Greek is good: Freeburg business caters to fraternities, sororities

News-DemocratJuly 15, 2013 

What started as a way to bring better products and service for fraternity brothers and sorority sisters via the Internet has flourished into a booming business for Joseph Tantillo.

The New Jersey-native had always wanted to start a business on his own, and one idea was manufacturing and selling clothing, glassware and apparel to these Greek college groups. But it wasn't until Tantillo came across a magazine advertisement while sitting in a waiting room at the doctor's office when he and his wife were expecting their first child did he discover how such an enterprise reach those potential college customers.

"I was sitting in the waiting room and there was a magazine right there that said "start selling online today," Tantillo said. "So I looked at the magazine and I was like 'holy cow.' Having a Greek store with a catalogue was on my list, and seeing that made it possible where I didn't need a catalogue, I didn't need to print anything."

That moment was the seed of what has become Express Design Group Inc. In 1999, Tantillo founded the business inside his in-laws' barnhouse in Freeburg. He first developed Greekgear.com and sold merchandise with fraternity and sorority lettering online. This has led to other custom printed and niche-related merchandise, such as Italian-themed products over Guidogear.com, Christian-themed goods over Christiangear.com and zombie-themed merchandise on ZombieMart.com.

Fourteen years later, Express Design Group has grown. Between 4 million to 5 million customers access its website a year. The metro-east company has recently earned ranking by Internet Retailer Magazine as one of the top-fastest growing e-retailers in the country, ranking No. 864 on list of Internet Retailer Top 1000 list and 76th in the apparel/accessories category. The company is also a three-time member of the Inc. 5000 list, which ranks the nation's fastest growing private companies.

Express Design Group has expanded several times and today has three adjacent buildings covering 16,000 square feet with 32 employees. Chief financial officer Denise Kellerman has been there for more than 12 years and said sales are up 25 percent over last year. Greekgear.com alone is up 38 percent. This year, the company projects to make $6 million.

Sales and marketing manager Betty Adamson, a 9-year employee, said the company has many repeat customers and has been able to retain them through its attention to service.

"We have an option on our website called 'live chat' that if a customer is shopping, and they have a question, they can just click on 'live chat' and a customer service rep will answer whatever they ask and will get a link to them," Adamsom said. "If they're asking for something that they can't find, we'll send them a link. If they're having particular trouble, we'll have them give us a call and we can place their orders for them. We try to do everything we can to make them happy and place an order."

As an entrepreneur who established his business around the World Wide Web, Tantillo understands the benefits and strategies he can access through contemporary social media. He is working to create better web access to Greekgear and his other products for customers using mobile devices.

"Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, all of that stuff that a 45-year-old man should know about, they're all so important now, especially when our target market is 19-year-old sorority girls," he said. "So we are very, very into that and have a lot of great ideas and plans and things we're doing right now. Just in the last month we've added 39,000 fans who are sorority like us on Facebook with what we've been doing. About 10 percent of our users come on from a mobile device, so we're in the process of making our website more dynamic."

Tantillo's business has also adapted to advancing technology in terms of production. He has digital computerized machines that print within a couple of minutes. Over the years he has added inventory so merchandise is made to order and delivered in less time.

"One of the things we're trying to work on now is efficiencies," he said. "I know last year we handled around 80,000 orders internally and we'll push past 100,000 within the next year or so. So that's a lot of orders. It's a lot of manual work. So we're working on reorganizing and have added a new software system where we'll be able to track orders and produce more efficiently because we're going to need to as we continue to grow."

Director of purchasing Trina Miller has worked with the company for 11-and-a-half years and said clothing remains the biggest seller. She witnessed the business' success firsthand when she spotted someone wearing an Express Design Group-made T-shirt while she was in an airport in Dallas.

"It's kind of neat when you see your stuff out there," she said.

She said her co-workers are a like a "big happy family."

"It's a good place to be," Miller said. "It's not a boring place. It's a good place to be."

Contact reporter Will Buss at wbuss@bnd.com or 239-2526.

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