In the Packers Pro Shop at Lambeau Field, next to green and yellow Brett Favre, Aaron Rodgers and Bart Starr jerseys, sit Cheeseheads, the novelty hats that have become de rigueur for fans of Green Bay and the Badger State.
Packers' fans can thank Ralph Bruno for that.
"The idea itself came from our lovely neighbors to the south," said Bruno, founder of Foamation, the company responsible for manufacturing Cheeseheads. "The people from Illinois always called us a bunch of 'cheeseheads' up in Wisconsin. When it first popped into my head, I was with a bunch of friends and we were about to go to a baseball game against the Chicago White Sox. I was in the process of reupholstering my mom's couch. I used an extra piece of foam and fabricated it into the shape of a wedge to make it look like a block of cheese."
More than 25 years after Bruno took that spontaneous leap into entrepreneurship, Cheeseheads have gone from a novelty item into an essential accessory for all Packers fans. The Cheesehead has evolved from the traditional wedge design into several other variations on the same theme, including a baseball hat, a cowboy hat and a sombrero. Today Cheeseheads have been sold in all 50 states and more than 30 countries around the world.
Churning out Cheeseheads
Just as the idea for the first Cheesehead came from Bruno's do-it-yourself project, that hands-on approach has served him well as a business owner.
"Instead of buying things, I am always trying to make things," said Bruno. "When I first got into business, I manufactured a lot of the equipment myself. I was using off-the-shelf parts and putting them together to imitate what the big guys do."
Bruno's imitation, however, was a necessary move for the nascent company as it grew. Since Bruno capitalized on his ability to work with his hands, he was able to grow the business while simultaneously building the foundation for future success.
"That allowed me to get into business in a cost-effective way," said Bruno. "I think that was an important part of starting this company. I was able to resource and manufacture a lot of the things needed for the type of processes we do. The type of business that I am in is usually dominated by larger companies, so self-financing was big for us."
While Bruno was able to get far with his own bootstrapping, he also relied on bank loans to help expand the business. The company's success, however, was not immediate.
"It was quite a mixed reaction," said Bruno. "It has not always been as popular as it is now. The way I approached sales in the beginning was placing the products in bags and cold-calling people. I didn't hire anybody. I would make the product,put them in bags and try to sell them."
Despite having an opportunity, sales of the Cheeseheads did not take off until the mid-1990s, when the Packers made two trips to the Super Bowl, winning one.
Enough cameras caught the Cheeseheads during the Packers' successful run that the company experienced a 600-percent increase in sales during those Super Bowl-bound days. To meet demand, Bruno opened a new facility in Wisconsin, hired more workers and began to run three shifts a day.
"We are lucky to be guilty-by-association with the Packers," said Bruno."When we first got into the Packers Pro Shop we were the only unlicensed NFL product being sold through there. We are very pleased to have that kind of connection with it."
The connection with the Packers has been invaluable for Foamation. It's helped the company move beyond the borders of Green Bay. At no previous point has that association been more valuable than in the past year, when the Packers won 19 straight games, including Super Bowl XLV.
"This past year has been one of our best years ever and a lot of that has to do with how the Packers are playing this year and their streak," said Bruno. "With the quality of the team making the Packers a national draw, it has really been something that we are lucky to be in the right place here."
Today Cheeseheads can be found in sporting goods and sports memorabilia shops across the country, although they are, of course, most popular in the Wisconsin area. Foamation employs six full-time employees and adds an additional dozen temporary workers during the holiday season.
Bruno, however, does not measure success only in dollars and cents. He instead chooses to focus on things other than the bottom line.
"Having employees year after year that have a job because of us [is] always something we look at," said Bruno. "I always like to look at how long we have had our same phone number also. That is quite an accomplishment. It is a quick way to judge someone's endurance and success. The good things you want to see in a business can usually be found in that."
Bruno attributes Foamation's success to its ability to adapt to challenges.
"You are going to be met with a lot of challenges," said Bruno. "Our product was very unique and wasn't something that existed in the marketplace. To put something out there in the marketplace that didn't exist adds a whole different element to it because you are going to get a lot of different reactions. I think just having the idea is not enough, you need to stick with it. You have to complete what is in your mind and heart. Make sure you give it every attempt before you throw in the towel. Having endurance in business is so important."
Combining the ability to plan for the unexpected with a company's ability to persevere and push through challenges is the ultimate determinant of whether a company will enjoy success or experience failure later on, according to Bruno.
"You have to have alternate plans for that. You have to have a plan, then have plan B and plan C," said Bruno. "You can't give up on any one of those important pieces that you need to your puzzle along the way. You may need to find another way to do something if that is the case."