Varsity Brands Bets Big on Back to School

Chief Executive Officer

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Whether American public schools all re-open in the next few months will affect the education of millions of students, the household routines of millions of parents and the vocational paths of thousands of teachers.

But as the traditional Labor Day marker for the start of the school year nears, no one’s got a bigger bet on the return to “normalcy” than Adam Blumenfeld: He’s staked the future of his company, Varsity Brands, on it.

The CEO of the Farmer’s Branch, Texas-based maker and marketer of school-related merchandise, such as class rings, caps-and-gowns and cheerleading uniforms, has been tweaking Varsity Brands’ operations to weave around school closures. As schools continue to struggle with the pandemic interlude, Blumenfeld also has led Varsity to meet new educational needs with everything from personal protective equipment to digital curricula.

But while he believes it may take as long as a year to “see a return to normal in the education space,” Blumenfeld is doubling down on the eventuality.

“We have to make a calculated assumption about whether kids and teachers are coming back and school will be back to normal one day,” he told Chief Executive. “My personal belief is that school exists for a lot more than learning, such as its value for socialization. So right now, it’s not that kids are just missing math class but also missing the chance to learn how to interrelate.

“It would be a travesty if kids were isolated forever and self-taught exclusively through home learning. That can play a big role, and we service remote-learning programs. But the value of community pride and spirit and communication skills that kids get in regular schools is hard to match through Zoom.”

Few, if any, companies are more invested in “school as it was” than Varsity Brands. It’s got a Herff Jones brand that makes and sells class rings, yearbooks, recognition products and other school tchotchkes. The BSN Sports division sells sports uniforms and equipment. Varsity Spirit sells cheerleading gear and runs instructional cheerleading and dance camps.

And, taking advantage of the weakness of some players in a fragmented market in which Varsity didn’t participate before, Blumenfeld has just bought a handful of makers of band uniforms. “We like anything that touches the schoolhouse,” Blumenfeld explained.

At the same time, Varsity Brands hasn’t exactly been victimized by the nearly complete shutdown of traditional K-12 education since March. Though it hasn’t been conducting the massive in-person cheerleading competitions typically attended by thousands of kids and their families, the digitally-advanced company already had a Team Art Locker site online that allowed schools to design custom team uniforms and artwork using their mascots, logos and other signature graphics.

“That has allowed us to roll out a series of benefits to customers that is unique to us,” Blumenfeld said, such as enabling high-school coaches to conduct “press-conference-style events” online with a video backdrop of a school’s logo and mascot – similar to the backdrops for professional and college coaches when they explain to the media how their team won or lost the game.

In an application that’s especially fitting for the zeitgeist, Team Art Locker also can help schools change from what Blumenfeld called a “Confederate” brand to a “non-Confederate brand,” including not only new logos and mascots on uniforms, but also signage across the school footprint.

And Varsity Brands has been conducting many operations remotely, including virtual meetings and webinars. “We have a handful of digital tools that have enabled us to pivot our salespeople from seeing clients in schoolhouses to having eight to 10 Zoom meetings a day and introducing our entire line virtually,” Blumenfeld said. “We have been booking and taking orders as normal and as if fall and winter in schools is actually going to happen.”

The company also has leveraged both its understanding of the needs and culture of the American schoolhouse, and its digital capabilities, to branch into promising new areas. One division began producing personalized masks and directional signage to help schools adapt their populations to new on-site rules as they reopen. Varsity also came up with a platform of virtual journals, where schoolkids stuck at home can express their feelings, as well as an accompanying digital curriculum.

“These are all branding gateways so we can keep talking with schools” with the day in mind that Blumenfeld is really looking forward to: when they “return to normal.”

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