From Web design to order fulfillment, coffee cups to fishing poles, fancy brochures to branding services — it’s all here

David Houston and Cathy HoustonIn 1987, David Houston accepted an opportunity to join Delta Business Systems, a business forms company launched by David Diederich. Over the years, the business evolved along with emerging technologies. Houston became sole owner in 1995. Now called Delta Marketing Group, the South Burlington company has greatly broadened its products and services. Houston’s wife, Cathy, joined the company in 2000.

by Virginia Lindauer Simmon

Dave Houston has pursued a creative path since high school. Through periods when he was selling goods for other companies to the selling he continues to do for his firm, Delta Marketing Group in South Burlington, that creative spark has lit his fire.

Like many highly creative people, Houston had a teacher who encouraged him. As a high school sophomore, Houston secured an internship with LAM Design, a packaging design firm in New York City, his first foray into the creative world. “I would commute from a small town called River Vale, N.J., about 20 miles outside the city,” says Houston, “and not only was New York City an eye-opener for a suburban boy, but also back then, everything was done by hand — air brushing, sketching, magic marker — and I was mesmerized; thrilled by everyone from the photographer to the sketch and design artist.”

Starting in his junior year, he switched to the “shop wing,” he says, “now called tech ed, and with that, stumbled into the print shop and design courses, where I met Dave Tedesco, a wonderful teacher — my print teacher at the time. He helped foster my creative nature in that he was open to all sorts of suggestions on how we embrace what’s coming —how to make things different.”

Following graduation in 1977 and recognizing that he was not college-bound, Houston worked for various printers before landing a job in the art department of Forms East, a business forms company in New Jersey.

He soon became restless, though, and took a year and a half off to travel, “to see what the world was like,” he says. “I worked every kind of job imaginable, from tending bar in Houston, Texas, to working as a farmhand in Arizona, driving a truck in California, and working at a ski resort in Colorado.”

Back in New Jersey in ’81, he landed a sales job with Moore Business Forms in New York.

“I liked selling,” he says, “but there was no place for me to be creative; I was very stuck in corporate structure.” Enter the lucky coincidence.

He and his girlfriend, Cathy Keenan, had accepted an invitation to come to Vermont and visit Barry Kurland and his wife. Kurland was a friend from Houston’s childhood. “He had attended UVM and was working for Breen Systems,” says Houston. “It was a beautiful Vermont Saturday, and my friend said, ‘Why don’t we go to a country auction? Hey! We’re passing my boss’s house, and by the way, there’s my boss, David Diederich. Let’s stop and say hello.’”

Some time into their chat, Diederich asked Houston what he did for a living. “I said I was a business forms salesman in New York City, and he said he had a business forms business here in Vermont. I looked around, at the cow pastures and beautiful mountains, and thought, ‘Sure, you do,’ and really didn’t give it a lot of thought.”

Back in New York, though, his frustration continued to grow, and one day, in a phone conversation, Kurland suggested he contact Diederich about opportunities in Vermont.

Houston followed that advice, telling Diederich he was interested in moving and staying within his industry. Although Diederich worked at Breen Systems, he was running Delta Business Systems as a separate corporation with no connection to Breen. They talked for almost a year, after which Houston joined Delta Business Systems as a partner, and he and Cathy, whom he had married, moved to Vermont with their 6-month-old son in 1987. It was winter.

Jeff Wainer and Pat FloydDelta Marketing Group offers products and services in four major areas: printing, design, promotional specialties, and Web-site services. Jeff Wainer (left) is senior designer, and Pat Floyd is a graphic designer.

Arriving in Essex Junction, where they were going to live, was culture shock for the Houstons. “We were horrified!” he exclaims. “We looked around at the frozen tundra and couldn’t believe we were here in this little neighborhood not knowing a soul. We just looked around and said, ‘This is crazy!’

“Fortunately for us, Essex Junction was the best place we could have moved in Vermont. We had the fortune to live across the street from Mike and Amy Dubie. My first outing as a Vermont resident was going with the whole Dubie clan — Mike, Jerry, Mark, Brian, the four Dubie brothers, and the father, Clem Dubie — to an Essex High School football game, where we drank coffee and talked politics.

From there, the Houstons became involved in the community as he and Diederich worked to grow the business. “At that time, it was primarily a company that sold business forms,” says Houston, who spent a lot of time calling on clients and potential clients and building relationships. One potential client was Lee Spaulding of Walsh Electric Supply in Colchester.

Spaulding and Houston have become friends over the years, and he continues as a customer even though times have changed and Delta Marketing has evolved. “I still do what business I can with David,” says Spaulding, “and it’s because of something he did for me when he was just starting off.”

Houston had periodically called on Walsh Electric selling paper products and printed materials, but Spaulding had two other suppliers he used regularly. “I told him right up front, ‘You are a distant third supplier.’ Then one day, our bookkeeper at the time said, ‘We seem to be out of payroll checks.’”

Spaulding laughs at the memory. “I called supplier number one, and said, ‘I need payroll checks by Friday.’ They said, ‘No can do.’ Then called supplier number 2, and they said, ‘No can do.’ I asked the bookkeeper, ‘Who was that guy who was in here?’ We found his card; I called, and said, ‘Hello, David? We need payroll checks by Friday,’ and he said, ‘OK.’

Bonnie Simmons and Rhonda StuartThe company has seven employees and 14,000 square feet of production and distribution space, preferring to invite customers to visit its showroom. Bonnie Simmons (left), production coordinator, meets with customer Rhonda Stuart, human resources manager at Vermont Mechanical.

“I don’t know what he said when he hung up the phone, but the moral of the story is, I had payroll checks by Friday, and the rest is history. He earned my respect and business from that day forward.’”

Although at one time Delta Business Systems provided anything printed Walsh Electric needed, now the company outsources many of the services it once did in-house such as payroll and invoicing, says Spaulding. “We still use envelopes, business cards, and letterhead, though, and the occasional brochure that I don’t do in-house — David handles those. And they’re in the promotional items business, so we’re talking about doing a little of that together.”

Promotional items are only one part of Delta’s evolution. “David had the vision some time ago to see that this country would be doing just what I did,” says Spaulding.

By 1995, Diederich had moved on, and Houston was president and sole owner. He changed the company’s name to Delta Marketing Group and began offering creative services. “We started with artwork — design work,” he says. “Then we added promotional products to our mix. That’s when Cathy joined the company — in 2000.”

Cathy, says Houston, is exceptionally good at working with clients when it comes to promotional products. A large, colorful area near the entrance to the company’s offices serves as a showroom, where thousands of items are displayed, running the gamut from cups to caps to fishing poles to T-shirts to company uniforms. “Customers can come to the showroom, sit down, and work within their budget and target audience to help identify the solution for their company.”

“Today, the business has four distinct parts: printing, design, promotions, and the Web,” says Houston. “We provide you with end-to-end solutions.” The design is done in-house. Delta continues to be a printing distributorship, acting as manufacturers’ representative for hundreds of companies across the country. “If your business needs forms, brochures, stationery, direct mail — we design and print those products.”

The Web is where the growth has taken off. “Most of the things we do for our clients now are online,” Houston says. “Clients can have their uniform programs online as well. Our proprietary product, Delta 360, on our website is what customers use to connect their locations or agents.”

One of Delta 360’s features, Branding on Demand, is a Web-to-print service that allows clients to design marketing materials at the desktop, he says.

“We design and manage Web sites all day long, and Delta 360 centralizes how employees order supplies, create consistent marketing, and control spending. It’s a very important tool for us.”

He mentions Unicel (now Verizon), a customer for many years. From 500 locations, Unicel’s agents can log in and order everything they need for their stores, says Houston, from hardware to point-of-purchase to collateral. “They can even go online and customize their direct mail online, and fulfill that product while they’re online. Delta also warehouses, picks and packs, and fulfills all those products for their clients nationwide.” Fulfillment is done from a warehouse area at the rear of Delta’s 14,000-square-foot facility.

In their free time, the Houstons like to get away from things on their Harleys. “We ride through the Adirondacks a lot,” says Houston, “and spend a fair amount of time on the lake. Our children are now 22 and 20, and both are at UVM. We’re very fortunate.”

Until now, Houston’s most challenging time was reinventing the business and its direction, but a new challenge has presented itself, and he is already planning. The company has hundreds of clients in Vermont, and a few in other states. “Our biggest challenge is the acquisition of our in-state clients by out-of-state firms,” he says. “Our next step is to reach out regionally.”

Now, as then, he adds, the challenge is “to become a better company because of it.” •