That was the start of Touchstone (then, The Aztec Group, Inc.), which I started in June of 1996. My introduction to the promotional products industry was as a buyer for an environmental company, based in Cincinnati, OH, which was owned by my father-in-law (girlfriend’s dad, at the time). After graduating from Miami University (40 miles north of Cincinnati) and after a few jobs in the entertainment business, I started working at an environmental company called Aztec Environmental.
While working at Aztec Environmental, I was exposed to promotional merchandise as a marketing buyer. (Little did I know, this would be the introduction into the world of promotional products, and what would later grow into what Touchstone is today.) Not long after, the environmental company was merged with another company and I found myself wondering what was next. In the weeks following, I connected my promotional products distributor to my network of contacts. After one week, literally, I thought… “I should try this on my own.”
In a deal made with my girlfriend’s dad/investor/now father-in-law, I made a deal to still answer the phone “Aztec” (and forward any calls that were environmental) and to borrow $30,000. With that, the Aztec Group, Inc. was born. Armed with six shirts hanging in the door and a box of key chains on the floor, I took to the streets, from my makeshift pole barn office, to sell (not really knowing what to sell). I fondly recall the first t-shirt order I received from a client. I called Fruit of the Loom and reached someone on the factory floor in Tennessee….. that was my introduction to the term wholesalers and what the term “ASI” (Advertising Specialty Industry) meant. Soon one client was landed, then another, and another, and sales started to take off (back then, doubling sales every year was easy).
By 2002, we were well on our way to something big in the promotional products industry. Then, I met Larry Sheakley. Larry would prove, to date, to be the most impactful person in our business’s future and the person that would provide me the guidance, mentorship, and resources to allow Touchstone to grow into what it is today. Larry is a self-made business magnate, living in Cincinnati, Ohio. He started in business when he was 19, working for his father in the workers’ compensation and unemployment business. It was a family business that Larry would eventually buy from his father and turn into an empire through “bootstrap,” “pound the street” hard work, much like the path I was on.
On January 1, 2005, Larry bought a majority interest of Aztec. We changed the name to Touchstone Merchandise Group, LLC., and we became partners. Today (in addition to Touchstone) Larry has ownership interest in some 26 companies, including Il Mulino (a worldclass restaurant started in NYC, with many other locations), a shampoo company, real estate properties, the Cincinnati Reds, and FC Cincinnati. Since our partnership, Larry and I have shared many years in business together, as well as other business interests, and a love for Touchstone.
As we settled into our development and growth, as Touchstone, we embarked on an ambitious journey to grow our business. As we would soon learn, we would face our 2 biggest challenges. First, 2008 happened. In the midst of an aggressive growth initiative, the economy was stressed, our account executives and clients were struggling to find the budgets and branding success of years past and we were in free fall. Second… even in the midst of economic challenges, we eventually found our footing and we were growing, so much so, that we soon outgrew our systems capability as well as our financial oversight capability (which all came to a head in late 2011). We learned that any well intentioned decisions, based on bad data, was ultimately a bad outcome. In hindsight, this “season” in business would be the catalyst for personal and company humility and growth, giving perspective to appreciate when times are great, while the defensive context to “always” be incredible stewards to our business, our clients, and our colleagues.
As we progressed into the early to mid 2010’s, we spent a lot of time, energy, and purpose rebooting our business and culture, by design and with purpose. With the injection of a sophisticated and talented leadership team, we structured a team of humble leaders with their pasts being our future. We took purpose to defining, developing, and implementing sophisticated workflow processes, as well as systems, which allow us to work with speed, efficiency, and accuracy…ultimately delivering a higher value and ease for our prospects and clients. Lastly, we focused our culture growing our people faster than any other business… not just within our industry, but beyond. We believe that if our people grow themselves, our business will follow.
Today, Touchstone is comprised of a team of talented colleagues which are thirsty learners, competitive in spirit; committed to systematic process; that love and value relationship and service, within their communities where they work and live. Our influence is abundant both in building brands and in building people.
Touchstone is headquartered in Mason, OH (Cincinnati – North), with offices throughout the United States, as well as sourcing offices in ever-changing and dynamic parts of the world.
We are excited to share with you our story and our passion for building brands, and the impact it has on the world we live in.