Building Characters

Last updated on May 13th, 2019 at 02:36 pm

What do Tony the Tiger, Grimace, the Hamburglar, Bucky Badger, Bernie Brewer and the Klements Racing Sausages have in common? The answer is they all came to life at Olympus Flag & Banner, located at 9000 W. Heather Ave. on Milwaukee’s far northwest side. The company has a team of designers who are capable of both transforming a two-dimensional drawing into a mascot suit that a person can wear and of designing a brand new mascot for a company that hasn’t come up with one on its own.

"Sometimes it’s a collaboration, where we come up with the idea," said Dawn Rolison, director of marketing services for Olympus. "It’s up to our talent inside the building to follow through and make it a reality."

A crew of artists works inside Olympus’ manufacturing shop, transforming two-dimensional sketches into foam sculptures, which are later turned into molds. Those molds are used to create heads for mascot costumes.

Sometimes the artists are given detailed drawings from customers, based on an animated character, which the company can turn into a mascot costume. Other times, the artists work with clients to create a new character from scratch, even using computer software to design a costume that will not only look good, but also will be comfortable for the person wearing it.

Brian Adam, who works as marketing manager at Olympus, said the company’s marketing staff and designers work with new customers who don’t have mascots or company icons yet. Generally, the icons and mascots they come up with are collaborations.

"Someone will come to us with a concept," he said. "The designer works with them on an idea, and the artist humanizes it."

Olympus has built more than 8,000 costumes for a wide variety of clients, said Helmut Adam, president and chief executive officer of Olympus. The company’s clients include Kellogg’s, McDonald’s, the Milwaukee Brewers, minor league sports teams and smaller companies such as Two Men And A Truck and Dippin’ Dots.

Olympus has been in business since 1893 in Milwaukee. Since Helmut Adam, president and chief executive officer, purchased the company in 1992, it has greatly expanded mascot production. Helmut Adam is Brian Adam’s father.

The company originally started as a maker of American flags and continues to make them.

Olympus has also made flags and banners for college sports teams, companies and special events. Many of its custom banners are used for point-of-purchase displays, corporate identification flags, event advertising – even for political and sporting events.

Each of those flags was historically designed by in-house creative staff, and because Olympus has those types of people on staff, it has been able to use them to enter new and emerging markets, such as mascot production and custom banners used by companies, theme parks and cruise ships.

Two of Olympus’ large customers historically were Disney and Royal Caribbean Cruise Lines, Helmut Adam said. For Disney, Olympus designs clothing worn by performers in parades as well as flags and banners those performers carry. Olympus also designs custom curtains and banners that Royal Caribbean Cruise Lines uses in its theatrical productions.

When Helmut Adam purchased the company, McDonald’s was the only mascot client Olympus had.

"For everything Ronald (McDonald), they call Olympus," Adam said. "His makeup, the magic tricks he uses for shows, everything. It’s all serialized. We are responsible to maintain the quality of their look."

After purchasing Olympus, Adam believed the mascot and custom banner markets held the biggest growth potential for the company.

"We saw it as a diamond in the rough," he said. "And we leveraged that."

One of the largest groups of clients Olympus has developed work with are minor league baseball teams. There are more than 170 minor league baseball teams across the country, and almost all of them have character icons and mascots, Adam said.

The Olympus costumes typically cost between $1,200 and $3,500.

Because the baseball characters tend to get dirty, sweaty and take a fair amount of wear and tear, the company has also started to clean and refurbish the costumes it makes. Olympus representatives also give seminars to minor league teams on how to properly care for their costumes, to ensure they last as long as possible, Adam said.

Olympus has about 80 full-time employees, but the company uses a large amount of outside contracted work, especially for making American flags. The company makes special-order large flags in-house.

For 2006, the company is projecting revenue growth of 10 to 15 percent, but the reality could be quite different, Adam said.

"That’s a very cautious projection," he said. "We have the capacity to more than double our current sales numbers. This building gives us the capacity to do that."

Although sales of American flags skyrocketed after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, those sales have leveled off over the past two years. Currently, the growth markets for Olympus are mascots and custom banners, Adam said.

The company is projecting its mascot business to quintuple over the next four to five years, Adam said.

The abilities to create elaborate fabrics and printed banners reflect the company’s high-tech equipment and know-how, Adam said.

In turn, Rolison said, those abilities give Olympus an advantage when dealing with a company that already has an existing corporate identity but wants to create a mascot to match it.

"We can provide a more full-circle offering because we can control the color matching and coordinate everything with the character," she said.

When he was pitching to executives at Kellogg’s several years ago, Adam asked them how many whiskers Tony the Tiger should have (three), because of inconsistencies on Kellogg’s own products.

Adam said he needed to ask the question because Olympus pays close attention to detail, and because workers would have asked the question eventually if he didn’t.

"It’s something that’s ingrained here," he said.

Olympus Flag & Banner

Location: 9000 W. Heather Ave., Milwaukee
Revenues: Projected increase of 10 to 15 percent in 2006, but could grow substantially more
Founded: 1893
Products: Custom mascots, custom banners and flags, U.S. flags
Employees: 80
Web site:

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