Tervis Tumbler went back-way back to its 1946 roots-to secure its future in the competitive drinking tumbler market.

The privately held Osprey company three years ago reinvented itself with a retro marketing campaign to "stand apart from the competition," says president Norbert Donelly. The ad campaign included everything from a weathered look on company letterhead to a catalog with Norman Rockwell-like pictures of wholesome kids drinking milk and couples sipping out of '40s-era high-ball tumblers.

So far, customers have reacted very positively, says marketing director Gail Bowman, who has been with Tervis Tumblers for 16 years.

Tervis Tumbler's Sarasota plant produced two million insulated plastic cups last year, bringing in $10 million in revenue, double its 1997 sales. Tervis' contracts include customized tumblers for major golf tournaments like the Master's and U.S. Open, and many upscale national retailers.

Tervis Tumbler has come a long way from the family-owned company Donelly assumed control of in 1988 from his mother-in-law, Mary Winslow, when sales were $500,000. Winslow had taken over from her husband John, who died in the mid-'80s after running the company for more than 20 years.

Donelly, a former real estate investor, and his wife had moved to Italy in 1987 with plans to stay about two years. But after returning to Florida for the holidays a few months later, Donelly says it was apparent Mary could use his help. Donnelly left behind his Italian villa and stepped into the role as Tervis' president. He had little knowledge of the tumbler business, but his staff of 12 helped with the transition, he says, especially Bowman, who was then his assistant.

Since then, Tervis' cup has runneth over. It now has 100 employees, 6,000 outside reps, and four retail stores: its 40-year-old Osprey location and stores in Fort Myers, Anna Maria and North Palm Beach. "We're just like a real company now," Donelly says with a laugh.

Loyal longtime employees and bringing a CPA and human resources director on board have been key to the company's transformation. "We've been fortunate in hiring and empowering them to do their jobs," says Donelly, who adds that his job is now more about delegating.

Three years ago, Donelly also added outside board members and developed a strategic marketing plan, which is reviewed monthly. "Then we changed our distribution channels," Donelly says. "Instead of one division, we have five that focus on one market, such as golf or customized mugs for companies." Specialized tumblers with company and sports logos have been a growing part of the business and now represent about 25 percent of Tervis' sales.

Tervis may have embraced a nostalgic image, but its products have kept up with the times. "We now have 16-ounce tumblers, instead of just the 12-ounce ones," Donelly says. "And we introduced a big tea tumbler in January."

The other thing that sets the company apart is its unusual no-questions-asked lifetime guarantee, which has become legend. "We've even had people run over them with cars and we still replace them," Donelly says. "The fun ones are the old tumblers people sometime return. We got a box from the 1950s not long ago. They were an unopened wedding present and we were glad to have them."

Donelly says the company's future is also its past: "Maintain quality, increase sales and strive for zero defects." As for Donelly, he'd like to return to Italy to continue his extended vacation. "I'm trying to peter myself out of a job." 

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