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New owner takes helm of stalwart Levy trophy company

TAMPA — George A. Levy had a saying around his trophy and award factory. Take care in making every piece because it may be the only trophy the person ever receives. ¶ That attitude carried the company through decades of technological change and economic ups and downs. Today, it's a guiding principle of the new owner as she looks to expand the business from sports leagues and schools to big corporations. ¶ Michele Adams bought Levy Awards & Promotional Products last year from Stephen Shear, who took it over from Levy, a prominent local businessman who started the business in downtown Tampa in 1960. In all, she spent about $2.5 million buying the business, upgrading the production plant and modernizing operations.

Adams came in with the plan of consolidating operations and expanding its corporate client base without messing with tradition as the area's go-to place for little Tommy's baseball trophy.

"I've had so many people tell me, 'I can't tell you how many Levy awards I have packed in my garage,' " she said.

First up was updating the logo and changing the name to Levy Marketing + Awards, or LMA, to better reflect its focus on online promotional products for corporations. Then, earlier this year, it closed the decades-old retail showroom on Kennedy Boulevard and relocated it to the manufacturing plant at 2415 N Albany Ave. in West Tampa.

Consolidating all 43 employees under one roof streamlined operations and improved communication. It also provided an opportunity to modernize the 30,000-square-foot production facility, which had not been updated in decades. The company converted part of the building that had been used for storage into sales and executives offices, and added a showroom where customers could see examples of the trophies, medals and awards.

A western New York native who says she hates to sit still, Adams worked in the promotional products industry for 30 years and invested her life savings to acquire the business. She liked Levy's long history and thought she could make an impact.

"I looked at a few companies, and this was the most challenging," she said. "There was a lot of work that needed to be done to take it to the next level. Some of the operations had not changed."

The company generated $3.8 million in sales in 2012 but has set an ambitious goal of $5 million this year. A big boost has been becoming certified through the Women's Business Enterprise National Council, a designation that gives the company preference on contracts that require certain spending on women- and minority-owned businesses.

LMA makes trophies and awards for 19 of the 31 NCAA Division I athletic conferences and recently scored work for the Minnesota Twins, Arizona Diamondbacks and the Major League Baseball Network. It also does business with just about every local sports league and many charities.

The company processes about 700 to 900 orders a month, ranging from $10 soccer trophies to $10,000 custom awards made with crystal, acrylic, wood and metals. Levy is one of the few producers nationwide that still uses spin casting to make medals and medallions, a process that involves pouring molten metal into a mold that spins as the metal solidifies.

Interestingly, Levy fared well during the recession. Baseball leagues still give trophies to every kid — winner or loser. Even companies that laid off employees or cut pay continued to give awards for a job well done. And in some cases, Adams said, companies ordered more elaborate trophies as a way to show employees they valued their service and as an incentive for future success.

Lee Zeigler, the vice president of sales, has been with Levy awards since 1967 and has seen computers and machines revolutionize the industry. Some things, though, haven't changed, he said. People still treasure their trophies.

"We get a few calls a week from people who say they got a trophy at an all-conference men's track event in 1985 (for example) and they lost it. We'll go back and try to verify it and duplicate it," he said. "It goes to show you how valuable that award is to that person."

Zeigler has stuck around so long partly because of the meaning behind every product. "This is one of the few businesses where people actually enjoy buying for someone," he said. "It's about awarding someone for doing something good."

Zeigler, 65, is encouraged by the trend toward adding digital photographs to plaques. Twenty years from now, he said, recipients will be able to remember the recognition but also visualize the winning moment.

Zeigler plans to retire at the end of the year and already is prepping the next generation of Levy awards makers. Adams' son, Mike, is taking over sales.

Susan Thurston can be reached at sthurston@tampabay.com or (813) 225-3110.

New owner takes helm of stalwart Levy trophy company 08/02/13 [Last modified: Friday, August 2, 2013 5:55pm]
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