Maine Small Business Manufacturer of the Year
For over 40 years, Central Maine has been home to Liberty Graphics, a small screen printing and design company. The founder, Tom Opper, and his partner Beverly Kocenko started the business in a small trailer, making small batches of unique t-shirts for local events. While the focus on local events and causes would continue, the business would become known statewide, start making larger orders, and become the source of iconic and recognizable designs.
One of the key factors in the success of Liberty Graphics was gaining the Common Ground Country Fair as a customer. Mainers from across the state can quickly recognize the stylized shirts, and the event draws tens of thousands of attendees to Unity, making it one of the best ways for a small silk screening company to get their designs out. In addition to this large contract, Liberty Graphics was always looking for ways to break into new markets.
Tom and Beverly established a small outlet store in the town of Liberty in the early 80’s, which quickly expanded to a larger store by the 90’s, and they added a second store in Portland’s Old Port by 2010. As these expansions took place, the business needed to bring in dozens of employees over the years. By the time of the Old Port expansion, Liberty Graphics employed 38 people, keeping production local and continuing to focus on quality and sustainable products.
However, there were challenges coming for every small business as the year 2020 approached. Cancelled events would mean fewer orders, and incredible hardship for a local producer, so the ownership team needed to get creative and figure out a path forward. Brad Swanson from the SBDC started meeting with Tom and Beverly about how to move forward and keep the business strong for years. First, Liberty Graphics received an SBA EIDL and both rounds of PPP loans to cope with the immediate impacts of the pandemic. Second, and most impactful for the business, a new ownership structure was decided upon, Liberty Graphics would become employee-owned.
The transition has worked well for Liberty Graphics, as the employee-owners made more of a focus on online sales, and managed to end 2021 with higher than expected revenues, despite the loss of large clients due to the pandemic. With this success, the business has been able to preserve good jobs in the Midcoast, support local scholarships, and maintaining its commitment to people and the environment. For these reasons, the SBA is pleased to award Liberty Graphics the 2022 Small Business Manufacturer Award for Maine.