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Son uses 'boutique' strategy to grow sales at local family business

by Carolyne Yu
Aug 21, 2007


Courtesy of Edward G. Dorn & Associates Inc.

Edward G. Dorn II, founder of Edward G. Dorn & Associates Inc., in 1978.


Carolyne Yu/Medill

James Dorn, son of Edward G. Dorn & Associates' founder and new owner of the family business, brainstorms with his mother and wife.

This year, more than three decades after his father started a marketing agency in the basement of the family’s Palatine, Ill. home, James Dorn, the fourteenth child of Edward and Cecilia Dorn, purchased the business from his mother.

Since its founding in 1971, Rolling Meadows, Ill.-based Edward G. Dorn & Associates Inc. has helped clients communicate the value of their products to their customers through marketing.

Dorn was just a child when he started helping his father and mother around the office. Instead of today’s computers, large drafting tables for mocking up artwork by hand occupied the space in the 4,500-square-foot office.

“I started coming here in grade school, just doing odd jobs on weekends, like cleaning the office, emptying the garbage, doing mailings,” Dorn said.

As Dorn grew up, computers came into the agency, and it was on those machines that he learned the craft of helping companies establish or reinforce their brands.

He went full-time in the family business after graduating from high school. Thirteen years later, he is now the company’s president and owner.

“There is a lot of history with our agency and some of our clients,” Dorn said. “We’ve delivered value to them over the years, and they’re very loyal to us for that.”

But at the same time, Dorn & Associates has lost business over the years, as more companies decided to create internal marketing teams. As a result, the company shrank to $1 million in annual revenues in 2006 from $2.2 million in 1993.

The agency employs five people today, three of whom are second-generation Dorns, compared with 15 employees in 1993.

But Dorn isn’t worried. In fact, he said revenues are on track to grow 25 percent to $1.25 million this year.

“Our position as an agency has shifted from less mechanical to more strategic,” he said.

In response to the changing marketing environment, Dorn & Associates has changed the way it works with clients. Dorn calls it a flexible, customized approach, providing “boutique-type” work that sets it apart from other marketing agencies.

“We’ll give them very, very specialized service, very high-end, high-quality work, where we really go beyond the project or beyond the actual task at hand,” Dorn said.

The company, once focused almost exclusively on creating artwork, has evolved into an agency that creates marketing tools and tactics, and also offers services such as market research.

“I grew up working with a lot of industrial manufacturers because that’s really where my father started the business,” Dorn said. “As we evolved as a company, we started working with more and more different industries.”

The agency currently has about 13 clients, from small firms to Fortune 100 businesses in industries such as office products, food, education, medical supplies and community outreach.

The company’s pricing ranges from $5,000, for projects like logo design, to $100,000, for full product launches.

Mike Carter, vice-president of sales and marketing at West Dundee, Ill.-based Panther Vision LLC, a consumer and commercial lighting manufacturer, has worked with Dorn & Associates for more than a year and has yet to be disappointed by the agency.

“I don’t ever hear the word ‘no’ [from them],” he said. “It’s ‘yes, we can find a way to get it done. We can find a way to get it done quickly.’ They always find a way to do it. I give a little bit of guidance on what my thought process is, and then I turn them loose creatively.”

Dorn has big plans for the future of the family business. He is preparing to move the company closer to his home in St. Charles, Ill. and hopes to build the business back to its early 1990's strength and beyond.

With his love for his work and his “boutique” strategy, Dorn believes he will eventually build a 25- to 30- person agency.

“From the time a client says, ‘I need this,’ your wheels are already spinning on what you can produce,” he said. “And when you finally come back to him with a piece of artwork that he loves…and that makes him money, that process is just very rewarding, emotionally and sometimes financially, too.”

Dorn says he spends an average of 20 hours at home working, on top of the 40 hours he spends at the office each week.

“On a good week,” his wife Elizabeth adds. She works for the agency from home while caring for their one-year-old son, James Thomas Dorn., Jr.

After buying the company earlier this year, the couple discovered that Dorn & Associates was incorporated on the same day Dorn was born in 1976.

“We never knew until we got the books,” said Elizabeth, who serves as chief financial officer, adding that it seems the company has now come full circle.