Get to know Billie Palumbo, the owner of Billies Awards by Design, a Pennsylvania-based retailer of trophies, plaques, promotional products, and more. Palumba started off as a home-based business but is now a well-established presence on Main Street.
How long have you been in the awards industry?
Since 1998. I started out as a cake decorator, decorating cakes since I was 14 years old. In 1998, my husband at the time was a talented woodworker and wanted me to do engravings on some of the furniture pieces he made. We purchased a handheld engraver at a woodworking show in Pittsburgh. I soon found a love for etching glass but wanted it to be more precise than the freehand work I’d been doing with the handheld engraver and purchased a sandcarving unit. I incorporated my etched items with my wedding cake business and started exchanging services with another local shop that offered laser and rotary engraving.
I then purchased a sublimation system to make trophy nameplates and other items. In 2006, I had my third child and gave up cake decorating. At that time, I pursued the engraving/awards business still as a home-based business. In 2013, I purchased Scott’s Nameplates, the local shop that I had an ongoing business relationship and had formed a wonderful friendship with for nearly 15 years, which added laser engraving, rotary engraving, and screen printing. Embroidery services are done through my mom and Embroidery by Wanda.
I also moved the business to a commercial location, which is where I still am today, with a spacious store front. Also in 2013, I attended a glass carving school offered by Ruth Dobbins in Sante Fe, New Mexico, and last year added promotional products to my services.
What drew you to this industry?
I competed in events since I was a kid in gymnastics and with horses, and have always enjoyed the thrill of winning. I appreciated the artistic skill level of the awards presented.
What is your favorite aspect of your work?
I enjoy the creativity involved in creating an award that is a one-of-a-kind piece of artwork and taking the ideas of my clients from the thought process to the finished product. I also enjoy the relationships and friendships that I have made with my customers and other business professionals.
Describe a time in your career that posed a great challenge. How did you overcome it?
I got divorced in 2014 and went from two incomes to one, along with raising a child and running a business. It was hard both financially and emotionally. We lived simply, sacrificed much, and put in long hours. I spent time networking and getting to know as many people as I could and attended many local events. I am always trying to learn more about business, running my equipment more efficiently, and continually learning the software programs. I live in a rural area as well, so being diversified is a necessity — when one area of my business is slow, another picks up.
What has had the greatest influence on your professional career?
My greatest influence is and has always been creative people, not just one person, but all. I love seeing how someone puts together an award, a plaque, a trophy, a sandcarving, a painting, a sign — just all of it. I am always amazed and inspired by the creativity of others and love how the creative mind works and thinks outside the box.
What motivates you to succeed in this industry?
My motivation is seeing my customer’s face light up when I have brought their vision to life. That's when I know I have succeeded.
What strategies are you focusing on to build a business that moves in the future?
To continue to learn and practice what I’ve learned; to keep learning how to use and run the equipment and software, and just practice, practice, and practice.
What is your philosophy for success?
Get to know my customers. You cannot make a personalized award or gift without knowing your customer and what’s important to them. You need to ask, and you need to listen.
What future do you envision for the awards and engraving business?
For a mom-and-pop, brick-and-mortar small business to have a future, you have to provide what the internet cannot, and that’s personalized service. You have to be personable to provide personal service. When someone walks through my door, they know they are important and that I care about what they have to say and what they want.
What area of the industry do you see has the greatest room for growth?
As far as industry growth, I feel we as Americans need to bring our companies and manufacturing back to U.S. soil for growth to resume. Most of our components are imported and that leaves us vulnerable to world trade, tariffs, and growing shipping costs.
What advice can you share with other retailers on running a successful business in this industry?
Always focus on your customer’s needs and strive to find the best possible way to fulfill that need. Go above and beyond to please each and every customer. When you have a question about their order, call them — never assume. Listen first and help educate them on the different processes and services you offer so they can better decide on the product they are getting, and also understand what they are paying for. Most people have an idea of what they want but aren’t quite sure what’s available. As a diversified knowledgeable retailer, you can help them become part of the planning process. In turn, you help them to become excited for the end product, which is almost always as unique and personal as the person ordering it. The internet can’t provide that.