Jon Ballard, Author at Janesville Innovation Center

Copper Fire Tees triples business while at Janesville Innovation Center

When Copper Fire Tees started out of a basement last decade, the local cop and the local firefighter who owned the company had one T-shirt screen-printing machine in a residential basement.

They aimed to use the business to generate some extra pocket money.

The startup company has operated for nearly six years out of business incubator space at the Janesville Innovation Center, and during that time the owners’ goals have evolved, transformed and grown.

Just like any good American business should.

This month, the company is leaving its digs at the incubator on the city’s south side. Copper Fire is leaving behind a rent-and-consulting package to work out of a much bigger manufacturing space at the former Rock Theaters on Newport Road on the city’s north side.

The move comes as Copper Fire looks to tack on at least $1 million in new, contract e-commerce fulfillment work engraving brushed metal thermal drinking tumblers and other products. And the company just acquired the former Janesville company Throndsen Lettering, which it is rebranding under a new name, Branded Wisconsin.

Copper Fire’s owner, former Sun Prairie cop Brian Garcia, 38, says it is proof the Innovation Center is meeting its mission to help startups get on their feet yet stay rooted in Janesville once they grow beyond the need to operate out of an incubator.

The Innovation Center’s director, board members and Garcia say it’s a case-in-point that startups can make it in Janesville—even during an international pandemic and amid a sputtering national economy.

In spring and summer, during the height of nationwide and statewide COVID shutdowns, Copper Fire was knee deep in an expansion that came under a laser-engraving contract for an e-commerce company on the East Coast.

“In the two years we’ve done this, we’ve literally shipped hundreds of orders to people right here in Janesville. And I guarantee you, those people have no idea that the engraved products were made here in town, a few miles down the road,” Garcia said.

Gale Price, the city’s economic development director, said contract fulfillment work such as Copper Fire’s, particularly for e-commerce companies, has been a major growing industry and a rare bright spot in the COVID-19 economy.

Garcia’s contract bars him from naming the metal drinking tumbler maker he engraves and ships orders for, but he said at one point in the summer months, Copper Fire was shipping out thousands of engraved drinking tumblers a day.

Garcia said the expansion over the last year has filled space in Copper Fire’s 5,200 square feet of leased space in the Innovation Center. The company looks to grow into a 13,000-square-foot space in Jim Grafft’s former Rock Theatres building, which was last occupied by Marling Lumber.

The conversion of that space is going on now, and move-in could come in just a few weeks. It would be a fitting punctuation to a year in which Copper Fire’s sales have mushroomed and its employee ranks have boomed from three full-time workers to about 15 employees—largely thanks to e-commerce fulfillment, online shopping and emerging contracts with manufacturing brands.

But the company also is quickly becoming a go-to vendor and contractor for screen-printed and embroidered apparel for local small businesses companies. During a recent tour of Copper Fire’s manufacturing space in the Innovation Center, the company had orders shipping out for T-shirts, athletic zip-up jackets and other apparel for a local dentist’s office and an area sheriff’s office, among other designs.

Some services the Innovation Center provided Garcia, he said, wouldn’t have been available through a lease with a traditional real estate holding company.

He said help from the Innovation Center included adjusting and transforming manufacturing space in the center for Garcia’s rapidly expanding production lines, and help on legal contracts to buy the former Throndsen Lettering—including Throndsen’s thousands of archived apparel designs for its individual clients.

The experience has been a breath of fresh air for Garcia a former employee at Lear Corp., a Janesville manufacturer and auto parts supplier that imploded when its biggest client, General Motors, pulled the plug on its Janesville assembly plant in 2009.

“A lot of people that have never heard of the Innovation Center. They drive by it, and they see it, and they just think it’s just another industrial building. They don’t understand the whole concept and the programs that’s behind it,” Garcia said. “In the small business world, the Innovation Center is the gem of Janesville. I don’t think it gets enough praise, but I think eventually it will.”

The Innovation Center has graduated other manufacturers, including the startup Simply Solutions, a health product and CBD and hemp product maker that now operates out of a bigger facility on the city’s south side.

The Innovation Center was paid in part through a tax-incentive deal through the city, but in 2018 the city stopped subsidizing the center based on an earlier agreement. It operates largely off tenant rent revenue, which the Innovation Center will be short on in the interim while it hammers out deals with new tenants.

The center is now looking to fill vacancies left by companies such as Copper Fire. Mike Mathews, the Innovation Center’s director, said the incubator has a few new local companies who are poised to move in over this winter.

Mathews said the Innovation Center has requested the city sink in some spending to help it bridge the temporary funding gap.

Copper Fire’s move and rebranding also will help it crack into brick-and-mortar retail at a renovated downtown storefront the company just opened—21 West Collections on West Milwaukee Street.

That’s where the company will market some of its own screen-printed and embroidered apparel, plus other products made regionally.

Garcia hopes local companies who do business with his print shop connect the dots in his expansion. He wants more startup businesses to know a local, grassroots company formed by a former cop has launched itself into not one but three emerging Janesville businesses, thanks in part to help from the Innovation Center.

“I was a cop for seven years. I’m a very simple creature. I’m very loyal. And if somebody does something for me, I think it’s important that you don’t just say, ‘Oh hey. Thanks for the four years of a great deal, and by the way, we’re out of here,’” Garcia said.

“We’re staying here in Janesville.”