities for growth. For example, when the Carolina Panthers came to Charlotte, Morris thought of another way to parlay their costuming expertise into a steady stream of income: airbrush face-painting.

Morris Costumes now operates 30 face-painting kiosks around Bank of America Stadium, and Morris has also sent teams of employees to do face-painting at Disney theme parks, Universal Studios theme parks and even England.

Innovate to save: Since taking over the business 18 years ago, Morris says he’s focused a lot on innovation as a way to expand its customer base and simplify operations.

When e-commerce began emerging, he hired programmers to develop a system to track their inventory in real-time. This year, he focused on “rate-shopping” for shipping.

So rather than have one go-to source for shipping, such as the U.S. Postal Service or FedEx, every purchase is now run through a system that locates the best deal on shipping based on the package’s weight, size and destination.

He saved one customer $40,000 one month in shipping costs alone.

Every operation in this world can be improved,” Morris said, “and it’s really important that we continue to … figure out ways to take the next step.”

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