Jean Bergmann was the wife of a pastor, but she had always dreamed of being an entrepreneur. In 1985, she had the chance to purchase NiceBadge, a business that produces corporate identity badges and other promotional items.
“This was my opportunity,” Jean said.
She started out on one side of her double-garage. As the company grew, she expanded to a two-story building, and later purchased an auto repair shop and converted it to manufacturing space.
Along the way, Jean consulted her son, Lowell, who worked in the restaurant business.
“She would call me up and say, ‘I’ve got a 36 percent profit margin. Is that good?’” Lowell recalled.
Seeing his mom do so well at running the business made him proud. Then one day, she asked if he wanted to buy NiceBadge.
Lowell loved the restaurant business, but he was looking for something more stable. So he decided to do a test run. He worked for NiceBadge for several months and was surprised by the similarities in the work. In 2000, he bought the company from his mom and moved his family back to his hometown of Grants Pass.
Fast-forward 17 years, and NiceBadge has become one of the top-four name badge producing companies with more than 40,000 business accounts. Lowell has aggressively grown the company through e-commerce. Automation allows the company to do more that ever.
When Jean started out, the badges were made from rotary engravers and hot stampers. Then came laser engravers and the latest is UV printers. NiceBadge has IT infrastructure to create a secure portal for its business customers to input employee information directly. Badge printing is automated, so there’s no human intervention. The whole process is seamless.
“We make it easy for our customers,” Lowell said. “We don’t have the opportunity to make mistakes.”
While technology allowed the company to grow, it has stretched leadership duties. Lowell and his wife Diahn Gibson, who is co-owner and does the accounting for NiceBadge, have provided opportunities for their children to be involved in the family business.
The third generation includes siblings Matt Gibson, who is production manager, and Christie Cook, special projects manager, and Christie’s husband, Tyler Cook, head of production.
Matt said he didn’t feel pressure to join the family business.
“There may have been hints here or there,” Matt said.
But he didn’t want to join as the owner’s son. So he got his degree in business, working summers at NiceBadge taking out trash and on product assemblies.
“When I came back, I had to prove my worth,” Matt said. “The position wasn’t just given to me … Everything is earned.”
In preparation for the company’s next transition in leadership, Tyler, Christie and Matt have been given seats on the company’s board, along with their dad, who is company president, and long-time employee and company senior vice-president, Jason Staelens.
Christie said she appreciates the transparency of being on the board.
“We really know what’s going on,” she said. “That’s a huge benefit when you are transitioning from generation two to generation three.”
Christie said that everyone is free to speak his or her mind.
“Everybody has a chance to improve it,” she said. “It’s a wonderful atmosphere for thinkers.”
The third generation of family members do not have to work as hard as Lowell or Jean did to start and grow the company. Lowell is glad that his children don’t have to put in 100-hour weeks like he did when he was in the restaurant business.
Jean is pleased to see the third generation play an active role in leading the company.
“For Lowell and I, it was a lot of work,” Jean said. “I’m so excited for their future; excited for them for the opportunities they have.”
Matt and Christie are grateful for what their dad and grandma did. It’s like they’ve been raised up and get to stand on their dad’s shoulders, Christie said.
“He’s worked really hard,” she said. “We get to build it from where he is, not from where he started.”
Lowell said he enjoyed going through the process of applying for the Austin Family Business Awards, and he’s not surprised by the recognition.
“For my mom and my kids, I’m extremely proud,” Lowell said.
Matt said the award validates what they’re doing, and makes him think about the process of improvement.
“Every day, we have to think, how can we make things better?” Matt said.
Tyler said the award shows how well Lowell has done in developing the next generation of company leaders.
“The opportunity he’s given us has really worked,” Tyler said. “It was really gratifying for us to win it for him.”