Successfully Branding the Gulf in the International Arena
The secret to Paul Brent’s art empire is talent, tenacity and … tiny steps. The affable, 64-year-old Panama City artist and entrepreneur says his journey of a million prints began with a single step of the kaizen kind — the Japanese philosophy embraced by Brent that suggests lasting success is found in making small incremental changes and consistent choices. Fast-forward 40 years, and Paul Brent now is more than America’s preeminent coastal artist; more than a building architect and industrial designer; more than the CEO of a print publishing business; more than one of the top 100 licensees in the world. In fact, he’s all of them — he’s the Paul Brent brand.
Successful Branding Paul Brent has turned the landscape of the Gulf into an international business By Zandra Wolfgram Originally published in the Apr/May 2010 issue of 850 Business Magazine
The secret to Paul Brent’s art empire is talent, tenacity and … tiny steps. The affable, 64-year-old Panama City artist and entrepreneur says his journey of a million prints began with a single step of the kaizen kind — the Japanese philosophy embraced by Brent that suggests lasting success is found in making small incremental changes and consistent choices.
Fast-forward 40 years, and Paul Brent now is more than America’s preeminent coastal artist; more than a building architect and industrial designer; more than the CEO of a print publishing business; more than one of the top 100 licensees in the world. In fact, he’s all of them — he’s the Paul Brent brand.
“Brand management helps when it emanates from you,” said Brent, who is currently writing an e-book on the subject.
Beyond his original artwork images, Brent also keeps an eye on messaging, customer service, company culture, even his work space in Panama City.
“It all comes together in who I am and what my brand is,” he said. “When you look at me compared to all artists, ‘coastal’ is still a pretty narrow category. What I choose to create has everything to do with whether I can express it as an artist.”
Born in Oklahoma City in 1946, Brent’s parents, both educators, heartily encouraged his interest in art. He majored in art at California State University, Long Beach, for two years before transferring to the University of California, Berkeley, to major in architecture. After graduation, he joined the U.S. Air Force and was stationed at Tyndall Air Force Base in Panama City in 1969.
Captivated by the scenic nature in Mexico Beach, where he then lived, Brent began painting watercolors of the beach and the wildlife. While there, he met Lana Jane Lewis and they married in 1971. (They now have two sons, Jensen, 26, and Anders, 17.) Finishing his tour of duty in 1972 with the rank of captain, Brent worked for two local architects before returning to the University of California to earn a Master of Architecture degree.
The young couple returned to Panama City, where Lana Jane Lewis-Brent worked in her family’s business, Sunshine-Jr. Stores Inc., a collection of 350 convenience stores and seven supermarkets in a five-state area. Meanwhile, Paul Brent worked as a designer and draftsman, painting in his free time.
In 1976, Brent was creating pen and ink drawings of coastal wildlife that he tinted with light washes of watercolor. The encouragement of an artist friend changed the direction of his career.
“He looked at one of my paintings and said, ‘You could sell that,’ and I thought, what’s the difference between painting and selling it or drawing a house and selling?” Brent said. “So I gave it a try.”
The designer-turned-artist began selling his watercolors at outdoor shows and in art galleries throughout the Southeast. Immediately, he approached it as a business endeavor.
“I would think, what can I do to make money for $35?” he explains. “How much time and materials do I put in and make money? Then I scaled that up as things got bigger.”
And in 1986, things got exponentially bigger.
After doing as many as 12 art shows a year, Brent’s customers began requesting affordable art, so he began making prints of his watercolors. After attending print trade shows, such as International Artexpo in New York, he decided to launch a print production company to self-produce his work en masse.
In the late 1980s, Brent became a licensed interior designer and a member of the American Society of Interior Designers. He was accepted as a signature member into the Florida Watercolor Society, the Southeastern Watercolor Society and the National Watercolor Society.
More importantly, he “was in business at just the right moment” when development of Florida condominiums was on the rise and demand was high for Florida-style interior design in watercolor pastels — serendipitous for the coastal art entrepreneur.
Brent’s first licensed designs were bookmarks, bed linens and insulated barware. Motivated by his licensing success, he exhibited at national trade shows to meet more manufacturers. After a couple of years he attracted his most successful client, Seabrook, one of the nation’s largest wallcovering distributors. In all, Brent produced 12 wallpaper collections for the company. At that point, licensing had eclipsed print publishing as the most lucrative aspect of Brent’s design business.
When wallpaper waned, Brent once again moved on to other things such as designing and building an 8,000-square-foot gallery, studio and distribution center in downtown Panama City in 1990, where he has offices today.
Brent is nothing if not multi-dimensional. In 1996, he illustrated the children’s book “J. Rooker, Manatee” by Jan Haley and was inducted into the Society of Illustrators in New York. Over the past decade, Brent’s work took yet another turn when he began to paint seriously in oil.
Today, he licenses images to more than 70 manufacturers who produce products such as wall coverings, textiles, bedding, apparel, paper products, gift items, house wares, home decor and furniture. In April 2009, License! Global magazine ranked Paul Brent Designs 94th among the top 100 licensors for the year with licensed retail sales of $67 million. To put it in context, in 2009, the top 100 licensing companies accounted for almost $160 billion in retail sales out of a total of $192 billion in licensed products worldwide.
For Brent, being an artist is a visceral way to connect to others.
“In primitive culture, people would sit around and on every cup and plate they’d hand-carve, bead and decorate, so I think there is an innate need for people to not have a white cup,” he reasoned. “You could say I design for the clan of beachgoers. Someone may buy a print or mug, and it may not cost much, but it expresses that desire and feeling they want to express. I’m creating images that help them achieve what they want in life.”
An avid reader and history buff, Brent is proud that his four-decade career has made an indelible mark on others.
“I’ve sold a million prints,” he said. “If I’m in that many homes and have helped impact people’s lives and how they feel about themselves and their environment — that makes me feel good.”
Brent is as zealous about art advocacy and community service as he is about his business. Some of his efforts include fostering the Bay Arts Alliance, which he served as president for four years; the Friends of the Bay County Libraries; the Greater Downtown Association; the Florida Arts Council; and the Florida Humanities Council. He has donated artwork to raise funds for the Spring Festival of the Arts for 25 years. And the interior of the Martin Theatre in Panama City boasts his design.
Panama City community leaders revere the artist-designer as a cornerstone of the town’s cultural arts infrastructure.
“Without Paul Brent as a driver in our cultural community, we would not be where we are today, nor would we have an example of how far our passions can take us,” said Bay Arts Alliance executive director Jennifer Jones, “Literally, figuratively and graciously, he has painted our community into a work of art.”
For Brent, slow growth has been a good thing. Like his richly textured paintings, which began as simple drawings, Brent said his business has been a progression.
“It’s been many steps — an evolution versus a revolution,” he said.