Our Founder’s Story: Igniting Passion

by Angela Stiff

The window of Copperwing's first office

I began Copperwing in 1999 with one critical belief — that a brand well designed at every touch point is powerful enough to help define and drive its future success. I wanted to produce the highest caliber of modern design to tell brand stories. This was before branding had the name “branding”. I started my identity management firm on my own with a small amount of money saved. I felt equipped, being a third-generation small business owner, an alumna of Auburn University’s prestigious visual arts program and having spent time working in both agency and corporate work environments. Plus, I’d already had the opportunity to oversee a successful multimedia campaign and been recognized with lots of industry awards. What else was there to know?

I had no clue about the humbling life lessons ahead of me that would shape the company that Copperwing is today.

My first office was in the old Montgomery train depot that has since been developed into the Montgomery Biscuits baseball stadium. I am happy that my loft’s window remains intact as part of the current facility. Beginnings are important. Every time I see that window, I think of myself standing in that small space on day one of Copperwing’s existence, a very young woman launching a new small business with plenty of courage and determination. If design was one pillar — integrity was the other that lifted the business up. I knew I wanted to do my best to emulate the always-do-the-right-thing business model that my father held to in his own business for more than 50 years.

I designed projects to be clear and impactful. The majority of my work was branding. I had two clients on retainer that kept me busy as word spread and my business grew. I was working all hours. I was designer, writer, production manager, account executive, and courier. After the first year, I had outgrown my loft space and leased an office on Bell Road. Nell Rankin (now retired from Copperwing) joined me as partner and managed account services. She and I had been friends for some time and I knew she had the rare ability to understand the creative process, contribute to it and promote it. This joining of forces was fueled by the dot-com boom at that time and catapulted us to the next level. We began working with larger companies with more complex brand problems to solve. It was exhilarating to see the results we were achieving for our clients. The experience of being inside a company with that amount of momentum was thrilling.

Copperwing’s new building under construction

Copperwing’s new building under construction

Dad preparing the foundation
Copperwing Design

We expanded our talent base and our offering. In 2008, we built a new building designed especially for our needs. It was a designer’s dream to create my own space. I selected or approved every color, surface and fixture. My family encouraged me at every step. Dad introduced me to builder Warren Marshall of Marshall Design-Build. I still remember that Saturday meeting. I knew with Warren and my dad, I had the best possible guidance. My father and brother put in the foundation and dad helped oversee all aspects of the project. He and I disagreed only once during the entire process — whether or not to pressure wash the cobblestone on the building’s façade. Dad won and of course, he was right. The natural, rustic look of the stone is beautiful. We dedicated the building to my parents and Nell’s.

As we all experienced, 2008 turned out not to be a banner year for the U.S. economy. The bubble burst and we had to regroup, rethink and re-envision along with everyone else. I dug in. The following years made me a better businesswoman because they were not easy. I grew and learned a lot. I began to understand what my family would sometimes warn me of, saying that, “no matter how good you are at what you do, and no matter how hard you work, sometimes it is not enough.” They had survived the deep economic recession of the early 1980s and knew that outside forces can derail the best of business strategies.

Copperwing’s partners past and present (L-R: Angela Stiff, Brian Key, Nell Rankin)
As clients suffered the same affects, we were able to help them scale back and still be effective in their marketing. We diversified our offering by adding new services such as public relations, social media management, motion graphics and publication development. Future partner Brian Key joined us that year, another example that there is a bigger plan than we know. Thankfully, with prayer, continued hard work and careful budgeting, we waded out of the recession. With a renewed respect for businesses great and small, I felt more prepared than ever to help solve problems, brand businesses and help them get to where they wanted to be.

Looking back at our history, Copperwing has helped corporate brands clarify their voice, helped startups get off the ground and small businesses grow, raised public awareness of many worthy causes, ideas and initiatives, lifted up the voices of organizations that serve and protect children and worked to promote design as a respected applied art. Not bad. Not bad at all.

Our experience has taught us to look for alignment in culture and causes when deciding whom we work with and for. We look for those who share our values regarding business ethics. We look for those who are passionate about their brand. We not only market our client’s products and services but we use them too. They are ones in which we believe strongly. We’ve honed our service offering to the most useful and relevant tools and sharpened our skills in deconstructing and reconstructing brands.

I’ve grown considerably with each phase in our business’s life cycle. It’s made me a better listener, better designer and better ally to the people trying so hard to accomplish something unique with their business. I am amazed at the goals that we help our clients meet. And, I cannot imagine any group of people caring more about what happens in their client’s daily lives and in their customers’ lives than the team at Copperwing. They are truly special.

We put our families first. And, believe you should too. Client success is important but it’s also important how we achieve it. We communicate only truths. We tell clients what they need to hear, not what they want to hear. And we put the spotlight on you, not on us. Fewer clients. More personal attention. I think Jerry McGuire was on to something.

If you haven’t already picked up on this, I love this company. Truly love it. I believe in it. And, I am passionate about design. It is the foundation of everything. That’s exciting to me. It’s what’s there when there is nothing yet made, built or developed. I love that. I love a clean white sheet of paper because it’s full of potential. Design is the product of imagination and the beginning of great things to come.

© 1999 - Copperwing Design