Episode 50: Shindigz Brings the Party (and 50 Jobs) to Downtown Fort Wayne, Indiana
October 22, 2018
Shindigz, one of the largest dealers of party supplies in the U.S., has been based in South Whitley in Northern Indiana for 92 years. With a growing need to hire creative and digital talent, the company considered moving its headquarters and manufacturing operations out of state to Austin, Texas or the Research Triangle in North Carolina. Ultimately, Shindigz was convinced that the talent they needed was right there in Indiana, and opted to move its headquarters to downtown Fort Wayne, keeping its manufacturing operations in South Whitley. To get to the bottom of the decision, we spoke with Shep Moyle, Chairman and Co-owner of Shindigz, and John Urbahns, Executive Vice President of Economic Development at Greater Fort Wayne Inc.
Patience Fairbrother (DCI): If you’ve ever thrown a big party or attended a high school prom, chances are you’ve come into contact with the company at the center of today’s episode.
Andy Levine (DCI): Shindigz is a 92-year-old party supply company that once catered to about 80% of high school proms in the U.S. It’s been headquartered in Northern Indiana since 1926.
Patience: Since then, it’s grown its product line 12-fold and diversified rapidly into the digital age, largely thanks to its current owners, Shep and Wendy Moyle.
Andy: Shep calls the company a 92-year-old startup, thanks to its fast transition into an e-commerce operation. To complete this transformation, Shindigz announced plans to move its headquarters from rural South Whitley, Indiana, to downtown Fort Wayne, which beat out both Austin and the Research Triangle to win the project.
So welcome to Episode 50 of “The Project: Inside Corporate Location Decisions.” I’m Andy Levine of Development Counsellors International.
Patience: And I’m Patience Fairbrother, also with DCI, and Andy’s cohost of The Project.
Andy: So this week, we bring you the story of Shindigz, one of the largest dealers of party supplies in the United States. It was founded in 1926 and has been based in South Whitley in Northern Indiana for 92 years. The company saw two options as part of its expansion. A, was to stay in Indiana but move its headquarters to downtown Fort Wayne which was about 30 miles east, keeping its manufacturing in South Whitley. Or B, move everything out of the state of Indiana to Austin, Texas, or the Research Triangle in North Carolina. Ultimately, they chose to stay in Indiana.
Patience: In a moment, we’re going to hear from Shep Molye, chairman and co-owner of Shindigz. His parents bought the company in 1974 and under their leadership, the company primarily served the prom industry, selling decorations, favors, and printed items by catalog to high school proms across the country.
Andy: Shep and his wife Wendy got their MBA, Shep at Harvard and Wendy at Kellogg, and they met when they both worked out of Frito Lay’s corporate headquarters in Dallas. At 27, they had the opportunity to purchase the company from Shep’s parents. Here’s Shep.
Shep Moyle (Shindigz): When we were presented the alternative to purchase the business, we spent a lot of time thinking about that because we’re both MBAs and embarked on our corporate career and doing quite well and enjoying Texas, but we talked about entrepreneurial opportunity, how it was something that we wanted to jump at. And so we got married, bought a house, and moved back to Indiana and bought a business all in the same month at the age of 27. So we were off and running to a new environment from the world of corporate excitement to rural Indiana.
Patience: So Andy, I’m 26, which means to keep up with Shep and Wendy, I have just about a year to purchase a company and get married.
Andy: I figure you just need to fill out your application to Harvard Business School, right?
Andy: And then also complete your Match.com profile.
Patience: Oh, yeah. I’ve been meaning to get to that.
Andy: So anyway, let’s go back to Shep and Wendy. When they bought the company in 1990, they made the decision to shift the business model. We asked Shep about that transition.
Shep: Well, it’s been a dramatic shift because obviously, it didn’t take us too long as MBAs to figure out that high schools only have one prom a year, so that created a seasonality issue that we knew we had to address. So we, very quickly, moved into a variety of other business segments in the school area. So we moved into the homecoming market and cheerleading and school spirit and the elementary school market. And then we moved and created the brand Shindigz in the consumer party market, and that has been the driver of the change in our business over the year.
Patience: With the consumer brand, Shep and Wendy catapulted the company from 3,000 products sold primarily via catalog to a 36,000-product e-commerce-driven business.
Andy: In that time, Shindigz grew from 35 employees to 400. Being headquartered in rural South Whitley, they began to pull from the five surrounding counties to meet their hiring needs.
Shep: So we’re in a town of 1400, we’re employing 400. We’re bringing people in from five counties. And that became increasingly problematic for us, not only in terms of sheer numbers, but then as the needs of the business changed, the types of people that we needed to source. As we looked at our growth that had been averaging, you know, 20% a year for the last 25 years, in order to meet that need, our greatest constraint to growth was really talent. So that’s what drove us to embark on our look for our new headquarters.
Patience: As they embarked on the search for a new headquarters location, Shep and Wendy had three primary criteria.
Shep: So as we then started to lay out our criteria, we really wanted…first to be in a city where we knew there was talent, so we had to have a strong university component where we would have a top talent pipeline that is producing new talent in the way of skills and abilities. We wanted to be in an area that had a vibrant downtown area that would be attractive to millennials and the kinds of design and creative and technology people that we were looking for. We wanted the transportation to be able to connect our people to the rest of the world since we are a global business as we grow. And we wanted to be able to provide a very unique workplace. So we didn’t want to go somewhere where we were just going to be in an office tower somewhere.
Andy: So to recap the top factors: Number 1, talent and a strong university presence; number 2, a vibrant downtown; and number 3, a unique workplace, they didn’t want to be in an office tower.
Shep: So as we started that exploration, we then started to narrow that down. Our final three choices came down really in North Carolina, and primarily focused on the Research Triangle in Durham, North Carolina, and the partnership with Duke University; in Austin, Texas, and the relationship with University of Texas; and then we maintained an option with downtown Fort Wayne, because there had been obviously a lot of discussion over the years about the transformation in downtown, but not a lot of movement. And finally, in the last few years, that effort to transform downtown actually started to happen. And so we wanted to be able to evaluate that as an option as well.
And as we looked at our alternatives, we were at first considering, “Do we just do a small outpost?” And one of the economic development individuals in North Carolina said, “Well, to really make this work, why don’t you do the whole company here?” And that really opened our thinking to, “All right, now, let’s look at moving the whole operation to one of these different locations.” So those were our three initial focus areas.
Patience: So rather than just moving their headquarters out of South Whitley, Shindigz is now considering moving the entire company, including manufacturing operations, out of state. With the highly competitive North Carolina and Texas on the table, staying in Indiana was a bit iffy for Shindigz from a talent perspective.
Shep: And I’ll have to say, as we started our discussions with Fort Wayne, they probably weren’t in the first place because talent was the driver that we were looking at, our board had focused on that being the primary criteria.
Andy: This is where the region’s economic developers came into play. Greater Fort Wayne Inc partnered with the Northeast Indiana Regional Partnership and they brought higher education to the table, literally. The organizations held a dinner for Shep and his team to meet with the university presidents across 11 different institutions. Here is John Urbahns, Executive Vice President of Economic Development at Greater Fort Wayne Inc.
John Urbahns (Greater Fort Wayne Inc.): They brought that topic up right from the start. They said, “Our number 1 issue is talent and we’re not getting the talent that we need. We’re not sure that we can get the talent here, and that’s why we’re looking at other markets like the Research Triangle Park and Austin because we know we can get the talent there.” That’s where we had to come to the table and really prove ourselves and bring the universities into the mix. And that’s not something that has typically happened here. While we have a great working relationship with the universities and they all work together as one region here in town, we haven’t brought them in to specific deals right down to the CEO and the president of the company. So that was a little bit different this time, but it worked out very well.
Andy: The dinner was a success. So much so that the regional economic development partners in Northeast Indiana have already used it again.
Patience: So it sounds like, obviously, that that was a very successful model. Do you anticipate replicating that in future projects down the line?
John: So interesting enough, we had a project just a few weeks later that we had a company looking at establishing a location here out of Atlanta, Georgia, and they had a lot of the same issues. So we were able to bring them to town, again, sit down with the university officials, and bring Shep in to talk about the challenges that he had and how we worked through it with him, and it was a great conversation that we had all the way around, and hopefully, we landed that project and that will be a big part of why we landed it.
Patience: But we’re getting ahead of ourselves. Let’s go back to the Shindigz project. Shep and his team were encouraged by the outcome of the first meeting with the higher ed, but it was only the beginning of the conversation.
Shep: So that was really a seven-month journey for us In terms of those discussions with community leaders and with the university leaders to convince ourselves that the talent is here enough to get us going, but more importantly, that the economic development team and the universities are willing to work and build a scaffolding and to work as a startup, as it were, to now provide us that pipeline going forward and that we could be a part of creating an exciting new technology design and creative partnership here in Fort Wayne where they currently does like this.
Patience: Beyond the university component, they wanted an environment that would be attractive to millennials in the tech and creative industries. That brings us to factor number 2, a vibrant downtown.
Shep: It was absolutely critical to our decision because in order to attract young millennial talent, you have to have places for them to live, you have to have places for them to eat, and you have to have exciting things for them to do and we want to attract these people, A, to stay in Fort Wayne if they’re here now. But if they go away for school, we want them to come back and raise their families here.
Andy: To talk about the redevelopment of downtown Fort Wayne, we have to go back to 2009, when plans were approved to develop Parkview Field, a minor league baseball stadium located in the central business district. Here’s John.
John: That really opened the floodgates to the redevelopment of our downtown. So since 2009, just, you know, nine short years ago, we’ve now seen about $400 million of new investment downtown, with old buildings being renovated. An example is a 15-story bank building that was 95% vacant has now been converted into condominiums, office space, and first-floor retail, and it’s completely full with several units that are nearing a million dollars. I never would have thought that would have been the case in Fort Wayne, but that’s the type of reinvestment that we’ve seen.
We’ve seen projects like Ash Brokerage is that it was looking to build a corporate campus on the edge of town, we convinced them that downtown is a campus, and they ultimately moved their facility downtown, build about 100,000 square feet of office space with a first-floor retail and about an 1100-space parking garage, and we got a 15-story residential apartment building attached to it, which has all come online and is fully leased up.
Patience: The Parkview Field and Ash Brokerage developments were key for Shep and his team to see that there was momentum in downtown Fort Wayne, and that they had a chance to be part of growth for the city.
Shep: So to see, really the…the start of this was obviously the Parkview Field, then the development with Tim Ash’s leadership and Ash Brokerage building and what that started to bring, and then to see the landing actually happen. And from my experience in Fort Wayne, we talked about that a lot, but this team was getting it done and there were shovels on the ground and buildings being transformed. I saw the opportunity that Fort Wayne was at the beginning of this slide wheel where Durham was 25 years ago, and that we had the opportunity to be on the cutting edge of that.
Andy: So we’re starting to see that for Shindigz, it’s not just about landing in a city that’s already developed, it’s about being part of that growing energy and having an active role in it.
Shep: It was interesting in that one of the sales pitches early on that was given was, “Wouldn’t you rather just be a big fish in this sea, versus just being another fish…and in being a small fish in Austin or in Durham,” and my answer to that was to be a fish in an ocean with a lot of people like us. So we want a whole bunch of other businesses like us to be here where we’re all working in this ecosystem together which will then bring that talent here, which will then encourage the universities to offer programs in data science and coding and all of the technology support that we need. So that’s the part that excites us is the ability to work with everyone who is already down there and just be another building block in this excitement for Forth Wayne.
Patience: Building a building block in building the downtown ecosystem was ultimately really important for Shep, Wendy, and the Shindigz team. And they already have plans in pace to activate that in their new headquarters.
Shep: So what we want to do is engage our people in the community so we will be doing things like what we’re calling slunches at this point where we will actually pay our team members to go out in groups of people that they may not work with every day and go to Fort Wayne restaurants and experience Fort Wayne. We don’t want people just bringing lunches from home and eating in a building. We want our people out in the community, you know, using the vendors that are there, and we want to be a part of this celebration in this fabric that we’re developing of a new, innovative, creative, design community that attracts other businesses.
Andy: Finally, we’ve arrived at factor number 3. Shindigz wanted a unique workplace. They took a bit of a rogue approach to secure the building that they really wanted.
Shep: I had the, you know, distinct pleasure, along with all of the Greater Fort Wayne and Partnership people to see every available building in downtown Fort Wayne, but what we really were focusing on was give us a creative solution. Just knowing that there are 30,000 square feet here or there doesn’t really, again, solve my problem. So ultimately, we started knocking on doors. So the building that we settled on was not for sale. My wife Wendy knocked on the door and said, “Would you be interested in discussing selling the building?” And 48 hours later, we had a deal. And what appealed to us about it was that it’s a 110-year-old building, that formerly housed the Patterson-Fletcher department store, all brick, five stories, an area on the top where we could put our rooftop party deck right in the heart of downtown at Harrison and Wayne where we think this is the new main street going from Parkview Field all the way down to the [inaudible 00:17:04] and to the riverfront with Ash Brokerage.
Patience: So this 92-year-old company plans to reinvent itself by renovating and moving into a 110-year-old building. It’s kind of poetic, really. Here’s Shep once again.
Shep: What’s exciting now is this opportunity to go in with this canvas and create a workplace for the 21st Century. So we are now in the process of finalizing our planning and then we’ll be starting to gut floors. We would be completely open concept with no offices, polished concrete floors, open ceilings and so we think of ourselves as a 92-year-old startup. So this building, this move to downtown is a restart for us as a startup. And so we are rethinking our company culture, we are rethinking all of our talent acquisition, we’re rethinking how we go to market. And so this is not only just a move, this is a restart for a 92-year-old startup.
Patience: So there you have it. Shindigz’s move to downtown Fort Wayne has a potential to be a catalyst for the region as well as a new start for this 92-year-old startup.
Andy: Construction is currently underway to prepare the Harrison Place building, soon to be renamed Shindigz Place. The first cohort of employees will move into the new building on April 15, 2019. So here we are at the takeaways portion of the episode. Patience, you had the good fortune to interview both Shep as well as John to do this episode. Tell me what the takeaways were for you.
Patience: I think the key point here is that we’re looking at three very different markets here. The company was looking at Austin, the Research Triangle, and Fort Wayne. If you put Fort Wayne up against either of those two competitors from a talent perspective, Fort Wayne loses.
Andy: It’s a pretty tough battle.
Patience: It’s a very tough battle. But I think what they did, what Fort Wayne did is they did two things really well, and the first is that in terms of their workforce capabilities, they turned kind of a disadvantage into an advantage. They took their, you know, lack of a robust workforce…well, not lack of, but compared to the Research Triangle and Austin, and they basically said, “Here, you can be part of a new solution. By working with our university partners, you get to be part of shaping your own future here, in that case.”
Andy: As opposed to a future that’s already shaped in the Research Triangle or in Austin.
Patience: Exactly. And that dinner, obviously, with those 11 university partners was a really key part of this project that they’re obviously planning to use again. They’ve already used it again, hopefully, with success. And the second thing here is kind of the growth of their downtown. I think they…Shindigz sees the value in being part of a growing ecosystem, you know, similar to the workforce point, that they didn’t want to go into a community where they were already established and kind of be a small fish. It’s more be a big fish but help attract other fish to Fort Wayne.
Andy: So the big fish wins.
Andy: So that is a wrap on Episode 50, wow, Episode 50 of “The Project: Inside Corporate Location Decisions.”
Patience: We really have to thank Shep Molye and John Urbahns for being on the show.
Andy: The Project is sponsored by DCI. We’re the leader in marketing places and have served over 450 different cities, states, regions, and countries. You can learn more about us at aboutdci.com.
Patience: We hope you will keep listening. There are many more Projects to come.