Nashville's Southern Trophy just keeps shining on

Saturday, March 27, 2010 at 11:39am
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Vic Brown in his Southern Trophy shop. / Jude Ferrara for The City Paper

Vic Brown can’t craft a trophy or plaque. But the man knows how to sell ’em.

And folks in this city that have either sung a song, run a race, won a title, or done a worthy deed surely have one in their possession.

Brown’s been doing his thing for three decades now, as 2010 marks the 20th year that he has owned and operated Southern Trophy House.

Coincidentally, this year is the 50th anniversary of the venerable business, located on Nolensville Road in Woodbine (or Flatrock as the area’s hipsters and old-timers alike sometimes call it).

The business has made 3 million of typically inexpensive wood, metal and glass award figurines that were assembled, packaged, shipped — and embraced by little leaguers and big leaguers alike. But as Southern celebrates the two milestones, Brown can rattle off some high-profile clients too: Oprah Winfrey, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, Bud Adams and the Tennessee Titans, the Nashville Predators, the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, Sony Records.

Even the 1996 Olympic torch case that was made for Coca Cola was made by Southern Trophy.

“I had a small, local competitor once introduce me as the owner of the ‘Wal-Mart of trophy businesses,’” Brown recalled, before adding “which I considered a compliment.”

Not that assessing the bowels of Southern Trophy is anything like strolling the aisles at a Wal-Mart. But one recent walkthrough to observe the inner-machinations of what is likely one of the nation’s 10 largest and oldest single-location awards-making businesses was quite an eye-opener.

“Of our 30 employees, approximately 25 are long-time Nashvillians, and most are from south Nashville,” Brown said during the “tour.” Those employees have helped Brown battle through the recession.

“Southern has had a general downturn in our volume in the past 18 months,” Brown noted. “Fortunately, not as much as some others in our business. According to our industry magazines, it appears that over 10 percent of all retail awards companies will or have gone out of business during the past 18 months.”

A sluggish economy notwithstanding, youth sports leagues remain major clients, with soccer tops on the trophy totem pole.

The Jennie Finch-wannabes and little LeBrons continue to treasure their awards.

“I heard a financial planner say that many things are cut out of the family budget — such as eating out, new cars, etc. But last on most people's list are small special things for the kids and grandchildren,” Brown said. “I can't really say that much of our revenue loss during the recession was local youth sports.”

Brown said occasionally adults will approach him to say “thanks” for sponsoring their teams years ago.

“That's the fun part,” he said.

Sports fills the case

When you’re in the trophy biz, sports almost must be a key part of your lifestyle. So is the case with Vic Brown.

“In our family we have the University of Georgia, Vanderbilt/Peabody, Auburn, Tennessee, Belmont and Northwestern well represented,” he said. “However, I attended Maryville College and spent a lot of weekends in Knoxville.”

On the University of Tennessee theme, Southern Trophy made the first BCS champion trophy, which the Vols captured for winning the 1998 national title.

The trophy was to be officially awarded at the National Coaches Conference held at Opryland in early 1999. While in transit, much of the piece was demolished.

“We had about 12 hours to put the pieces back together, almost totally rebuild it, and deliver out to Opryland in time for the presentation,” Brown said. “The only thing not broken on that big trophy was the crystal Tiffany football.”

Not surprisingly, Brown also has made connections in the world of high-profile sports.

Mark Hill, Kentucky Section executive director for the PGA, is a client and friend. Hill said he once took Brown to a Tennessee Volunteer-Kentucky Wildcat basketball game in Rupp Arena after UK won a Music City Bowl football battle.

“The whole team is on the court at halftime,” Hill remembered. “Vic smiled and said ‘You know who made that trophy.’”

A year later, Hill was driving via Interstate 65 a few miles outside downtown Louisville. He spotted a billboard with the image of a UK football player holding the Music City Bowl trophy over his head and at such an angle that would have allowed viewers, given the billboard’s size, to see the Southern Trophy logo on the piece’s base. But the logo had been graphically removed.

“I took a photo,” Hill said, “sent it to Vic, laughed and said ‘You got the shaft.’”

Bob Hyde, vice president of community affairs for the Tennessee Titans franchise, said his original relationship with Brown focused solely on business.

“But then I learned about his grandson (Will Brim) having Down syndrome,” Hyde said. “We helped Vic with some auction items for a local charity, High Hopes, that serves children like Will. That’s when I learned more about Vic the man and what a loving grandfather he is.

"It's always nice when you can do business with your friends,” Hyde added.

In 1999, the Titans played Jacksonville, with the Tennessee coaching staff failing to toss a red flag to challenge a questionable call. Southern Trophy stepped in with an “award.”

“We encased a red flag and added a little hammer to suggest, ‘in case of fire, break!’” Brown said with a chuckle.

Every trophy has a story

Actually, Brown chuckles often when relaying all types of interesting stories.

Years ago, Southern Trophy provided driver safety awards to recognize a local restaurant chain’s employees for their accident-free calendar year of employment.

“One of the awards was a very nice engraved pocket knife,” Brown recalled. “One of the recipients on stage was playing with his knife during the presentation and cut himself severely, with blood going everywhere.”

On another occasion, Southern Trophy manufactured the awards for a well-known national delivery company and its loss prevention department.

“We were running close on time for this annual event that was being held at the Ritz in New York City,” Brown said. “We over-nighted the awards to the Ritz, but they were lost in delivery. Never were found.”

Brown said perhaps the most unusual award was for the then-retiring Fruit of the Loom CEO John B. Holland.

“He had a saying about some ‘not so good idea’ was like ‘throwing a nickel over a manhole,’” Brown said. “We chrome plated a real manhole cover and covered it with nickels and made an easel for it to stand on. Needless to say, it was very expensive and very heavy.”

As for the largest award Southern Trophy has ever made, it is a massive wall-mounted plaque 8 feet wide and 11 feet tall, weighing approximately 2,200 pounds. The eye-catching piece can be found at storied West Nashville prep school Montgomery Bell Academy and honors a deceased student-athlete.

“It required a crane to mount,” Brown said. “We were scared the crane would drop the plaque and it would shatter.”

Wind in his sales

Brown kind of stumbled into the awards-making business in late 1990.

It came just after previous owner and friend Bill Pace passed away. Brown had become familiar with Southern by his senior year at Glencliff High School, which is located just a plaque’s throw from the trophy-making operation.

“It looked like a ‘sales-starved business’ that had lots of capabilities but few customers or orders,” Brown said. “My career had always been in sales or sales management. The company that I had worked for (Jacques-Miller) had been sold, and I was looking for a job. I found that I was ‘over qualified’ everywhere I interviewed. After numerous interviews, I realized my best bet was to go into business for myself.”

Twenty years later, the 64-year-old Brown — and his 50-year-old business — show no signs of slowing. With Brown running the show, and since 1990, Southern has undergone changes — two interior updates, the purchase of more than $750,000 of new equipment, and the addition of $400,000 of inventory and 15 employees.

“I have added an outside sales department to sell signs and promotional items as well as awards,” he said. “Ten years ago, we added a very active website [abc-awards.com] that acts as a very successful additional sales person.”

And just last week, Southern Trophy created the awards for the T.J. Martell Foundation Honors Gala. Recipients of the award included former Gov. Phil Bredesen, Bill Frist, Brooks and Dunn, Michael Bolton and philanthropist Susan Simons.

“The trophies are absolutely gorgeous,” said Laura Heatherly, executive director of the TJMF's Southern Region.

Beyond business, Brown reaches out to the community.

“About 17 percent of our net profits were given in kind or in sponsorship to 54 different groups in 2009,” he said.

The owner said trophies are simply the “end results of achievement.”

“Most HR experts as well as polls say that recognition is the number one reason most people enjoy work, even over money,” he said. “All of us like to be on the winners’ pedestal, not in the crowd watching.”