Creating an image

Zoar, Ohio, is the kind of place that attracts day-tripping history buffs like Don Whitemyer. The little village, nestled in the rolling hills south of Canton, was founded in 1817 by German separatists who created a communal society that prospered until the turn of the last century.

The architectural remnants of that settlement, largely undisturbed by residential and commercial development, inspire entrepreneurial types to conjure up visions of opening a cozy bed-and-breakfast, an antique shop, maybe a restaurant serving homestyle dinners that taste like Mom’s own. Starting an advertising agency — or anything that doesn’t cater to the tourist trade, for that matter — does not come to mind.

After all, the only traffic in this “mini Williamsburg,” as one man calls it, appears to be that created by Sunday drivers.

But in 1971, Whitemyer opened a full-service business-to-business advertising agency here that has thrived for 30 years, much to the surprise of friends and former business associates. Last year Whitemyer Advertising did more than $18 million in capitalized billings. Today’s high-tech communications minimize, if not eliminate altogether, any geographical barriers, as executive vice president Tom Simmelink points out.

At the time he started his business, those barriers still existed. But the 64-year-old Whitemyer believes the agency’s unusual location has, in fact, contributed to its growth. Even in the early days, clients were eager to travel to Zoar, if for no other reason than to get out of the office.

“When I chose to come here in the first place, I was not oblivious to the fact that it would actually be an enhancement and not a deterring factor,” he says. “I felt at the time that it was much smarter to start an advertising agency in a place like Zoar than it was in a place, let’s say, like Cleveland, Akron or Canton, which would be the normal thing that someone might do. I felt strongly that it was going to call attention to us and be important to our success.”

Whitemyer came up with idea of owning an “agency in the woods” while he was working as an account executive at the now-defunct Cleveland advertising agency Fuller, Smith & Ross.

“I was born and raised on a dairy farm in Louisville, Ohio, and lived on the farm as a young man,” Whitemyer says. “Of course, I couldn’t wait to live in the city. But as soon as I got to Cleveland, I decided that I wanted to go back to the country. In the process of looking at several different places, Zoar popped up.”

The name of the town on an exit sign caught Whitemyer’s eye while he was driving from Columbus to Cleveland on Interstate 77. He remembered passing through Zoar as a teen-ager on Sunday drives with his parents, and, curious, he got off the highway and headed southeast.

“I looked around the little village and said, ‘Hey, that’s the place to be.'”

In Zoar, Whitemyer found “a nice combination of history, country and strategic location.” The nearby freeway provided easy access to Columbus, Cleveland, Akron, Canton and Pittsburgh, as well as the Akron-Canton Regional Airport — a benefit many out-of-the-way sites did not offer. Whitemyer announced his plans to friends and co-workers in February 1971.

“Most of my friends thought I had completely lost my mind,” he recalls. “I remember one of the VPs at the agency where I was employed went to great lengths to save me from myself. He recruited an agency client, a bank president, to talk some sense into me. Obviously, it didn’t work.”

A few months later, Whitemyer Advertising was operating out of Whitemyer’s new home, an efficiency apartment just outside of Zoar. He decided to stick to business-to-business advertising instead of pursuing retail or regional consumer advertising — areas in which he began his career and really enjoyed — because that’s where “the real money in advertising in (the Northeast Ohio) market is.”

His first customer was the TRW Automotive Replacement Division, a client of Fuller, Smith & Ross’ which threw special projects his way. Soon after, Whitemyer was chosen as the agency of record by Invincible Vacuum, a manufacturer of industrial vacuum systems located in Dover. Winning the account was a particularly sweet victory because Whitemyer had to compete against his former employer for it.

The following year, Whitemyer received calls from Merit Plastics in Dover, Ray C. Call Inc. in Canton and Rog-Win Construction in Bolivar after a story on the agency ran in a New Philadelphia newspaper.

“All of those companies are gone today, but they provided a sound business foundation at the time,” Whitemyer says.

Over the years, the agency has built a client roster that includes Marlite, a maker of interior wall products in Dover; Gradall, a manufacturer of construction equipment in New Philadelphia; Marsh Industries, a producer of blackboards, pegboards, etc. in New Philadelphia; Dover Chemical; Allied Machine and Engineering in Dover; the Kimble Mixer Co., a manufacturer of cement mixers in New Philadelphia; Kidron Inc., a manufacturer of refrigerated and dry-freight truck bodies and trailers; JRB Corp., a maker of couplers and attachments for backhoes in Akron; Royal Sheen Products, a producer of car wash chemicals in Canton; the Seaman Corp., a maker of high-performance industrial fabrics in Wooster; and Fasteners for Retail, a producer of retail display fixtures and hardware in Cleveland.

Whitemyer points out that many of these companies are a short drive from Zoar.

“Frankly, there’s more business-to-business business out there that we haven’t even touched,” he says. “There’s tremendous growth potential in our own back yard.”

Although Simmelink says most of the agency’s clients are in Ohio, it does do business over state lines. Two of Whitemyer’s biggest customers are NSK Bearings, headquartered in Ann Arbor, Mich., and McConnellsburg, Pa.-based JLG Industries, which Simmelink describes as the world’s largest manufacturer of aerial work platforms. The agency landed the latter’s business after JLG acquired another Whitemyer client, Gradall.

According to Simmelink, the agency utilizes direct mailings and advertising — including a billboard at Akron-Canton Regional Airport — in its quest for customers. He says Whitemyer is able to attract large corporations by demonstrating a strong commitment to understanding their needs, an effort that results in a closeness that builds long-lasting relationships.

“We actually become, in many cases, members of their internal team,” he says. “We are typically invited to their sales meetings, strategic planning sessions, trade shows. Sometimes we’re asked to provide some market intelligence work, some comparative analysis. … We get involved, and we make suggestions.”

As the agency increased its business, Whitemyer kept moving it to larger quarters — a couple of rooms rented in a private home, a new house he built, space leased in the historic red-brick Zoar Hotel. Around 1980, Whitemyer purchased a building that once housed the German separatists’ print shop.

The agency has since expanded and taken over a neighboring structure known as The Hermitage, a building Whitemyer says influential Cleveland businessman Alexander Gunn purchased from settlers and used as a country retreat.

“I am sort of obsessed with him,” Whitemyer admits. “My own personal office is in The Hermitage, and I sit here and can’t help but delve into his past. I’ve been doing major research, trying to find out more about him.”

Simmelink says the old print shop, like the village it’s located in, may be one of the agency’s greatest assets.

“Every agency obviously wants to set itself apart from every other agency in terms of its thinking and capabilities,” he says. “When a person walks into an 1817 log cabin that’s decorated with furniture created in the same period, they can’t help but get the idea that something different is going on here.”

The place is so inviting that clients have called Simmelink and asked to use his office for the day.

That “something different” has also helped attract quality workers. Some commute from the Akron/Canton area; others have taken up residence closer to Zoar. Simmelink describes the agency’s 25 employees as a young, athletic group that enjoys the natural environment.

“It’s a very tranquil place, very conducive to the creative process,” Whitemyer says.

Another perk is the boss’s habit of treating the work force to a wide range of leisure activities, which he believes helps break down barriers to creative thinking. Cleveland Indians’ home openers are celebrated with cookouts on Whitemyer’s 20-acre farm. On a recent afternoon, he closed the office and took everyone to the movies.

And in May, employees and their spouses/significant others went to Cleveland for the weekend, where they checked into the Ritz-Carlton, went to a play and took in an Indians game. The question, “Why do you do it?” surprises Whitemyer, even in this age of employee benefit cuts.

“The people who work here are pretty much considered to be family,” he says. “We work very hard together, and we like to play hard together. We put a premium on enjoying what we do for living. That’s just how the business was founded.” How to reach: Whitemyer Advertising Inc., (330) 874-2432