Hanson Dodge Creative founder reflects on the road to success
When we think about "local business," often we first identify bars, restaurants and shops because of the entertainment-based role they play in our lives. Meanwhile, there are many Milwaukee-based businesses that are generating big buzz and revenue year after year.
Ken Hanson co- owns one of these businesses, Hanson Dodge Creative (HDC), a design studio and interactive advertising agency focused on active lifestyle consumers.
The company, located in the Third Ward at 220 E. Buffalo St., employs about 65 people and specializes in helping global brands such as Wilson Sporting Goods, Trek Bicycle and Wolverine.
"I'm proud to say Hanson Dodge Creative has been in the business for more than three decades," says Hanson. "We've attained market leadership through the strategic integration of world-class branding, relationship marketing, social media, e-commerce and advanced interactive technology."
In 2001, Graphic Design Magazine identified Hanson as one of the 50 most influential designers in America. Hanson is also the founding director of the Wisconsin chapter of the American Institute of Graphic Arts (AIGA), the first organization in Wisconsin to represent designers nationally, and the vice president of the Eisner Creative Foundation.
Hanson attributes his success to reflection on life lessons, being himself, hard work and incredible mentors along the way.
Born in Graceville, Minn., in 1952, Hanson moved to Menomonee Falls when he was in second grade and was a member of the first graduating class at Menomonee Falls East High School in 1970.
Hanson started working at Kahn's Department Store when he was 16. During this time, his manager, Steve Eisendrath, became his mentor and taught him how to identify quality and how to mix patterns and colors. Still in high school, Hanson became the go-to guy for fashion advice.
"All of the guys would come to me for the homecoming outfits. I'd dress everyone. Keep in mind, this was a very conservative town. During homecoming, some of the guys' girlfriends would come up to me and complain. 'You can't put a striped tie with a plaid jacket.' I'd laugh it off knowing that these guys never looked so good. I think this was the beginning of me becoming a creative director," says Hanson.
In the early '70s, during his first few years of college at UW-Eau Claire, Hanson stayed in touch with Eisendrath. During this time, record stores were starting to flourish, and so with a $5,000 loan from Eisendrath, Hanson opened his own shop called River City Records.
Hanson ordered product from iconic Downtown Milwaukee record store and distributor, Radio Doctors. Unfortunately, the business did not work out and Hanson found himself with a $3,000 debt to Radio Doctors.
"As one might expect, I lost my butt. I quit school and went home to earn enough money to pay off the loss," says Hanson.
Hanson moved in with his parents, got a day job and went to Radio Doctors every week to pay off his debt to the owner. When the bill was down to about $500, Hanson tried to make a payment, but the owner, Stu Glassman, tore up the check.
"He said, 'I never thought I'd see this money and you came in every week and I just couldn't believe it. We're even. Good luck to you,'" says Hanson. "I learned you can't always make money doing something you love."
After paying off his debt, Hanson moved to the East Side – where he has lived ever since – and enrolled at UW-Milwaukee where he studied economics and photography. He enrolled in a photography class with department founder Steve Foster.
"Steve had immaculate pedigree. Steve believed in me," says Hanson. "I cannot understate Steve's importance in helping me develop as an artist and as a person."
Hanson went on to work at Edgewood Agency, where he started as an administrative assistant and eventually became the vice president and creative director. While there, Hanson learned a lot from his boss, Lewis Friedman.
"He taught me that you could do things your own way and that eccentricity can be an asset," says Hanson. "He was pretty amazing and I owe him a lot. He had a way of making you think that you could do anything. I learned that there is a way to make a living and still be yourself."
In the late '70s, Hanson co-founded the Perihelion Gallery, a photography collective that received national attention and recognition. Through this experience, he began to solidify some of his values.
"It taught me that the avant-garde is more interesting than the status quo. I also learned that the realm of ideas is far more fascinating and motivating for me than simply making more money," says Hanson.
In 1980, Hanson started Hanson Graphic, the first incarnation of Hanson Dodge Creative. In 1990, Tim Dodge became a co-owner. Many of the original employees still work at the agency.
Many of the work / life lessons Hanson learned along the way are a part of Hanson Dodge's culture today.
"I love the fact that people can be themselves and proud of the work they do. I started out wanting to do great work and I can honestly say that everyone at HDC is dedicated to that simple idea and we do great work all day, every day," says Hanson.
Hanson also plays bass in two Milwaukee bands, Panalure and Longacre. Hanson started playing music as a kid, but then quit. Every time he went out to see live music, he would think to himself, "You really blew it. You could be up there having fun right now."
About a decade ago, Hanson drove past Wade's Guitar Shop on the East Side, and spontaneously pulled over and bought a Rickenbacker bass. He later called local legend John Sieger and asked him if he knew a bass teacher. Instead, Sieger offered to give him lessons.
"I'd go over to his house and he'd give me a beer and teach me a song. Soon after, friends started asking me to hang out and play. I formed my first band in 2006," says Hanson.
Today, Hanson still lives on the East Side in a 100-year-old Victorian home with his partner, Mary-Louise Schumacher, an award-winning arts reporter for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. He has a 22-year-old son, Harry, from a previous relationship who is a photographer, videographer and writer.
"Harry teaches me a lot. The way he embraces life and his honesty about who he is seems fearless to me sometimes," says Hanson.
In the future, Hanson hopes to focus more on personal design and photography. He would also like to visit The East, progress on bass and see Hanson Dodge Creative break through to the next level.
For anyone considering starting a business, Hanson advises to make sure there's a market for whatever you're selling, to work with someone who has already done it successfully (even if you don't get paid) and always add value.
"Do it well or don't do it," he says.
That was a really cool article! Thank you!
Seems like a really great company and I love the investment they've put behind Nick Symmonds, a stand-up, outstanding USA Track & Field athlete. Such a great story and a great person to tell it: http://research.hansondodge.com/active-insights/2012/07/17/nick-symmonds-episode-4-sponsorship/
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