Hard Knox Graduate: Learning, and Living, By Doing – Ken Mattner’s Entrepreneurial Life
Ken Mattner, president of Digital Corporate Companies, didn’t have a business education at a college campus. His education – a lifelong pursuit of a degree in “Hard Knox” – started at a retail store, right after high school. Years of promotions and experience transitioned him to a career connecting with businesses and managing relationships across industries. He took the knocks as they came and developed a business life from the ground up.
Down to Earth, Made From the Ground Up
Ken Mattner’s values in life are very straightforward:
“God. People. Family. To do better. To achieve. To teach. To learn.”
He grew up in a household right in the middle of the American ladder. Thus, he enjoyed blessings like being cared for and going to school.
“We weren't poor, but we were nowhere near wealthy,” Ken said. “I mean, you know, we had a shirt on our back and shoes, [went] to school, and back then you learn to appreciate those type of things and you didn't think nothing of it.”
But as he grew up, Ken would be inspired by the prospects of bettering his situation and gaining more.
“As you get older, I think you want more, and you see other people that have more and you see things that they've got that you might like and it's inspiring, in a way, and it's motivating, in another way.”
He would need all the motivation he could get. As noted in the intro, Ken began his career in the school of Hard Knox—out of high school he got a job in retail.
This post is part of a series for AccelerateDFW's Storytelling initiative. For more insights on entrepreneurs in DFW and beyond, visit the Storytelling page.
Within five years Ken received promotions, going from Area Manager, to Personnel Manager, to Operations manager. It was all a grand learning opportunity. Though he was only around 20 years old, he had 16 area managers reporting to him at one point, and only one was younger than he was. And without standard computer technology, processes involved more people and took more time.
It was also much more important back then to have a college degree. Many of his high school friends had gone to college. When they were leaving school after four years, Ken was still working in the retail store. Yet he prioritizes learning as much as anyone else.
“I was not qualified for many, many jobs … for 30 years in there, it seemed, if you didn't have a college education, you were only going to go so high. So that also became a motivator for me, my initial thoughts were, ‘Okay, in this four, five years, my college will be the retail store and I learn all I can about operations and people and merchandising.”
Spending so much time in a retail store from open to close, without the benefits of technology, was a formative experience for Ken. He learned the central importance of decision making.
Ken’s experience and work ethic, demonstrated by his promotions, earned him an offer to be general manager of a store in Texas. It was another franchise chain, with around “four or five-hundred” franchises across the US. The general management experience Ken encountered there inspired him later in life when he would run his own company.
“Everything I did was to improve the store, to improve sales, to improve the value, and a couple of my stores were in the top 10 of the company,” Ken said.
He didn’t back down from working hard. This kind of work hard, “aim high” mindset came through in another work experience, selling financial printing.
As Ken explained:
“I look for the tallest building and I'd start at the top. And if somebody would see me, that was a home run. Where[as] a lot of people started at the bottom floors … and normally didn't make it to the top. I think you got to be more tenacious. You gotta be more driven.”
Making his name in retail, Ken knew what it meant to make a name for oneself – to be so driven.
For more on Ken's inspiration, an amusing anecdote, and insights on small versus large businesses, listen to the accompanying podcast!
Woops, I’m In Printing and Promos
Those were the formative years. Now Ken is the President of Digital Corporate Companies, a promotional printing company for businesses with an online store. He got to this position through many years in printing and marketing services and a conversation with a purchasing agent.
“I was doing some price testing for him because he thought he was really being gouged by another printer ... so we gave him some prices and I got a chance to get to know him a little bit,” Ken explained. “And he asked me if we could do an online store for him. And I sat there and thought about it, and I'd never done an online store before … And [said], ‘Sure, we can!’ And you walk out of that meeting, like, ‘How am I going to do this?’”
Ken began his research. This was the beginning of his work in e-commerce and the promotional industry. He now had to source technology for printing on manufactured items and then selling them. Fortunately, during his work brokering for printers he had built relationships within this industry throughout Dallas. These relationships were key in building and incorporating Digital Corporate Companies.
Once the company was up and running, it was difficult for them to define what they did. They were in printing, apparel, and promo goods. There wasn’t a clear definition or focus.
This came from the desire to be many things to many people.
“The, the inability to say ‘no’,” Ken said, “taught us and helped us grow, but it also kind of created this monster, and a lot of people think anybody who tries to do all things isn't very good at anything, versus if you're great at one, if you concentrate on one you can be great at that. So we had to really carve our way out.”
And carve themselves out they did; right into a ball of gold-wrapped chocolate.
A key success story for Digital Corporate Companies came through Godiva Chocolatier.
Ken had been working with several marketing managers in the Dallas Market Center when it was a substantial and important market in the US. At that time, the major stores would buy from the apparel vendors in this market center, a practice now rendered obsolete by the computer and Internet.
Ken had established relationships with them, so when two of them left Dallas for New York they gave him a call. They were doing PR business with Godiva and wanted Ken and company to print their press kits. “Nobody could print that gold,” Ken said.
Ken asked if he could communicate with Godiva’s paper company, who does the gold foil, and they talked and figured out the way to laminate the foil to 16-point thick, white paper. When they embossed Godiva’s logo, Ken described, it was “fabulous”. They continued on for the next 15 years doing press kits, labels, and creating special introductory materials for new chocolates.
This experience taught Ken a valuable lesson:
“If you really think about and you’re creative in what you do in our business, it allows you to really expand, and where people start calling you, because you've come up with these ideas.”
Ken had never been to New York. He had never been in contact with Godiva. But a relationship made in the Dallas Market Center led to an extensive, unexpected opportunity with both.
Arlington: Texas' Little City That Could
Grand opportunities continued to come from unlikely sources. Ken relocated to Arlington in 1981. He had his doubts about it, but those have changed—significantly.
Arlington could be the next biggest little city in the world. Well, if “little” can be used to describe where the Cowboys play.
In Ken’s estimation, Arlington has become “one of the most vibrant cities in the United States right now.”
He thinks that the Convention Visitors Bureau and a string of good mayors have helped grow the city and shine a spotlight on it. Ken talked at length about Texas Live, the many events held at AT&T Stadium, and the way the new ballpark has been designed to cater for events.
But despite Arlington's pizzazz, the way it’s grown into an entertainment and sports capital, the city’s community is still like a family.
“Arlington is grown into a city of people with leadership that cares for their people,” Ken said. “It's an awesome, awesome feeling to know that I could pick up the phone and I can call our mayor, I can call the president, CEO of the Chamber.”
Ken serves on the board of the Arlington Chamber of Commerce, and Digital Corporate Companies has a “great” relationship with the mayor. Ken can’t believe it: “I'm just blue collar redneck, you know, we got a small business with nine people down the road here…”
Digital Corporate Companies also partners with UT Arlington Athletics, and gives to the Arlington Police Foundation, Mission Arlington, and the Peace Officer’s Angels.
Through this sense of community, Ken has discovered a fundamentally important aspect of working as part of a community.
“I didn't start giving to get back, but it's amazing to me how much we get back that motivates me to give more.”
The networking in Arlington and sense of community there, despite the large size of it, is reminiscent of Fort Worth. It’s also another example that what you need to start a business is, foremost, community.
The ROI of Hard Knox
Ken’s story shows that you never know what opportunity you’re going to find. He didn’t go to college – after high school, he just got a job in retail. But he runs an incorporated business, has worked with Godiva Chocolates, and has discovered an energetic, tight-knit community in a growing hub of Dallas-Ft. Worth. The story of his life is one of growth from the ground up. The gold of Godiva came unexpectedly; the love of Arlington grew from an initial skepticism; and the retail-work led to a career in business ownership and management.
The school of Hard Knox paid off.
Note: The quotations may have been edited for grammatical purposes and to remove chit-chat phrases ("you know", etc.) or repeated words ("and, and", etc.). The audio in the podcast may have also been edited to remove chit-chat phrases, repeated words or long periods of silence.