NK30

How NK Began

By Sandy Klein

Before Startups Were a Thing ...

“I can remember driving down to Kalamazoo from Grand Rapids after meeting with the Gordon team, and thinking this could be big; really, really, big.”

Always on the Go

I moved a lot. As a kid, I lived in Texas, New Jersey, Ohio, Pennsylvania and New York (upstate). But for the most part, I grew up near Cleveland, Ohio, where in fifth grade, I met my future husband, John Klein. Fast forward, John and I moved to Michigan in 1989 after five years in Atlanta where I worked as a sales manager for a branding and packaging agency. At that time, I decided I would continue to represent the agency in Georgia on a commission base under my own company name: Newhall Klein (maiden and married names). I was passionate about branding, packaging and sales and the big plan at the time was to stay working as much as I wanted to, raise our daughter and bring in a little extra income, if possible.
“I decided I would continue to represent the agency in Georgia […] under my own company name: Newhall Klein (maiden and married names).”

Humble Headquarters

I focused mainly on Michigan, though having lived now in seven states I was open minded, open to change and open to travel, and would often take trips to Cleveland to see my parents and call on folks like The Original Duck Tape and Dirt Devil. I actually had to turn away Dirt Devil business, as our relationship was at the point where they wanted to “visit our offices in Michigan” and I just didn’t think the fourth bedroom of the house would cut it as a legitimate agency … Today? Much more acceptable. 1989? Not so much. The first couple of projects we did get started on was with Stroh Brewery in Detroit and Thetford Corporation (Porta Potti for camping/boating) in the Ann Arbor area. We laughed at the idea that my first two solo projects were basically in one end and out the other …
Sandy Klein
“I just didn’t think the fourth bedroom of the house would cut it as a legitimate agency … Today? Much more acceptable. 1989? Not so much.”

Cruising With Confidence

Heading up the 131 highway corridor in Western Michigan, I also landed some projects with Perrigo as they were shifting from PCs to Macs. Meijer supercenter became a client for a bit and we redesigned their packaging for kids’ paints, surge protector power strips, crackers and their entire line of sodas. At that time, I was using the firm in Atlanta for all of the design work plus a designer out of Chicago who designed my original logo.
“We redesigned their packaging for [Meijer] kids’ paints, surge protector power strips, crackers and their entire line of sodas.”

Timing CAN Be Everything!

By 1990, I was pregnant with our second daughter, and I happened to see an article in the Kalamazoo Gazette about a new Gordon Food Service cash-and-carry store. The photo that accompanied the article in the paper showed their marketing manager, Ron Miller, standing in front of a row of canned goods that looked just awful. Long before LinkedIn, and being passionate about branding, packaging and sales, I now had his name and decided to contact him. After some typical sleuthing around, it worked. Ron Miller told me that my timing was perfect – they were just thinking of redesigning their packaging so they could meet both the foodservice and retail needs of their customers. I can remember driving down to Kalamazoo from Grand Rapids after meeting with the Gordon team, and thinking this could be big; really, really, big. A hang-on-to-your-hat kind of big!
“... my timing was perfect – they were just thinking of redesigning their packaging so they could meet both the foodservice and retail needs of their customers.”

Strengthened Identity

That next year turned out to be pivotal for Newhall Klein. I worked with the team at Gordon in realizing that while the packaging cried out for much needed graphic updating, so did their corporate identity as it too was the main brand on everything Gordon Food Service. From the side of a warehouse and their trucks, to a logo on a golf ball, their new identity needed to work across all substrates and last for a long, long time. The redesign was a huge success, and for fifteen years, NK grew with Gordon.
“The [corporate identity] redesign was a huge success, and for fifteen years, NK grew with Gordon.”

The Early NKers

“After proving myself and NK time and again, Gordon asked me to hire people and employ folks here in Michigan.”
So, what became of the firm I worked with in Atlanta? After proving myself and NK time and again, Gordon asked me to hire people and employ folks here in Michigan. I had the courage (or was naive enough) to jump in with both feet, hired a designer who had worked on Gordon’s packaging in Atlanta and wanted to move back to the Midwest, and hired an administrative person to help with the barrage of projects Gordon was doling out. As do so many startup companies, the three of us worked from home – the 4th bedroom of our house, then the basement – before finally moving into our very own offices.

New Home Base

It was the spring of 1994, when Gordon announced the purchase of Maple Leaf Foodservice in Canada. It required many of our resources to help onboard this, and keep up with their new identity and new brand initiatives. Near the same time, my family found a beautiful piece of land with a small house on it, perfect for growing kids, that had a drive-under garage attached to a large basement. We added a construction loan, built a new garage, renovated the upstairs and turned the entire basement into NK’s office. Before long, we had 12 full time employees coming over every day to work on projects for Gordon and an increasing number of other clients – as our reputation was growing, so was NK!
“As our reputation was growing, so was NK!”