Sports artist's talent builds a company Artistry: Jeff Wilkinson has turned his hobby of drawing sports heroes into Wilkinson Corp., which manufactures T-shirts and embroidered items.

August 03, 1996|By Abbe Gluck | Abbe Gluck,SUN STAFF

Jeff Wilkinson has learned that you don't have to play in the majors to be one of the majors.

When former Orioles manager Earl Weaver is inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame Sunday, any fan wearing a T-shirt produced for the event will be sporting a Wilkinson design.

After doing designs including the program commemorating the closing of Memorial Stadium in 1991, the illustration for the opening of Oriole Park at Camden Yards in 1992 and the illustration celebrating Cal Ripken Jr.'s iron-man streak, Wilkinson has turned a hobby into Wilkinson Corp., a $2 million Hunt Valley company.

The company, whose billings have doubled each year since it opened in 1992, has sales this year that are 48 percent ahead of 1995 figures, said Jeff's brother Steve Wilkinson, the company's vice president and business mind.

Jeff Wilkinson said of competing against national businesses such as Starter and Reebok, "We're still small, but we're perceived as bigger because we have so many clients."

Wilkinson's speed has been a key element of his success.

"His turnaround time is fantastic," said Larry Moorjani, general manager of retail at Camden Yards for ARAMARK, the ballpark's con- concession manager.

Moorjani said he combats unauthorized street T-shirt vendors by hiring Wilkinson to do new designs overnight. Commissioning a design from a large company can take as long as six weeks -- Wilkinson said he can do one in about 45 minutes.

ARAMARK recently hired him to do an illustration for Orioles designated hitter Eddie Murray's 500th home run. With Murray at 493, Wilkinson said, he offered ARAMARK the speed it needed.

Wilkinson has been the No. 1 supplier at the ballpark for the past two seasons, Moorjani said.

Jeff Wilkinson, a 34-year-old who has idolized sports heroes since childhood, said the best part has been "giving something back, working with them."

Nevertheless, he said, he can't help but be a bit star-struck when Weaver drops by to pick up 18 souvenir shirts or Ripken remarks that Wilkinson has captured the determination in his eyes.

And, although Wilkinson said he has been sure of his talent since he was 11, at first he painted everything from signs to race-car patterns for children's rooms to make a living.

Wilkins said he did countless sports drawings on the side "for myself," but he adds, "In the back of my mind I knew there was an opportunity."

So, in 1987, he took a sketch of seven "Orioles Greats" to Burger King and suggested that it be used on a cup. After "a lot of red tape," Burger King -- which had no plans for a baseball promotion -- printed 100,000 cups, Jeff Wilkinson said. When those sold out, Burger King printed 100,000 more.

The second opportunity grew out of the first, when the Orioles hired Wilkinson to design the Memorial Stadium program after seeing his work on the cup.

Wilkinson finishes a design before he pitches the idea, said Richard White, who until 1994 was president of Major League Baseball Properties (MLBP), which handles licensed merchandise for the sport.

Wilkinson said he sketched Camden Yards as it was being built in 1992 "to be the first one to submit a stadium drawing." ARAMARK and the Orioles liked his design so much that they got Wilkinson licensed by MLBP to manufacture apparel and novelties, White said.

"MLBP was very stingy with the licenses, so it was a real feather in their cap," said White, who now runs Strategic Merchandising Associates in New York.

Once he was licensed, Wilkinson decided to make -- as well as design -- his merchandise. By subcontracting the manufacturing on that first Camden Yards project, he billed $450,000, compared with the roughly $2,000 he had been making per illustration. Today, he produces all T-shirts and embroidered items in-house.

By 1994, Wilkinson was designing for two Maryland minor league teams, the Bowie Baysox and the Frederick Keys. The following year, he designed for the Colorado Rockies, the Cleveland Indians, the centennial of Babe Ruth's birth and the Ripken streak. This year, he was licensed to work for all 156 minor league teams.

Belinda Corkin, who buys for the Keys, Baysox and Delmarva Shorebirds, said she expects Wilkinson Corp. to grow.

"They continually offer new designs, and that's something you don't normally get," she said.

Expanding into other sports, Wilkinson has worked for the National and American Hockey Leagues and is in talks with the Baltimore Ravens, Steve Wilkinson said.

Despite his success, Jeff Wilkinson said, he still gets a thrill from going to the ballpark, "looking into the stands and counting the shirts I did."

Pub Date: 8/03/96

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