by Cheryl Harris Forbes
When you're 22, life as an adult is just beginning. With so many choices and so much potential, Rodney Matthews knew it was his time to shine. Industrious by nature, Matthews promptly snagged a job with a promising career at Gerber Scientific. His task was to work with the computer aided drafting (CAD) systems team on project applications for commercial and large format signage. As a technical service representative, Matthews traveled the United States, Europe, and South America training corporate staff to maximize the equipment's capabilities. In the process of teaching others, he realized there was more to learn to fully understand customers' challenges and how to solve them. As a result, Matthews made it his singular focus. Gerber recognized his service performance and rewarded it.
As is typical of young men, Matthews looked forward to leisure activities. Motorcycling was one of his favorites. “It’s something I'll never forget, May 7, 1987, a month before my daughter was due to be born. One minute I was on the bike and everything was fine. The next was totally different ", says Matthews as he raises his eyebrows, with fingers pressed to his lips. “After several weeks, most of my injuries were healing pretty well, but I still couldn't use my left arm. At first I was told it would take time. Weeks later, when I met with my doctor, he said the damage was permanent, and I would never use my left arm again. 'Make your peace with it', he said. Then he slid the disability papers and pen for me to sign with across his desk.“
Matthews had hoped for good news, but now that was out of the picture. The choices were tough. Should he sign the disability papers, never work again, and collect what some would call his due "benefit", or take a chance at living life on his own terms? “I decided right then and there that my injury would not be the determining factor. As soon as I got cleared, I went back to work.” Matthews, says that even though Gerber facilitated his return with appropriate accommodations, he couldn't ignore his new reality. He began to doubt whether future career options would be as welcoming or as plentiful. “Having a disability causes people to look at you differently. I felt my viability in their minds would be questionable at best. I made up my mind to start going hard after my own business. I lost the use of my arm, but there was nothing wrong with my hustle. "
Almost serendipitously, Matthews ended up buying large press printing equipment from a former customer who was closing his business. Joined by a friend, Matthews began moonlighting printing signs in his basement apartment. He admits, “We had no idea of graphic design, or how to order the supplies we needed, but we knew how to run the equipment. We were totally self-taught. Keep in mind, this was before the internet and YouTube. We learned by making a whole lot of mistakes."
The pair noticed urban communities had a huge need for signage. They discovered inner-city business owners and emerging entrepreneurs were making homemade signs and banners because the bigger companies weren't servicing them. "That was our initial target market; small urban businesses needing a more professional look." After a couple of years of making signs, Matthews and his partner began networking heavily while tracking an increasingly popular urban trend; custom T-shirts. "Our first items were T-shirts with heat-transfers and different sayings on them. We even went to night clubs, took pictures, and made the shirts with the photos on-the-spot as souvenirs. "
For more than a decade, the pair kept their day jobs, building the sign, banner, and T-shirt business after-hours. "That was the time when FUBU and other urban clothing lines were coming out. I'd come up with my own designs, but I also had a lot of people wanting to create their own. That's how I came up with the name ‘Exclusive Linez’, to showcase people who had clothing lines that weren't available in stores. We would even make their prototypes or construction pieces for the garments.”
With this new profit-center in place, Matthews invested in the business by purchasing more equipment to increase capacity. He left his job in 2001, moved the business to an East Hartford storefront and stayed there for nearly 14 years. "We became known for custom, airbrushed, and photo shirts. Our niche was making shirts as a wearable memorial. It was a way for family and friends to express their grief, especially for a sudden loss."
Exclusive Linez’ ability to consistently meet customers' demand for quick turn-around and cutting-edge urban aesthetics were game changers. Increasingly, schools, community organizations, and corporations began to purchase custom signs, banners, and shirts for their events, staff, students, and volunteers. The increased attention brought more opportunities. Matthew’s knack for spotting trends and leveraging them to help customers prompted expanded offerings of large format, tradeshow, and exterior signage. Soon the business gained a reputation for creating custom vehicle wraps that allowed an organization or business to feature its branding or message on a single car or an entire fleet.
Exclusive Linez continued to expand and relocated to its current Hartford location at 1325 Main Street. “I didn't want to move too far away. It's close enough to the old location so customers don't have to travel far.” Though Matthews discloses he is now the sole owner, he and his former business partner remain friends.
In 2012, about two years after the move, Matthews was introduced to a new kind of partnership via the University of Hartford's Entrepreneurial Center, where he joined the Hartford Small Business Technical Assistance Program (HSBTAP). As an HSBTAP participant, Matthews attended classes and received counseling related to business finance, operations, marketing, workflow, systems, and efficiency. Entrepreneurial Center business advisors provided one-on-one counseling and worked with him to prepare for a the CT Business Matchmaker event, which introduced him to a broader range of corporate and organizational buyers. With help, Matthews went on to revamp Exclusive Linez’ business plan and apply for a business loan, which he received through Accion.
"It can be easy to get into business, but it's hard to stay in business. Understanding if you’re profitable or not, how to navigate hiring, taxes, insurance, and your industry is the challenge. The Entrepreneurial Center is the one place that I know that can teach you all of that. There, you meet other business owners who ask questions you may not have thought about. I've definitely improved my skills and I make informed decisions. If I have an “off" week I can figure out what I need to do to correct it. If I want to make more money, I can figure out the best way to do that while serving my customers. I've learned so much."
With nearly three decades in the game, there's no question about Matthews' ability to produce. "Years ago I bet on myself. I still do it every day. No matter where you are or what happened to you, at some point you have to dig down deep. Find what you’re good at or what you can be good at. I'm committed to serving communities and respecting the culture. Hartford's been at the center of it since day one. Getting involved with the Entrepreneurial Center and the Hartford Small Business Technical Assistance Program helped me reach my next level.”
For Matthews, Exclusive Linez’ current success is part of a larger plan. Like Hartford, he’s made progress through persistence and patience. Though the transformation isn't complete, his star is definitely rising.