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7/6/2003

High VisABILITY

Tony Kindelspire
Daily Times-Call

LYONS — Buy an item off the “Shameless Commerce” section of the official “Car Talk” Web site or place an order for a “This American Life” CD, and you’ll be dealing with them.

They are the partnered with some of the biggest names in public broadcasting. And their world headquarters is in little old Lyons.

VisABILITY, and its newest spin-off company, Peak Fulfillment, has carved a niche for itself over the past 16 years primarily through its work in the world of public broadcasting.

The companies count as clients dozens of National Public Radio affiliates and programs, shipping tens of thousands of NPR premium items and souvenirs each year.

Who would have thought that when you order a Garrison Keillor bobblehead doll — featuring Keillor’s character from “A Prairie Home Companion,” Guy Noir — that the item would be packed and shipped from this little town at the base of the foothills?

“At Christmastime, we’re moving 1,000 items a day out of here just for Car Talk,” said John Burke, who founded VisABILITY with his wife, Janice Gavan.

The company started in Greeley, where the couple’s involvement with NPR affiliate KUNC inspired the idea. Burke was a vice president at the University of Northern Colorado and secretary of the radio station’s board of directors; Janice was a volunteer at the station.

The two started VisABILITY as a supply house for T-shirts, coffee mugs and the like, servicing public stations around the country. They quickly built up a following.

Burke said he learned how to build a successful company by watching the way others were doing it. “I was able to study how they did it and I had enough experience to realize that they operated at a quality and service deficit,” he said, noting that VisABILITY had seven competitors when it was founded, and only one of those is left standing today.

At the time Burke and Gavan were founding their company, Robert Auman was working at WBUR in Boston, one of the larger public radio stations in the country. There, he was a VisABILITY client. He joined the couple in their business in 1990.

Auman is now president of Peak Fulfillment, which was launched in 2001. It basically took the product distribution services VisABILITY already offered and spun them off into a separate company to allow for the two companies to grow independently.

Aside from sharing many clients, the two companies share office and warehouse space.

Auman said that in the early days, fund-raising for public radio and television stations was much less sophisticated than it is now.

“Fund-raising at most stations was almost an afterthought. It was seen as a necessary evil,” said Auman.

Burke said that VisABILITY — and now Peak Fulfillment — have been successful because of the special attention they give their clients. A lot of companies say that, but if their client list says anything, it seems to back up his statement.

“All the (National Public Radio) merchandise shipped off through Amazon and Borders — that’s us,” Burke said.

Auman gives an example of his company’s philosophy: “The thing is, if you pledge $100 to your local station, that’s not a $2 mug, that’s a $100 mug, and our whole job is to protect that relationship.”

The transition from being just a provider of products to being a distributor of them was a natural progression, Burke said.

“The clients said, ‘We love your stuff. Can you pack it and mail it to all of our (contributors)?’” he said. “Gradually we got into the fulfillment business. This is pre-Internet; this is the clay tablet era.”

But VisABILITY’s reputation spread quickly throughout the NPR and public TV world.

“I think that’s why stations around the country choose us,” added Janice, president of VisABILITY. “Because they under stand that we understand their market and what they’re up against in servicing that market.”

A decade into its existence, VisABILITY went from the clay tablet era into the era of the World Wide Web. The company already had a strong relationship with Click and Clack — Tom and Ray Magliozzi — and the producer of Car Talk. “They said, ‘We’re going to have a Web site, you want to have an e-commerce store?’” John said. “This is 1996 — who knows e-commerce?”

Today, the variety of items that VisABILITY and Peak sell, package and ship just for that one program is stunning. There are CDs, videos and the “Car Talk Roadside Survival Kit” — which retails for about $200.

“In three or four years, we’ve sold maybe 600 or 700 of them,” Auman said. The kits include a set of jumper cables, a wrench, emergency blanket, first aid kit and — fitting in with the Car Talk motif — a piece of bailing wire and some duct tape.

“And they wanted to put a copy of “War and Peace” in so you could read it while you waited for the tow truck,” said Burke.

“But we nixed that,” Auman added.

Public broadcasting stations and programs aren’t the only clients of VisABILITY/Peak, but it’s the majority of their client base at this point.

Burke said that the companies may branch out and begin providing services for for-profit companies, but he added that they don’t intend to compromise on quality or on their vision of what a company should stand for.

“We often turn down orders for merchandise in which we don’t believe,” Burke said. “We’ve been very privileged to be working only with those who share the same sense of crusade.”

And so they’re proceeding cautiously into expansion. There already has been one major software upgrade — to ensure the companies keep up with the demands of their clients — and they’re about to undergo another one.

There’s also has been physical expansion, and the two companies now occupy two buildings, across Main Street from each other. The two have 25 full and part-time employees.

Whatever the future holds, it will be building “tight, sustainable relationships” that will be the key for the two companies’ continued growth, Burke said.

“We have fun, and that’s probably the most important thing,” he said.

Tony Kindelspire can be reached at 303-776-2244, Ext. 291, or by e-mail at tkindelspire@times-call.com.