Tin man: Alum masters the art of seasonal sales
Brian Hanc lives in a business world few can imagine. There are days even he finds it hard to fathom how he went from a hard-working information technology undergraduate at Illinois State to an entrepreneur with a presence in the nation’s largest stores.
At just 37, Hanc partners to sell approximately 3.5 million popcorn tins and another 500,000 gift tins to more than 50 retailers. The list includes Walmart, Menards, Dollar Tree, Kroger, Aldi, and Bed, Bath and Beyond. The product is in every state, with some showing up in Walmart’s Canadian stores the past two years.
“I’ll walk into Walmart and see our popcorn tins right there in the center aisle—action alley—and I will think ‘It was worth all the hard work and perseverance.’ This is crazy,” said Hanc, who completed his graphic design and printing degree in 2001.
The feat has been accomplished through his business run out of his home office in Saint Charles—Hanc Design Group—and his partnership with a product development company. Together the two have created an alliance that has them capturing nearly half of the popcorn tin and seasonal food gift market annually for sales that have totaled in the millions.
The success is sweet for Hanc, who borrowed from five family members and friends to start the venture that required initial and yearly investments totaling nearly $1.5 million.
They joined the effort based on a faith in Hanc that existed because of his track record as a hard worker with a creative spirit evident from his childhood through his years at ISU.
“Even before high school, I was always doing things to generate money. I took an outside-the-box approach,” Hanc said. “I’ve always had that entrepreneur mentality.”
One example: Hanc found a way to make more than $100 an hour as an undergraduate by working at the Varsity Club. The Normal bar that has since closed needed a DJ. He put in three hours one night a week and easily surpassed the income of his peers working part-time at minimum wage.
He also negotiated a contract with a local landlord to paint vacated campus apartments. The work was flexible, steady and paid well. Each experience further cemented his desire to start his own business after graduation.
That dream was far from immediately fulfilled, as Hanc entered the job market around the time of 9/11. He worked at a grocery store to get benefits while doing freelance work and continuing a job hunt that resulted in a temporary position with Seasonal Food Gift Company in Chicago. Offered an assistant graphic coordinator position months later, Hanc stayed with the firm and gained invaluable experience that positioned him for his current endeavors.
Eager to learn more about the whole product development process, he sought and gained a project management role at the company. Acting as the center hub of a product, Hanc’s responsibilities included working closely with all internal departments to ultimately supply a product and cost
to the sales team.
“As a project manager, I had to figure out all aspects of the finished product including the cost of every component, freight, structural integrity and pack out down to the penny,” Hanc said. “I then had to provide the final cost and product to the sales team, as well as communicate the assembly of the item to our overseas suppliers.”
For three years Hanc mastered working with multiple vendors to select quality products that packaged well and came together on a rigid schedule and even tighter budget.
“I managed about 100 products a year, which gave me experience creating timelines, costing out thousands of components, then working through to the design and execution of the item,” Hanc said. “It was the single most important job I ever had.”
Hanc next worked at Hershey for several years. By 2008, he had formed his design group. About two years later he left Hershey to fully focus on his business and eventually team up with a product development company. Their first endeavor was a make-your-own hot sauce kit, followed by a product that gave consumers the ability to craft their own wine.
It took a solid year to work with suppliers for the components, create a design that would sell and fit on a pallet, figure out shelving needs, and most importantly find a buyer. All came together when Bed, Bath and Beyond said yes, which was no easy accomplishment.
“First you have to get an appointment and then find a way to get that retailer interested. It’s extremely difficult getting them to respond to you,” Hanc said. “To get in and close a sale takes a real strategic approach. You have to have a great-looking product that offers the consumer a good value at a really good price, and it has to make sense.”
Hanc’s confidence in such situations continues to soar as he now works with multiple companies on all aspects of product development. His effort tied to the design work involved now accounts for a mere 20 percent of his 16-hour days.
His time is instead largely spent developing new products such as ready-to-eat snacks, traveling overseas to work with suppliers, and solving problems that involve everything from pallets being delivered to wrong retailers and tins damaged in shipping.
The tins arrive packaged in nearly 100+ containers at a U.S. distribution center. Everything is assembled in that one building with an eye to food safety and product quality, with special attention to a product’s shelf life.
The product development timeline inevitably creates some hectic moments leading up to and including the distribution process. Hanc recalls, for example, 500 semi-trucks were filled in just a few months last year.
“To put that in perspective, I did the math and realized if we put all those tins in rows next to each other with just one layer, we would fill up an entire football field 15 times.”
While the volume is impressive, Hanc is most proud of an ability to maintain quality while finding custom solutions for retailers. He is equally pleased with the speed he can now develop a product.
“We are very aggressive at four to six months to completion,” Hanc said. “The average for others is a couple of years.” One reason for such an impressive pace is that Hanc continues to think ahead and beyond the norm.
“We have figured out strategic ways to give us an advantage over any of our competition,” he said. His latest success is a win with a major movie licensing company. He signed a deal last fall that allows for the use of imagery from classic blockbuster holiday movie hits.
“We have some really neat concepts put together from some great classic holiday movies that some of our retail partners are already excited about,” said Hanc, who started on the designs for this year’s sales months ago. He expects the new product line will compete well with the traditional bestsellers, which are snowmen, puppies and Santa.
The upcoming product line keeps Hanc on track to fulfill his goals, which are to continue developing retail partners and providing holiday gifts and tins that are a great value and price. With a huge upside for growth, he hopes to build partnerships large enough for an eventual sale of the business within the next decade, freeing him to pursue another venture.
Regardless of what that new challenge entails, Hanc will continue to include Illinois State in the telling of his story. From lifelong friendships to crazy memories of practicing with his club ice hockey team at a Peoria rink after midnight and still making his 8 a.m. classes, Hanc remains grateful for his time at the University. It was also at ISU that he met his wife, Kelly (Eversman) ’01. Married in 2005, they have a son and daughter.
Hanc especially appreciates the strong foundation he received from faculty to build a future that was completely unexpected when he chose his major. He graduated anticipating a role in business and dreaming of being his own boss, but never envisioned an endeavor so complicated and successful.
“I remember the whole college experience because it’s a big part of how I got to where I am today,” Hanc said. “ISU is a tremendous part of the foundation that has made up so much of my success.”
After the tasty treat
One of Hanc’s goals is to create designs that resonate so well with consumers and are so engaging that the tin is kept long after the popcorn has been devoured. There are many suggested uses for the tins, including the following. Beyond the option of having a colorful waste basket, consider storage of:
Small toys, including blocks and Legos
Susan Marquardt Blystone can be reached at sjblyst@IllinoisState.edu.