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Fairfield County Business Journal
May 16, 2005

Variety Is The Spice Of Firm Life

By Andrew Scott

While Alexander Isley attended college to earn a bachelor's degree in environment design, he thought he should begin saving toward starting his own business. "I wanted to go into the business world and solve people's problems using a combination of business and artistic skills," Isley said.

After he graduated, Isley worked for a small design company in New York City. Isley's father, an architect, had an underlying influence on his career choice. In 1988, 26-year-old Isley thought it was time to turn his graphic design skills into a viable business. He formed Alexander Isley Inc.

"In those days one didn't need a lot of money to start a design consulting company. A phone and a T-square were all you needed," Isley said.

From a rented office in New York City, Isley worked alone "to keep overhead low," he said. Six months of savings was all he had to keep the business going. Being a single man and having no mortgage to pay made it easy for him to take risks. "I wouldn't have the courage to do that now," Isley admitted.

His first clients were book publishers and record companies in New York City. "They are constantly in need of creative solutions," said Isley. Clientele grew in response to his perseverance in making phone calls and in his refusal to give up after the first call. It's the only way to get one's foot in the door, he explained.

A year and a half into the business Isley hired help, but not much. He did not want the business to grow too quickly. "I wanted to stay involved in creative work so that I could tell clients that they were not only going to see me when a project is finished," he said.

In 1995, Isley moved to Fairfield County and relocated the business to Redding "for a change of scenery and to get refreshed creatively." It was a move he dreaded. "I was nervous because a lot of my life was very New York-centric and I was afraid business was going to drop off," said Isley.

Instead, the company's client base grew outside the bounds of New York City. "We promoted ourselves more aggressively across the board. The biggest surprise was not being able to get more Fairfield County clients. They are a tougher nut to crack. Since that time, things have changed," Isley said.

Today, Isley's company has10 people on staff. The team designs logos, corporate literature, annual reports, books, magazines, museum exhibits, building signs, Web sites, "anything to be printed or looked at," explained Isley.

The company's broad mix of design capabilities has captured the attention of clients such as America Online Inc., Dulles, Va.; The Pepsi Bottling Group, Somers, N.Y.; Elizabeth Arden Spas L.L.C., Stamford; McDonald Corp., Oak Brook, Ill.; and The Stone Barns Center for Food and Agriculture, Pocantico Hills, N.Y.

In answer to questions about his company's niche, Isley maintains that covering many industry sectors allows the business to get involved in a lot more projects. "Every business consultant we ever worked with suggested we specialize," Isley said, adding that the team is dedicated to the idea behind each and every effort.

With its focus on being diverse, the business experienced growth of 30 percent last year and has a portfolio of 300 clients. Revenue amounts were not disclosed.



It was a banner year as the business, and the industry, bounced back after 9/11. Clients once unwilling to spend money on marketing began loosening their purses. Typically, the team works on 20 to 30 projects at any given time. Some projects require multiple designs.

In 1992 for Armani Exchange's flagship store in New York City, the company spent three months designing interior signs and prototypes. The large scale rollout was to be used for Armani's planned 40 chain stores. Though the design captured the attention and recognition of many in the industry, it was not Isley's favorite project. "Whatever project we just finished working on is my favorite one," he stated.

That purist mentally is reflected in each design the company works on whether it's creating communication material, menus for restaurants, artwork for the outside of trucks, or signs for exhibits.

Industry resources like the American Institute of Graphic Arts in New York City are sought out to help Isley and his company remain competitive in a fiercely competitive environment. Alexander Isley typically is competing with three to five design firms to win contracts for projects.

One of its competitors is Pentagram Design's New York office which has a pool of various graphic designers. Michael Bierut, partner at Pentagram, said firms that do not seek a steady diet of the same type of clients have a competitive edge in the industry. He said, however, that being less specialized may be a turnoff to some clients.

Bierut said Pentagram, too, is experiencing growth in the market. Revenues this year are expected to be up by 20 percent. "I think companies are coming out of a stupendous trough in 2001 to 2002 when things were unstable and not growing," Bierut said.

Four years ago, in order to capture an even greater market share and diversify further, Isley teamed up with Dave Goldenberg and formed The Dave and Alex Show L.L.C. The company's five employees, who share office space with Alexander Isley, work on brand development for clients. "There's a real wall between the creative department and people who do the strategic development. I could never understand that because to me it's all one piece," said Goldenberg.

Recently, for a waste management client, The Dave and Alex Show created a garbage dumpster for attendees at a trade show to jump into to win prizes. The creation was a huge success.

The company plans to continue its focus on creativity. It will grow conservatively "because if you grow too quickly, the quality of creative work is going to suffer," Isley said. "People notice high-quality work companies do and track them down for their services," Isley said.

"Clients choose us because they see something we've done that inspires them. When they meet us they trust us and get a feeling we're going to work and not let them down. We're here to make the client look good; it's part of the job," said Isley.

© 2005 Westfair Communications Inc.

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