From the confines of a small garage behind his house and with the few funds he could draw from his credit cards, Frank Fellers (BSBA ’84) started a business selling vinyl materials to sign companies. That was in 1986. Thirty years later, FELLERS has become the world’s largest wrap supply company.
Grit, determination and a steady diet of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches defined those first lean years. Yet through the humble beginnings and numerous challenges thrown his way, Fellers persevered.
He had big dreams from a young age; one of which was to attend TU. “When I was in elementary school, we used to drive by the TU campus often. I thought it would be the most wonderful thing in the world to be born and raised in Tulsa and to go to TU.” He also knew he would one day start a business, or at the very least, hold a senior leadership position in one. It was only natural that he wanted to attend the best business school in this part of the country.
Fellers admits that he didn’t realize just how hard that transition from high school to college would prove. “I had to study more and do more on my own,” he said. “It was harder than I thought, but that was a good thing.” He cites the finance, accounting and statistics classes as especially valuable for a business owner. “You have to understand numbers when you’re in business,” he said. “Having investors, paying taxes, reporting to your employees and to yourself about your business’ performance — all of those are critical.”
After graduating, Fellers tried a few different jobs in search of the perfect fit. He went to work for a small company that made awnings and discovered an interest in the sign industry. That’s when he knew the time was right to hang his own shingle. From his garage, Fellers began selling supplies to companies that applied wraps to vehicles and made signs. He maxed out credit cards to get his business up and running, then secured a $4,000 loan from his father and a $10,000 loan from his uncle — both of which he quickly paid back in full.
About a year and a half into his venture, Fellers began searching for a few investors with the intent to someday take the business public. He approached Dave Lawson (BS ’70), who ran an investor group at the time. The group invested in Fellers, and Lawson sat on the company’s board of directors for the next 14 years. “Dave educated me on the extreme importance of budgeting,” recalls Fellers. “The first thing he did was ask if we had a budget. I didn’t have one prior to that, but it’s critical to any business, and I learned that — and more — from Dave and the investor group.”
Growth came rapidly in the years that followed, augmented by advancements in computer technology. “In the ’90s, our industry realized you could put an inkjet nozzle on a cutter and print instead of cutting the vinyl. Printing on the vinyl material that’s used to wrap vehicles has been an evolutionary process.”
TU connections once again proved invaluable to Fellers as he worked to establish the company’s management team. “You can’t build a business without recruiting and hiring great employees to help you,” he said. “You go with your contacts and with what you know, and I developed a lot of contacts at TU.” Stacy Clausen (BSBA ’93, MBA ’94) is vice president of marketing, Tom Brophy (BSBA ’90) is CFO and Karl Engel (BSBA ’88) is vice president of sales. All three have been with the company for more than 20 years.
With an employee base of more than 300, FELLERS now has 80 locations around the country. After making sacrifices and overcoming obstacles during those first years in business, he explains that the next challenge is to sustain growth. “If you’re not growing, it’s very difficult to maintain a business. That’s the challenge to this day, 30 years later. How do we grow sales and profits next year?”
As a veteran entrepreneur, Fellers offers three fundamental principles that have served him well: “First, you have to be able to work extremely hard. If you haven’t been genetically built with a strong work ethic, you better develop it. Second, you have to stay focused. Decide what your company is in the simplest terms possible. Third, you have to have a strong desire to succeed and believe in capitalism. You have to believe that making money and building jobs is contributing to this world in a positive way.”