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Failure issue: Kirk Anton

Over the course of his 20-year career, Kirk Anton has learned a lot of lessons. One of them is to tread lightly when mixing family and business.

Ramblin’ Man

To understand Kirk Anton’s greatest professional failure, you need to first understand his many successes. And his restlessness.

Now the owner of Fargo-based heat transfer material wholesaler Heat Transfer Warehouse, Anton got his start more than 20 years ago when he found his niche in sign-making materials.

“I grew up in the sign industry,” says Anton, whose father, Butch, founded Moorhead sign design shop Superfrog Signs. “For me, though, it was like, I’m not very talented on the graphics and design part. And we were doing all these trade shows and had all these people asking, ‘What else do you guys sell?’ And I was like, okay, maybe there is a possibility I can still be in the industry, just in another part of it.”

He soon parlayed a $20,000 loan from a family friend – a loan he says was agreed to over a handshake – into a thriving business, supplying materials to sign shops throughout the tri-state area. By 2006, Far From Normal had 25 employees and was doing $5 million in business a year, but Anton says he was unfulfilled.

“My wife says it was my midlife crisis,” Anton says. “It probably was. I felt like I’d kind of peaked, and I was just kind of like, I’ve got to go do something different.”

“My wife says it was my midlife crisis. It probably was.”

So he pursued his long-time dream of serving and joined the North Dakota Air National Guard.

If you find it odd that a man in his mid-30s with a family and a successful business would voluntarily give everything up to spend seven months in basic training and Guard school, Anton probably wouldn’t blame you. And his wife would probably agree with you. But he is who he is.

When he finished his Guard training, Anton says he felt “done with Fargo” and wanted to experience living in some different parts of the country. So it was off to San Antonio for him and his family.

He took a job with Grimco, a national wholesale sign supply company, setting up a San Antonio branch and doing more or less what he’d done at his own company, not a year and a half before. Now, there was just some different scenery.

And then the boredom bug bit him again.

“At that point, I realized I was probably not that person to work for people,” Anton says. “And my bosses were actually really good about it. I said, ‘This is not my gig.’ I’m eight months in and they’re like, ‘Really?’ So I said I’d keep on commission-wise and help find a staff to replace me, but I really just wanted to move on.”

And move on he did. Three more times. There was a stint owning and operating his own sign design business followed by a stretch working as a traveling salesman for a banner mounting hardware company, before an illness in the family brought him back to Fargo-Moorhead for good.

After scaring off a number of potential employers with his nomadic resume, Anton says that, for the first time in his adult life, he felt uncertain about the direction he was headed.

That was probably the point in my life where I said, what am I going to do?” he says.

Like Oil & Water

After a tip from an old business acquaintance turned him on to the then-largely uncaptured market of textile and garment decoration, though, Anton knew he’d found his next thing.

A funny thing happened while Anton was getting Heat Transfer Warehouse off the ground, though. In what might best be understood as an attempt to pre-empt his inevitable boredom, Anton decided to dip his toes back into the sign business yet again and buy the company that gave him his start: Superfrog Signs.

“So me and my friend go into a deal to buy the family business,” Anton says. “And that’s where the biggest mistake was made. I should’ve known that, for my dad, (Superfrog) was his life. And when we went into it, one of the things I learned is we never, ever sat down and said, ‘When are you going to actually leave the business?’

“There was a handshake (agreement) to keep him on, where he said, ‘I still want to work. I’ll help out.’ But we would, ideally, run the business. Lesson number one out of the whole thing, though, was that you have to look at it like, somebody who’s been in there for 40 years, you have to figure out what they want to do next and have an exit strategy for them. And so that was mistake number one, not thinking about that.”

The problems really began, Anton says, when his dad overstayed his welcome.

 

“It was causing tension between us and the employees,” Anton says. “They would say, ‘You’re telling us one thing, but he’s saying this.’ He still wanted to run it. And so, basically, we ran full steam ahead and eventually it caused a falling out between the two of us.

“We were looking to take (the business) to the next level, and he was like, ‘No, I’m at this level. I’m okay with this.’ He was like, ‘I’m okay with $300,000 a year and we were like, ‘No, we want to go to $1 million.’ And so you’ve kind of got this back and forth.”

Anton eventually let his dad go, which not only led to a nine-month hiatus in communication between the two of them, but also led to the rest of the staff quitting.

“Basically, (at this point) I got two things going on,” Anton says. “I got a lot of tension on the one side, which I’m trying to give some attention to. And then I’ve got Heat Transfer Warehouse going on on the other side.

“And we’re like, okay, now what are we going to do with this business? Because I can’t go over here and run it. I’ve got Heat Transfer. And so, we were kind of at a crossroads.”

So Anton made a decision.

“At that point, I’m basically eating my crow,” he says. “I’m like, ‘We’re going to give it back. We’re going to give the business back.’ So at that point, I just went (to my dad) and I said, ‘The business is going to be yours (again). The business, the property everything else.'”

Looking back now, Anton says choosing to give Superfrog back was not only good for his dad, it helped renew his commitment to his other business as well.

“Even today, (my dad) says, ‘Thank you for giving it back,” Anton says. That was my life.’ I learned a lot of lessons from it. Yeah, it hurt, but I look back, and I told my wife that focus was the biggest thing I learned out of it. I was working (at Superfrog), I was working (at Heat Transfer), and neither of them were doing very well. But as soon as I gave Superfrog back, I focused all my efforts on Heat Transfer and look where we got it to today.” (Pull Quote: “Thank you for giving it back. That was my life.”)

Where they got it is to three locations – in Fargo, Cincinnati and Las Vegas – a staff of 31 and an international client base, shipping heat transfer materials everywhere from the US to South America to Canada.

Now, hopefully he just doesn’t lose interest.

 

CONTACT

Heat Transfer Warehouse
heattransferwarehouse.com
1501 21st Ave. N, Fargo
701-356-3160

Written by Fargo Inc

Nate Mickelberg is the former editor of Fargo INC! He holds his master's in journalism from the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University.

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