John Wiggins from GradPro

John Wiggins from GradPro

Welcome to Podcast Episode #4 of the Mobile Alabama Business Podcast with John Wiggins. My name is Marcus Neto. I own Blue Fish, a Digital Marketing and Web Design Company based in Mobile. I am the host of Mobile Alabama Business Podcast where we talk to local entrepreneurs and business owners about their businesses and how they got started. I would like to thank you for spending time with us today.

In today’s show I sit down with John Wiggins. John is a partner in a Grad Pro, a Graduation Products and Class Ring Provider located in Mobile. John and I have been friends for about eight years. He is a member of a Bay Community Church (now called City Hope Church) where I attend and has been known to join the work our group I am part of on occasion. In this interview we talk about how John managed to get into business for himself, what experiences he drew from his past as an athlete, how he gets up at an insane 3:30 or 4:00 o’clock to get jump on the day and how he is motivated to give back to the community he cares about. So let's dive right in with John Wiggins.


Marcus: Welcome to the Podcast John.

John: Thank you, thanks for having me.

Marcus: You and I have known each other probably for 8 years or so I think. Both of us go to the same church over here Bay Community Church and John is extremely active in volunteering and giving of his time and so I am really excited to sit down with him today and let you all hear a little bit about who John is and what his business is. Why don’t you tell us a little bit who you are, where you grew up, family, kids, stuff like that.

John: Sure, well again thanks for having me, Marcus. I am originally from Semmes, Alabama. I joke all the time that I was from Semmes before it was cool to be from Semmes, what they now call West Mobile, kind up grew up off Ching Dairy Road, went to Orchard Elementary School off Howells Ferry then went to Scarborough Middle School then went to Mary G. Montgomery School. I was real active and played a lot of sports and was blessed to sign a college baseball scholarship at University of Montevallo, where I went for four years, my dad, and my mom everyone is from Mobile, my who family is from Mobile, so we have been in this area for I know my whole life and as far as I can remember back down my family generations was birthed here, so really my roots and everything are from Mobile, Alabama.

Marcus: That is cool so you said you played sports, you mentioned baseball, but what else did you play?

John: I played basketball...

Marcus: That’s funny because you are not a tall gentleman.

John: You are right I am not tall to say the least, I was quick though. I was quick as I needed to be and I joke about that all the time, all sports in general, the older I get the better I was. Do not ask me too many questions because my kids still think I was pretty good. I played basketball, I tried football would not really cutout for the all the contact. I was not a big guy and did not enjoy that, but basketball and baseball mostly and really had get time with both of those.

Marcus: So this podcast is about business, but it also has a lot of leadership and entrepreneurship leaning, so what, when you look back at your formative years in high school and the sports that you played, were there any leadership things that you took away from all those sports that you played?

John: You know I did and that is great question. My dad and I to this day we are very close. Most of what I got in my formable years came from my father, who obviously was in the home and did as good of a job as he could with someone like me, raising me, but to speak more to your point when I got to college I played for a guy name Bob Riesener who had a military background, he required us to shave everyday, required to shine our shoes before every game, baseball cleats, mind you. He would not allow us to wear a hat in the building, was very adamant about us opening doors and pulling out chairs for females and just a lot of the old school, traditional values that you draw from maybe does not speak directly to leadership, but spoke more to me about how to be a gentleman, how to dress and look the part for success, how to prepare. He was incredibly efficient. Everything we did on and off the baseball field was down to the minute from time wise and it is funny even in meetings today for my company, whether I am doing that or I am coaching my kids in sports I am always thinking time, time, and time what we are doing at this moment, what we are doing the next moment. So, those types of things I definitely drew from playing for him.

Marcus: Sounds like there were some great character building skills that were more weaved in there as well.

John: And we called that discipline back then by the way. I think we call it character building today, we call it discipline.

Marcus: Discipline. You did not mention and I know the answer, but just of the benefit of our listeners, married, kids?

John: Yeah. We are going to have to go back and change this and put this part first, okay because this is absolutely most important. You said you are going to set me up for success; oh here we are… now I got to a back track. I married the most amazing woman. I am in sales and the best sale I ever made was to my wife Cherry Wiggins.

Marcus: I will second that, you did a good job there.

John: Yes. Thank you. My wife is beyond words and why she is with someone like me, I do not know. She owns Fireflies Salon over in the Eastern Shore Center. We are about to open another one.

Marcus: And expanding?

John: Yeah, we are about to open one in Fairhope at the Publix Building there as well. She gave me three beautiful children. I have twin boys - they are 13, they will be 14 in August. Their names are Brady and Brody. I have always made a joke that if you have not spent a lot time around young twins, this is about like hanging out with the couple of drunk elves or dwarfs. I mean they are crazy. They are great kids, very involved at their school and sports and everything that they are doing football, basketball, and baseball. They are playing it all. They are peer helpers, they’re honor roll students, they are just really better kids than what I am deserving of. And then I have a 9-year-old princess her name is Briley and she goes to the Community School and she kind of calls the shots and my sons are just now figuring out that it is going to be Briley’s way at the end of the day, so we may have to go along with it, but she is daddy’s little girl. Thanks for asking about them.

Marcus: So for those who don’t know the Community School is actually a school that was started by Bay Community Church. They are now kindergarten through 6th grade. So they are going like gangbusters over there. So I know you are the owner (of GradPro), is it partner or how do you...?

John: Yes, partner.

Marcus: Yes, partner for GradPro here locally. You represent all of lower Alabama is that correct?

John: That is correct. We actually represent all of Alabama, but my two partners and I represent, basically if you drew a line geographically from just north of Prattville from the Mississippi border and then as far east as to the Georgia border and everything south of that, we represent Herff Jones Company.

Marcus: Okay, so how you get started in that business and what did you start, give us a little detail about that.

John: When I would come home from college in the summer the plan was for me to get behind the lawnmower and my dad was a firefighter and still is actually the chief of the fire department in Bayou La Batre now. My dad was a firefighter from Mobile and like most firefighters he worked two and sometimes three jobs, one of his second jobs was he owned a lawn service and so the plan was for me to come home and get behind the lawnmower, as was the plan every summer, which I hated by the way, so I had a guy...

Marcus: It is kind of hot down here so I can understand.

John: Yeah exactly so I had a guy that had a relationship with my best friend’s mom through a competitive company of mine, with Jostens at that time. She was a secretary to school. He would call him a school, got to know her, ended up asking her son one day if he could help him in the summer and go around and collect caps and gowns. At that time, everyone used to graduate at the Civic Center, so we go to the Civic Center and collect gowns and he could not because his college baseball team was in the playoffs and we were finished and so she offered me and so I got in touch with this guy who happened to play baseball also for Coach Reisener at Montevallo and that is kind how I got the business, started doing it part time in the summer and one of the things I noticed about this guy was even though he was not a partner, and I did not realize this is where I was headed, the plan that God had for me, but he was working for a guy that owned it and he was home every night with his family and he was able to coach his kids and all the sports and that just really spoke to me because I knew even without a wife and kids at that time that is something I wanted to move towards. So I started doing that with him and noticed the way he did things and low and behold, after I got out of school I tried working at WNSP, I worked for GTE wireless and just as a sales person basically, and I eventually got an opportunity to be a representative for Jostens and that happened in 1999. So I have been doing this since 1999 and then short of it is in 2003 my partner came to me and asked me if I wanted the partner with him and so we formed GradPro Recognition Products and we represent Herff Jones.

Marcus: Very good. So now give us a run down, I mean not everybody is going to be familiar with your line of business. What do you offer to schools?

John: We offer graduation supplies and services, which covers caps and gowns, all of your graduation regalia and apparel, diplomas and diploma covers, we do all the diplomas for all Mobile County Schools. We offer class rings, which I think just about everyone is familiar with, championship rings - we have done some very interesting championship ring orders - and then we also offer letterman jackets, school jackets like you and I used to wear, and we are...

Marcus: are assuming some stuff like that…

John: we offer those types of things and then we also do all things recognition, achievement, and award, so we are in the awards, recognition and achievement business.

Marcus: No, I was just noticing that you have what appears to be, now is that class ring or that is something that you have done?

John: You would have to go search some female to find out where my class ring is these days. No, I am joking. This is actually a sales award ring, because we are in the sales business and we sell rings, it is kind of befitting.

Marcus: I think it is funny because you know I never had a class ring and so it is just interesting to see you wearing that. I’m like, “man do I need to get one”, so now I have got the hook up since you have got the connections there. What have you been focusing on lately to build your business, is there an area of the business that you are putting a lot of effort into?

John: We are working right on couple of things actually. We want to develop more of an E-commerce presence. We have dabbled in having a web site and that we have also, not to complicate the answer the question, but Herff Jones itself has a corporate company and they offer us different resources that we can take advantage of, one of them happens to be a web site, but being a small business owner and independent contractor for them as you would imagine sometimes some of the things that they want to do and push does not line up with the things that we are wanting to do and push. Because, while Herff Jones covers all of the United States, we are more focused on Alabama and what our markets’ needs are. So we want to create more of an online presence and to do that we cannot do what we have done in the past, which is we have dabbled with the website, you got to be all in, you cannot do and as a small business owner sometimes you look at the cost of doing it and doing it effectively and you go “wow I do not know if I can swallow that”. Well we have had that approach for several years now until it is finally taking care of itself and we are looking at it and the ticket attached with it and going “we now cannot afford not to swallow that”, because we do not want to get passed not by our competitor so much, as by the world itself and people are coming to us when we are having our class meetings. You’d be surprised, we are still very traditional in the way we go to market - we go into a school and we meet with all the students, but at that moment that it is time for a student to place an order, inevitably everywhere we go, not just our more affluent schools and people who tend to be at times more E-commerce minded, but even in our inner city schools and some of the places that are not traditionally as affluent, they are asking us “where is your website?” and “can I just order online?” so we are moving more towards that.

Marcus: It is pervasive across demographic and socioeconomic it is just really interesting because we have been watching as a web design digital marketing company we have been watching the growth of mobile and smart phones and it really started increasing over in Europe and some of the, actually it really, the place where we really watched it grow was in the lower income countries, so for instance India and some parts of the Middle East because the tact there is there that it is much cheaper to put in the infrastructure for cell service than it is to put in the landlines and stuff like that. So it is very easy to hand somebody a very inexpansive smart phone and charge them a nominal fee for data access, but we are getting off topic, but I just find it interesting because we always assume that the cost of a smart device is going to keep somebody from being online and the truth is the opposite. Often times it is a very nominal fee and it is much easier for them to do that than it is to have it at home. They may not be able to afford a computer, but they can get on a smart device.

John: And that is kind of the mindset that we have had. We have assumed that we have the best form of marketing available. In a large sense we still do. We still have the ability to place a personalized packet of information in each one of our customers’ hands, that is a very...

Marcus: ...nothing replaces that.

John: Right, nothing replaces that. It is a very powerful marketing tool, but lately as we see even companies that had that had capability; for example, even companies that so much not a monopoly, but they have the market - Alabama Power, for example - where you are going to go if you live in Alabama Power’s area to get power? You are either going to rub two sticks together or you are going to use Alabama Power. But what do you see, now you still the marketing doing some marketing now, gas companies for example, so while we have that distinct ability to put marketing materials in our customers’ hands, we are going more towards, we need an online presence because if they do not get us in school, they are going to shop us and when they shop, they may find the competitor so we’ve got to get out there ahead of the curve.

Marcus: Yeah, I know it is really interesting. What books have you have read that have influenced you as a business owner or leader that you would like to mention.

John: Curious George.

Marcus: Which character do you relate that to the monkey or man with the yellow hat?

John: I have gone from being Curious George to the Man with the Yellow Hat, that is a good point. I have read some books, as we discussed earlier. I read The Leadership Engine and I cannot recall the author’s name at this time, but it was very influential to me. In fact, I have read it twice. I look more for examples of leadership and try to draw from a spiritual perspective and we have talked about that before. I know David is one that has always stuck out to me because I feel like I have encountered every phase of David’s life in terms of going from shepherd boy to ruler of a country, although I do not obviously have that kind of a claw.

Marcus: Just in case Cherry is listening to this, he is not generally somebody on top of this, we have got roof...

John: I am not suggesting every facet of David’s life represents me, but I am just simply saying to come from humble beginnings and to go into position where I have an opportunity to go out each day and not only affect the lives of my customers and not just from the student perspective, but when I say customers markets I mean principles, sponsors those types of people that will affect my income to be honest with you, but I had an opportunity to affect them as well as you know to affect people that work for me and that is kind of a neat thing and I do not take that lightly and so I draw a lot from learning from the mistakes of those types of people, spiritually, so I hope that this is strong enough answer.

Marcus: You mentioned something just a minute ago and I wanted to kind of bring that back is that you all are very much in the schools, you are involved in the schools, a lot of times you are also giving back and just serving the community through the schools, so tell us a little bit about what that looks like for you?

John: Well one of the projects that we are involved in, we gives caps and gowns to a school in St. Pedro Sula, Honduras, David and Cindy Sharpless are the directors of the school there. I am going to call the name of the Spanish school, if you give me just a moment, in its Spanish name. We donate caps and gowns and we try to take a step further and we give a lot of things that we have here to give to our kids in the States in the way of apparel, just maybe a shirt that says “Senior class of 2015” for example. We box a lot of that stuff up and we send it over there and just give it to them and just so end of that ministry because we believe so strongly in it. Here locally we have always prided ourselves on two things, one having the best price and service, that is kind of the whole thing that everybody in the business world wants to provide. So that is always important, but the second thing is, is that we are known as a company who is a partner in education. We want a partner with our schools and our school systems for that matter and we have tons of exciting things going on right now that I can’t really share just yet, about parting with school systems. We are leaned on a lot and not just us, but other people in the scholastic business, because during these tough economic times schools are businesses and they are looking for resources to help them, so without any getting into anything specific, we try to cater to each school’s needs specifically. For example, I had a school last semester, before we broke for the Christmas Holidays, that wanted to do a pep rally type event, not necessarily for a specific sport, but just to promote academics and graduation. And one of things they called me about was they said we want to do this and we want to provide hot dogs and chips and drinks for the entire community/for the school, so we went back to the drawing board and looked at where we were budget wise and was able to come up with the way that we could provide those things for that particular school. And it ranges, we have gotten involved in helping schools purchasing play clock for athletic field. We have helped schools to purchase deluxe stadium seats for their athletic facilities and then things like National Honor Society events, ceremonies, awards, recognition, we pride ourselves on trying to give back to the communities. But it really, to answer your question Marcus, it is really individual-school specific, what those school needs and they know our schools know and that is one of the unique things about the relationships that we have with our customers they know we are there to help.

Marcus: Right, and I know that this isn’t just a sales speech for you, this is really just kind of a passion of yours, especially when it comes to excellence in athletics and stuff like that, you really do care about those things.

John: It’s our heart, and it is not only my heart, but partner’s as well. You can’t out-give God, and he owns it all and so we do not really give to receive, but we give to live, and what I found through the course of that spirit of generosity is that it always comes back to us and it comes back to us in ways that we never expected. So when we are able to give we know it is just a direct reflection on our heart and what we believe and who we want to be and how we position ourselves in the community. So you are right, it is not a matter of schools just calling us. We are always out and about and we are listening. We’ve got our feelers out and we want to hear how we can help and how we can get involve. There are lots of things that I won’t to tell you that we do that no one knows and things happen. That is my favorite kind - that’s the one where you know there is a need, you get involved, roll your sleeves up, you help meet it and no one knows about it.

Marcus: Those are fun.

John: Yeah and inevitably 100% of the time down the road, maybe it is week, maybe it is two years, but it comes back and it comes back in a way, Marcus, that you can directly point back and go, “I know that when we sowed that seed in this is what is going on”, so you’re right it is our heart, we really enjoy doing that.

Marcus: Very cool. Switching gears just a little bit, what do you like to do in your free time. Do you have any hobbies? So I know you are sitting here with a nice reddish tone to your face and arms. I think you were out on the water or something like that this past weekend?

John: Okay yeah, so you know I love the fish. I love the outdoors. I love to hunt, that is just my passion, but really the tan at you are looking at, is from out on the baseball field. The boys play travel baseball and we are out there all the time and enjoy that, but I love anything outdoors. I do love to fish, you know bass fish. I used to say I bass fish competitively.

Marcus: Because you were at tournament this past weekend.

John: Right, but I am not very competitive at it. So I’ve got to be careful.

Marcus: I guess it didn’t go very well this past weekend??

John: Right. What I have learned about bass fishing competitively, especially in this area, in the Delta, if there is anyone out listening that bass fishes you are going to really go to get out of this… You have to be one of two things to be successful at that. You have to be retired because you have to go do it three or four days a week, or you have to have a lot of money or the type of job you can just take off two or three days a week to fish and find out where they are, but love doing that. We love to eat. I know that sounds gluttonous, but...

Marcus: That is a hobby.

John: My wife and I love to try new restaurants and those types of things.

Marcus: A lot of good food in this area.

John: A lot of good food in this area.

Marcus: So why do not I put you on the spot which is your favorite restaurant?

John: I have a new, one of my new favorites is The Dumbwaiter.

Marcus: Dumbwaiter over Mobile.

John: The Dumbwaiter in Mobile yeah.

Marcus: I have not been there yet, I have to go then.

John: I actually read about it and I think I saw something on I read about it and I told Cherry I said “hey there is a new restaurant let’s go try it.” So we tried that. We like Pinzone's in Fairhope, we really are fond of that. We like La Rosso in Old Daphne, as a matter of fact.

Marcus: LaRosso? Yeah, yeah.

John: Across from Manci’s Antique Club, but those are a couple of my favorites... Hungry Owl.

Marcus: Okay, you can stop now because I am getting hungry...

John: Okay yeah hungry.

Marcus: We are recording this right before lunch so...

John: Hungry Owl, and that guy is a former Mary G. Montgomery graduate to you so shout out to my friend Tony Nichols that runs Hungry Owl, but I love that and you’ve got to love a steak from Ruth’s Chris.

Marcus: Of course.

John: Yeah, who does not like that? Now I am hungry, okay.

Marcus: What does an average day look like for you, do you start the day with any kind of, I mean rituals is the wrong connotation, but that kind of thing. So is it, I get up every morning I spend some time reading. I have my cup of coffee, I get ready for work. I go to work? I know that your work has you all over the place so I know that there is some oddities there, but are there any things that are consistent on a daily basis?

John: Well I am going to tell you this, and you’re gonna have doctors and therapist calling me out all over the city now. I wake up every morning at about 3:30.

Marcus: Oh, gosh.

John: I know it does not matter what time I go to bed. I wake up every morning at about 3:30. I rollover, if I can go back to sleep I will go back to sleep, but if I cannot and I inevitably pick up and start reading. So I start usually I had electronic reader next to my bed, like my Nook and I read. If I have a novel, I read and just finished one, and then I will may be read the Bible, then I try not to do this, but this is a bad habit I get on, I start reading news websites and once that happens I am generally up. Now I may lay there for another, whatever, but so needless to say by 5 o’clock, I am up and out. I am up and at them and depending on where I have to go that day I will either help and get the kids to school or I may already be going head to Butler, Alabama or Greenville or wherever I am going. So one thing I do not do that lot of people do that would probably surprise of this, I hardly ever go to my office first thing in the morning. I hardly ever do that. It is just that my line of work does not lead me into office every morning.

Marcus: If you are in the office you are costing yourself money, you should be out meeting with...

John: That is a great point. Yes I am very much in the sales business and nothing happens until something gets sold. So I am usually out and I usually end up in my office, like I will be at my office afternoon when we finish here. So the normal day is starts early, but by 5 o’clock I am generally out of bed, ready, out the door, headed to wherever I am going. If I have a morning appointment, let us say it does not start until 10:00, I will try to work in between where I am starting from, which is usually my house and where I am ultimately headed, and call on some people just and even my own schools, going in my own schools and looking for that need, to see if there is something that we might be able to help with, whether it is resources, time, whatever; going by competitor’s schools, of course, you have to do that and if not, you would not be in business long. My actual presence being needed in my schools and my accounts is generally over by 3 o’clock because it is a school day.

Marcus: And they are wrapping up.

John: That is correct and so when my day is over and I can get any form of paperwork or back office stuff that we need to get done, then I am usually putting on my second hat, which is going to some form of child related event, whether it is recital or baseball game or practice or whatever. So I tell people all the time, I go as hard as I can and then at 9:15 I am about to pass out and then wake up the next day and do all over again.

Marcus: For those of you that do not know John. He is probably one of the most energetic people that I have ever met, so the fact that you get up at 3:30 is…

John: Unhealthy, to say at least. It is unhealthy.

Marcus: I was not going to say unhealthy, but it is just impressive that you are able to get up at 3:30 and still function. I mean we are recording this at 11:00 so you are midday.

John: Yeah and I will be asleep by 8:45, I promise you .

Marcus: Sure. Just to wrap up where can people find you?

John: Well, our office are actual brick and mortar office, is on Rangeline Road and we are in an office complex called Oasis of Palms, easiest way to get there is if you get off 10 and go south on Rangeline we are about 2.9 miles down on the left, directly across from FedEx. But you can find our company Herff Jones at or you can call us at 251-662-5757. We have Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram all of our social media sites and I am @herffjonesguy on Twitter and we are herffjonesmobile for our Facebook page. So we are trying to get out there digitally and we are going to. We are taking baby steps right now, but I am looking forward to launching our new website, which is coming at the end of the summer. Without delay, it will be there... inside joke there.

Marcus: Wink, wink.

John: Yeah, so we have our new website up and running and really when we get to that place, Marcus, we are going to start directing everybody to that website.

Marcus: And it becomes the hub for everything else that you have.

John: Absolutely.

Marcus: Well, I want to thank you again for coming on the Podcast. To wrap up, are there any final thoughts or comments you’d like to share?

John: Just want to say I appreciate what you are doing, and I think that the more this gets out, I know it is kind of new at this time, but the more gets out, I think people like myself and even larger business owners will start to tune in and just kind of get a feel for what everyone else is doing, and I hope we were able to help somebody today.

Marcus: Absolutely, I appreciate you saying that and I appreciate your willingness to sit with me and share your journey as a business owner and entrepreneur. It was great talking to you, John.

John: Thank you, Marcus.

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