Kari Brizius has an amazing story.
Entrepreneur. In business with her mom. West Point grad. Athlete. Environmentalist. And, most relevant to GreenSportsBlog, President of Relan, a Minneapolis-based company that pioneered the “up-cycling” of stadium and arena signs and banners.
GSB was pleased to speak with Kari about Relan, and more.
GreenSportsBlog: How and when did Relan begin?
Kari Brizius: It all started in 1995 in Minneapolis as a way to keep vinyl banners and signs out of landfill. Most stadiums, arenas, museums and other large entertainment venues would just throw them out. The founders of Relan had a better idea: Repurpose the banners into totes, messenger bags and other products. Their first customers were Aveda and few museums around the country. It was a side business for the founders and thus, between ’95 and 2011, it grew slowly.
GSB: How did you get involved?
Kari: Well, in 2010-2011 my mom, Della Simpson, and I were looking to start a business together, preferably a green one. She lives in Minnesota, I grew up there. When we heard about Relan, we thought this was a business that, with full-time attention, could grow and have a significant impact on the environment and the next generation. Long story short, we bought Relan in 2011 and off we went.
GSB: What were you doing before Relan?
Kari: I had a varied business development, sales, and marketing career that prepared me well for Relan. After my service in the Army where I was a Transportation Officer, I worked mainly in the construction industry. Meanwhile, Della worked primarily in the food service industry with a significant background in design and fashion. So, our skill sets and experiences are complementary. At Relan, she handles finance, operations, and design and I manage business development, sales, and marketing.
Kari Brizius, President of Relan, and her business partner (and mom!) Della Simpson. Relan helps keep vinyl signs and banners from sports stadia and arenas from landfill by repurposing them into consumer products. (Photo Credit: Kari Brizius)
GSB: When you and Della bought Relan, what was your growth strategy?
Kari: At the time we bought it in 2011, it was a small, lifestyle business, focusing on the signage at museums and a few corporations. We saw the opportunity to grow through reaching out to the bigger users of signs and banners and educating them that there is another option than throwing them in the trash…
GSB: Like sports?
Kari: Exactly. Like sports.
GSB: Having been an athlete probably helped, right?
Kari: Yes, definitely. I’ve been into sports since I was a kid. Really, I played just about everything…basketball, softball, volleyball, tennis. I ran cross-country, was a diver, a gymnast…
GSB: You must’ve seen lots of vinyl signs and banners along the way!
Kari: For sure!
GSB: So how did you move into sports?
Kari: Once we became aware of the Green Sports Alliance (GSA), we gained a much deeper knowledge about the greening of sports. And once we determined sports was a place we wanted to be, we joined the GSA and exhibited at the 2013 GSA Summit in Brooklyn.
That quickly led to our first sports clients, starting with the Portland Timbers of Major League Soccer, and then building with the Kansas City Marathon, the Blue Ridge Marathon (Roanoke, VA), the Waste Management Phoenix Open and, through Fox Sports West, the Angels and the Clippers.
GSB: So how do you work with the teams?
Kari: When a team we’re working with takes down their banners, vinyl signs and/or billboards, they ship us the material, choose the type of product they’d like us to produce–tote bags, backpacks, coolers, document cases, etc. and we create the products right in Minnesota.
GSB: Very cool! What’s the business model?
Kari: We sell the product back to the client at a wholesale price. They then can sell the product at fan stores or use them as giveaway items on promotional days.
GSB: Can you give an example of one of your deals?
Kari: Sure. Let’s look at the Timbers. We helped them during Stand Together Week, their week of environmental service. In 2013 we turned the signs and banners they would have, in the past, thrown away, into Bag Tags. This season, we created Messenger Bags, Totes and Kids Back Packs from the banners used at the MLS All-Star Game.
GSB: Were those for sale?
Kari: No these were either giveaways or as a reward for Timbers’ volunteers.
GSB: Does Relan have a minimum order policy?
Kari: Our ideal minimum order is 100 pieces but we can go up to 10,000 pieces or even more. Of course a big factor is how much material the club provides us.
GSB: How’s business this year?
Kari: We are fortunate to be having a very good year, with growth expected to double, and possibly triple from last year!
Portland Timbers kids’ backpacks, a giveaway item during the Timbers 2014 Stand Together Week (in which the Timbers participate in a variety of environmental projects in the Portland area). The backpacks were repurposed from vinyl signs and banners at Providence Arena, home of the Timbers. (Photo Credit: Relan)
GSB: Congratulations, that’s fantastic! What are Relan’s biggest challenges?
Kari: Our thorniest issue is licensing.
Teams are obviously very protective of their logos. It’s not an issue if we’re making products as giveaways – then the logos are no issue. If it’s for sale at retail, then it’s a different story! If products are sold in the retail stores we have to hold a license with that league or organization – even the minor leagues.
Another issue is the league/team relationship. Does the league own a team logo or does the club? The legal status of the logo can make a deal with a team a complex matter. But, ultimately, these issues are solvable and we are working through that.
GSB: Seems like that would be the case. Looking ahead to 2015 and beyond, what do you think the growth drivers will be for Relan?
Kari: Della and I are focused on college sports. They are big users of signage, and have avid fans. Giving the teams a new way to engage their fans and showing the fans the team is sustainable, meanwhile offering the fans a “piece of the team” through a banner that hung at the stadium or featured their favorite player is a win-win for everyone.
GSB: Sounds like a great strategy and a terrific business at the intersection of Green and Business. Thanks for sharing your story with us, Kari.
Kari: Thank you!
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