When most kids were bagging groceries or bussing tables, Bonnie Liss, Owner of Phoenix Graphics, was honing her craft as a Press Operator for a Miami print shop. After taking every class available at her local high school and graduating two years early, Liss received her AA at Miami-Dade College before moving to Philadelphia to attend Moore College of Art and Design. As Liss shared, her journey into advertising and path towards entrepreneurship was firmly established while living and working in The City of Brotherly Love.
“While attending Moore College, I taught Offset Printing classes and worked full-time as an Art Director at Ornstein Advertising,” Liss said. “I also started a printing company for them because of my experience in Miami. I ended up getting distracted with art and life and left school to live and work in Western Massachusetts. Eventually I went back to Moore College and graduated in 1983 with degrees in Printmaking, Painting and Art Education. I was the college’s first triple major in 170 years.”
After graduating from Moore College, Liss and her friend, Pat Tong, decided to start their own agency. Tong’s family lived near Winter Haven and Liss couldn’t think of a better and more quaint place to start their business. In March 1983 Phoenix Graphics was officially open for business.
“When I moved to Winter Haven, we hardly had any money to start the business,” Liss shared. “We got an office suite on the second floor of Central Avenue. We had just enough to cover first and last month’s rent and the security deposit.”
Liss continued, “We really needed a piece of type setting equipment, used in the ‘old days’ to put together magazines, but it was over $100,000. I went to the bank to ask for a loan and they said, ‘no way’. Instead of giving up, I went to all the local businesses that I thought would use our services if I had the equipment. I got them to sign a pre typed letter stating their interest in our services and how much money they anticipated spending if I had this equipment. I took the stack of letters back to the bank and they agreed to loan us the money. That bank was SunTrust, that was 37 years ago – I’ve been a loyal customer ever since.”
In the beginning, Phoenix Graphics existed only as a ‘pre-press production’ agency. Liss and Tong wore many hats including, illustrator, typesetter, photographer, designer, salesperson, bookkeeper and delivery person. They worked through a handful of challenges including managing the logistics behind pick-up and delivery and doing all the work themselves. Most of their customers were print shops and before long, their staff and reputation grew. Tong eventually moved to California to pursue other interests, but Liss stuck with the business they created. Referrals helped grow the business from local to statewide, nationwide and eventually worldwide.
“Our good reputation brought us business from around the world,” Liss said. “We did a lot of book cover designs and illustrations for publishers all over the United States, the United Kingdom, Scotland, Finland, Canada, Africa, and Mexico. It was a really fun and exciting time.”
As the business grew, mostly through word-of-mouth, so did the list of services they provided. They started doing label designs and packaging and added website design, at the request of several packaging customers, in the early 2000s.
“Today, we answer the current market demands,” Liss said. “At the moment we have countless CBD and Medical Marijuana product packaging projects in the works, pharmaceutical packaging, sauce labels and single product and point of purchase packaging for juices, seasonings, e-juices, fruit and vegetables. Our projects span from fruit farmers in Florida to date growers in Saudi Arabia. You never know who’s going to call any given day. We are always meeting new people, learning new things and creating artwork. Who could ask for a more fulfilling day?”
Liss shared that an on-going challenge is keeping up with technology, but that she also has an incredible team in place. Every day is a new challenge, which keeps Liss and her team on their toes.
“Most of our work comes in through email,” she said. “We haven’t met 90% of our customers. However, nearly 100% of them come back to us if they need additional work. Never knowing what project we’ll be working on keeps things challenging and interesting.”
Looking ahead, Liss would eventually like to retire to focus on her own art work. She also coordinates outdoor painting classes for the community and would like to expand on that upon retirement. In the meantime, Liss is still focused on growing the business while delivering quality results.
What advice does Liss have for aspiring entrepreneurs? “Be brave and stick with your dreams even during hard times,” she said. “If you’re driven and passionate, don’t give up because it will come together. It wasn’t all easy times for us. There were a lot of difficult times but I really wanted it to happen, and it did.”