They’re a little Elton, a little Elvis, part Dr. Seuss, and a whole lot of successful.
The brothers Johnson, Kevin and Keith, are the driving force behind the wild and wacky world of hats, sunglasses and novelties called Elope Inc., where everyone is laughing and the hats are mad.
That is no joke. Elope is an acronym for ‘Everyone’s Laughing On Planet Earth,’ one of dozens the two considered in a beachside bungalow in Japan, as they discussed business plans near the end of a five-year Asian hiatus.
This is the saga of brothers in arms who studied the system, here and in China, learned how to work it for the good of everyone, and now see no end in sight with products with a single purpose: evoking good feelings.
The brothers went to Asia following college. “We’d spend six months at a time hiking around with our backpacks,” said Kevin, president and chief executive officer. While there, he learned to speak Japanese and Mandarin, Keith, Mandarin.
As the years went by, they decided to return to Colorado Springs. Kevin, then living in Japan, convened a meeting with his brother Keith, who lived in another part of the country.
“We grew up here (Colorado Springs) and it was time to come home,” Kevin said from his office, which is full of hats, pictures, posters, and other… stuff. “We knew we were going into business when we came back, and hats were part of the picture.”
During Christmas 1992, the brothers leased a spot underneath an escalator at the Citadel Mall. In just a few days, they sold 1,000 funky Mad Hatter toppers from the kiosk. Skiers and snowboarders loved the extreme lids.
Realizing they were onto something, they got very serious about selling silliness. They contacted the Service Corp of Retired Executives (SCORE) for advice.
SCORE provides business advice to entrepreneurs and would-be entrepreneurs, all of it free. Locally, SCORE has an office at the Greater Colorado Springs Chamber of Commerce.
SCORE examined Elope’s business plan, provided contacts in Asia, and quicker than you can say Horton the Elephant, Elope was importing hats from Nepal (as in Mt. Everest).
“But we had quality control problems in Nepal,” Johnson said. “Keith spent a year living there to monitor quality, but we realized we needed more control,” he said.
The company needed reliable shipments of fabric, dependable and affordable labor, and a manufacturer that could provide sufficient quantities of product.
Again, the brothers called upon SCORE. Volunteer counselors Charles Bogan, Becky Fuller and Ralph Peters helped on several fronts. They looked at management upgrades and helped analyze loan offers to purchase a larger location. Four banks wanted to make the loan.
“They almost gave us too much advice,” chuckled Johnson. “They were able to help us negotiate a loan a half-point below market rates.”
Since, the company has grown about 300 percent per year and the 18,000 square foot warehouse and offices it purchased on north Murray are too small. Expansion locally is imminent, Johnson said.
The big news is that Elope, in partnership with an associate in China, just completed construction on a 125,000-square-foot manufacturing facility and adjacent 750-bed dormitory for employees in Canton.
“We built it from the ground up,” Kevin said of the smart-looking blue buildings. The first thing in the building plan was to hire a Feng shui expert to analyze the site and consult in planning, said Johnson.
Elope’s products are all about fun and a promotional photograph of the brothers shows the team practices what it depicts. Kevin wears a garish hat and sunglasses getup that gives him the look of a sleazy wheeler-dealer. Keith takes the high road, wearing a jewel-encrusted red king’s crown, highlighting his royal face with a pair of star-shaped sunglasses, ala Sir Elton.
That can be an accurate description of their attitudes sometimes, Johnson smilingly noted. Johnson’s head is shaved, and the stubble looks itchy.
“I raised $10,000 for kids with cancer,” he said of the cactus top.
Locally, $70,000 was raised during the St. Baldrick’s event, a non-sensical organized holiday to raise funds for the National Children’s Cancer Foundation. Johnson said he will organize an Elope children’s fundraiser next year.
Elope markets its products to more than 70 companies in Japan, and exports to Germany, Canada, France, United Kingdom, Austria, Mexico and elsewhere.
It also has licensing agreements with the Elvis Presley estate (sunglasses), for Harry Potter paraphernalia, Dr. Seuss and Wally Amos, the cookie magnate and motivational speaker. The Amos hats depict watermelon, which the cookie man loves.
About 20 team members locally take care of sales, marketing, shipping and billing. The company also designs its own catalogs, has a photography studio, and has a skilled art department.
For more information, go to www.elopehats.com.