Florida Keys Business
Sunday, March 4, 2012
One-stop shop
Businesses meet marketing needs under one long-standing roof

Tom Sawyer -- yes, that's his real name -- had an idea.

He was sitting on his porch on Duck Avenue 22 years ago and looking at the scooter parked in his driveway.

"Back then, no one was putting ads on the baskets or crates that are on the back of all the rental scooters," he said, recalling the supply of wood he had just had shipped from his late father's woodworking room in Philadelphia. "So I started playing around with some ideas and came up with a wooden track for the sides of those boxes, and a board that could be slid into it with an ad printed on it."

When he finished sanding, and tested the prototype on his own scooter, Tom Sawyer's Keyboard Advertising was born. The company had nothing to do with typewriters or computers, and everything to do with a Key West ad on a removable board. In fact, Sawyer never used a computer in the early years of his business.

"I was a real mom-and-pop operation," he said. "Everything was done with a handshake, and it was all in my head or on hard copy on my kitchen table."

Using his own scooter as a demonstration, Sawyer visited the artists and graphic designers who had been working on the second floor of 901 Fleming St. for a decade. JT Thompson, who has now been working out of the same location for 29 years, was one of those designers.

"I'd come in and ask JT to work up a design for a local company, then we'd put it on a 'key board' and slide them into the boxes on rental scooters," Sawyer said.

Capt. Bob's was one of the first examples, as Sawyer was bartending at the now-closed restaurant in the early '90s.

"Then I'd ride my own scooter all over town with an ad in the box. I'd park it in front of various places, and take photos to show potential advertisers all the places their ads would be seen if placed on a rental scooter that goes all over town."

The idea worked, and Sawyer's key boards became a familiar sight on hundreds of scooters beeping their way around Key West.

With a list of clients, and a working relationship with local designers, Sawyer branched out into place mats, coasters and matchbooks for local businesses.

"Then I sort of taught myself the advertising specialties business," he said.

The company is now a $2 million annual operation that puts company logos on anything from beer coolies and baseball hats to flashlights and jump drives.

Silk-screening and embroidery now make up the bulk of the business, which moved a decade ago from Sawyer's kitchen table to the second floor of 901 Fleming St. The building, officially called the Roberts-Davis Building on the National Register of Historic Places, has stood at the corner of Fleming and Margaret streets since 1892. It has been a sponge warehouse, a dry goods store and a furniture store, according to its historic documentation report prepared by Sharon Wells.

In 1983, Mary Perkins bought the building and opened Perkins Son ship's chandlery and nautical emporium. At the same time, she began renting second-floor office space to Thompson and other artists of Solares Hill Design Group, now called Design Group Key West. The name has changed, but Thompson's business has been in the same location for 29 years.

Sawyer bought the building from Perkins 10 years ago.

"I was always coming here for my artwork, and was still working out of my kitchen counter, which I was outgrowing, so when Mary was selling and the price was right, I bought the building," Sawyer said. "Now it's literally a one-stop shop for artwork, graphic designs, signs and marketing materials."

The first floor, which is still supported by two ancient ships' masts, houses Key West Sign Co., while the second floor can handle all advertising and marketing needs for any company. Ron Scott, who has owned Chapel by the Sea weddings for 20 years, also rents office space on the first floor.

Sawyer's business partner, Bernie Renellone, joined the team about nine years ago, and held up concert T-shirts the company had done for a Bruce Springsteen concert tour and an embroidered denim jacket bearing the Parrothead logo.

"We get the order, then someone does the art, someone else digitizes it, and someone else embroiders it," Sawyer said, opening the door to the third-floor apartment he shares with his wife, Kelly.

The two now spend the summers in Kelly's home of Cape May, N.J., where she owns two Dairy Queen shops. They spend the winters on Fleming Street, when not traveling to St. Maarten, St. Croix or St. Barth's visiting old friends of Sawyer, who owned a concert production business in the islands before moving to Key West.

"From my kitchen counter to here," he said, looking around. "We're now a $2 million a year operation and it's all word of mouth. I've been doing this a long time, so whenever someone opens a new business in town, someone who knows me, or who has worked with me, tells them to come see me for T-shirts, hats and all the other stuff."

Kelly Sawyer laughed when she described walking down a street with her husband, who stops every 15 steps to greet someone. With his trademark introductory handshake of, "Tom Sawyer, perhaps you've heard of me," friendships are born and business relationships are established.

"It's been a wild ride," Sawyer said, smiling.

And it all started on Duck Avenue with a scooter and a wood pile.

mmiles@keysnews.com

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