Commercial Bliss

It took a few turns in the road, but Jack Bliss is prospering as a hands-on small-business owner in St. Albans

by Tom Gresham

Jack Bliss stands in a clamorous room filled with humming machines, diligent laborers and pop music. The activity is a con- trolled frenzy and Bliss appears satisfied to have a grasp on every detail.

Jack Bliss delights in his work as hands-on owner of Corporate Outfitters, a St. Albans supplier of embroidered and logo apparel to the corporate market.

Bliss opens a door and slips through. He walks past a darkened showroom and navigates a short hallway to his secluded office. He may as well have slid underwater. The quiet is conspicuous.

"I like being back here so I can focus," says Bliss, the owner and president of Corporate Outfitters. "I've always got a lot to do, but I'm close enough where I can always keep up with things."

Bliss revels in his work as the hands-on head of Corporate Outfitters, a St. Albans company that supplies embroidered and logo apparel to the corporate market. He closely manages the company, which he bought in its youth and has cultivated over the years into a thriving business.

Bliss purchased Corporate Outfitters, then known as Idee Sportswear, in 1991. In an unusual twist, Bliss represented the seller and acted as the buyer in the transaction.

At the time, Bliss owned a business brokerage franchise in the Burlington area. When he landed the task of peddling a screen-printing business named East Coast Printers, he did considerable research of the industry in pursuit of buyers. The market piqued his interest.

Soon after, Bliss became the selling broker for Idee, an embroidering contractor. Bliss showed the business to a handful of interested buyers, but none opted to proceed with the purchase.

Bliss continued his research and found he was instinctively forming strategies for Idee. Bliss also sensed that his business was standing on increasingly shaky ground.

"I decided that I needed to move on," Bliss says, "so one day I walked into [the Idee owner's] office and told him I had a buyer for him. He asked me 'Who?' and I told him 'Me.'"

Bliss says the business had simply grown on him.

"When I listed Idee, I didn't immediately think, 'Yeah, this is it,'" Bliss says. "The more I got into researching it, the more I could see what the business was about. I began to think about what I could bring to it. It looked to me like it would be a fun business and something that I could build."

Bliss' decision to purchase Idee is representative of the confidence and willingness with which he has approached change in his professional life. He's proved unafraid of making drastic departures from his previous course of stepping out on a limb. Change, in fact, is the only constant on the serpentine path Bliss traveled to get to Corporate Outfitters. His varied stops go a long way toward explaining his success.

"I've been involved in a lot of stuff the last 15 to 20 years," Bliss says. "I look back at it and it's kind of a crazy story how it all happened. It's hard to say why I ended up in this business, but it's great that I did."

A business career wasn't even a consideration for Bliss during his college studies first at Champlain College and later at the University of Vermont. Instead, his focus in those days was trained on a future in law enforcement. He designed his own criminal justice major at UVM, becoming the first student to graduate from the university with such a degree.

After graduation, Bliss served as an officer for three years in the St. Albans Police Department. Then, he spent two more years manning the Vermont State Police marine boat. Alone, Bliss patrolled Lake Champlain from the sandbar to the Canadian border. He was also responsible for state police coverage of Lake Carmi and Fairfield Pond. His duties ranged from responding to emergencies (missing persons, capsized or stranded boats) to enforcing registrations and cracking down on violations (drunk drivers, overpopulated boats).

Bliss's daughter, Katy (right), is one of 10 employees at Corporate Outfitters. She is a trimmer, doing finish work on clothing. Denise Chase is an embroidery machine operator.

"It was the best job I ever had," says Bliss, who grew up on Lake Champlain in St. Albans. "I loved being on that boat."

Bliss was a good fit for police-work, according to a former colleague.

"He was a very good cop," says Williston Police Chief Ozzie Glidden, who grew up with Bliss and served with him on the St. Albans Police Department. "You could tell he really enjoyed being a cop, too."

Although the connection between law enforcement and business may seem tenuous, Bliss says his years as a police officer have helped him succeed in commerce.

"In law enforcement, everything is done in an orderly fashion," Bliss says. "It's very structured. If anything, I still have that. I like the structure. You also get a real keen eye, always looking for things. I'm little bit like that in my work. I want to see everything. I always want things done in a certain way."

Bliss' exit from law enforcement was fairly abrupt. He had been raised near a successful business environment his father, Robert, had an insurance agency in St. Albans and he had begun to feel a tug in that direction. His first step was to take a position with the Central Vermont Railway in St. Albans as a car checker and janitor an apparently unorthodox avenue into business. On the strength of his tireless energy, however, Bliss managed to swiftly elevate himself into the sales department and eventually to the position of sales manager.

The railway's largest customer during Bliss' stint was Quabog Transfer, a lumber distribution company. Quabog was so impressed with Bliss that it hired him away as its director of operations. For three years, Bliss managed 50 employees and learned the tricks of running a business, skills he uses today. When Quabog eventually decided to cease its Vermont operations, Bliss elected to resign rather than leave St. Albans.

"I grew up here," Bliss says. "I've worked for different companies in Montpelier and Burlington, but I've pretty much lived here my whole life. I just decided that I'd been working for people long enough. I wanted to do my own thing."

Bliss, who served for five years on the board of Vermont's Make-A-Wish Foundation and has worked with the John LeClair Foundation through Corporate Outfitters, is proud of his family's ties to St. Albans. His father, he says, was very involved in the community and he has tried to emulate him. Bliss says his father has been his biggest professional influence.

"A lot of the ways I do stuff at work, I probably learned just from growing up with my father around," Bliss says. "I ate, drank and slept business growing up because he was involved in so much. He was very connected, very involved."

Although his eventual attempt at a career as a business broker never took off as planned, Bliss has no regrets.

"The business brokerage ultimately didn't do well for me, but it ended up leading to a great career," Bliss says. "If I hadn't done it, I never would have found this company."

When Bliss took charge of Idee, the company consisted of Bliss and two administrative staff members. Today, there are 10 employees, including Bliss' daughter, Katy.

Shortly after he assumed control of the company, Bliss redirected Idee's marketing focus from outdoor sports companies to a broader range of corporate customers. In the mid-1990s, he moved company headquarters from Williston to the business's current home at Champlain Commons in St. Albans. Bliss changed the name to Corporate Outfitters in 1996.

The result of the tinkering and adjustments: business has quadrupled in Bliss' 12 years in charge.

"We've had steady growth," Bliss says. "Every year we've taken a few more strides. We've kind of leveled off lately because it takes so much to support the customer base that we've created. We have a lot of long-term customers. I would bet we probably have kept about 95 percent of our customers. We've had many of them so long that we know exactly how they do business and we can really serve them well."

About 60 percent of Corporate Outfitters clients are based in Vermont. Bliss hopes to increase out-of-state customers with a bulked-up Internet presence. Orders vary widely, from a minimum of 24 shirts to the 60,000 shirts embroidered for Munsingwear. Corporate Outfitters has embroidered shirts for the Atlanta Olympics, NBC Sports and Sailing World magazine, among others.

Bliss says Corporate Outfitters consciously markets itself toward a high-end clientele. He says the business's product typically reflects a conservative look, aiming "to keep the logo classy and subtle, instead of cheapening it." He estimates 80 percent of orders are for embroidered apparel and the rest are promotional items (coffee mugs, drink bottles).

To stand out from the competition, Corporate Outfitters presents an unwaveringly immaculate appearance. Shirts, for instance, are individually trimmed, folded and steamed before being packed in a white box with the Corporate Outfitters logo on the outside. The point, Bliss says, is that nothing is done haphazardly.

Karmen Swim (left) manages the office and handles the administrative aspects of the business, including purchasing, bookkeeping and data entry. Becky Cook covers sales and supervises all operations.

"We're very careful from an appearance standpoint," Bliss says. "We really try to separate ourselves that way, by paying close attention to the details of the look. A big part of that is the way we present and market ourselves to clients; so the embroidery, the trimming, the steaming, the white box with logo, they're all part of the attempt to present ourselves as a little more upscale than the company that just throws their product in a brown box."

Bliss says the simultaneous emergence of charity and corporate golf tournaments and casual wear at the office has lent his business its largest boost. Corporate Outfitters outfits 25 to 35 golf tournaments a year and the business world brims with companies seeking embroidered apparel.

"When we first started, there were just a few embroidering companies across the country," Bliss says. "The trend has changed over those years from just screen printing T-shirts to a more upscale look. Golf shirts have become a major staple of American corporate wear. Everyone was just wearing a shirt and tie to work when we started. A lot of the growth in this industry has been because of the trend to casual wear at work."

Bliss says Corporate Outfitters has provided an excellent vehicle for him to employ his sales and marketing skills. Although, on the surface, the embroidering game may seem dull alongside police work, Bliss says he feels sufficiently challenged at the office.

"It's kind of an exciting business and kind of a fun product," Bliss says. "It's always changing; it's always a new style with new colors. It's more entrepreneurial than business brokerage and I like that. I was never a shirt-and-tie guy, so this was up my alley. I can dress fairly casual and be comfortable."

Bliss enjoys his job so much, he embraces the long hours that accompany life as president of a company.

"This business is my job but it's also kind of my hobby," he confesses. "I enjoy coming in here and working on a Saturday or Sunday. There's always a few loose ends with any business and, in my mind, I'm the only one that's going to take care of some of these things."

In addition to Katy, Bliss has two sons, Sean, a freshman at UVM, and Jason, a junior at Rice Memorial High School. Bliss' wife, Lynnda, works for the Border Patrol in Swanton. In his free time, when he's not attending the sports contests of his children, Bliss says, "my first priority is to get out on the lake." He particularly loves boating; his family lives on the shores of Lake Champlain. The lake is the backdrop for several of the pictures scattered around his office.

"It would be hard for me to ever sell this business," Bliss says. "I went through a lot to get it and now I feel like I've got a lot of work built up into it. I didn't build this business from scratch, but it's pretty close."

Originally published in June 2003 Business People-Vermont