Each year, the Centralia- Chehalis Chamber of Commerce keeps its business of the year a tightly guarded secret — making the presentation of the award at its annual banquet an often emotional surprise for the recipient.
This year, Tom Alderson’s love of high school sports threatened to throw a wrench in that plan.
Alderson recounted a conversation with Alicia Bull, executive director of the Chamber of Commerce. She asked, Alderson said, if he was planning on going to the banquet.
“I go, ‘Well you know I’m a pretty big basketball fan and I’ll probably be going to the local Tigers’ game,’ ” Alderson said last week in an interview with The Chronicle.
The Chamber had no choice but to spoil the surprise, he said, but the advance notice didn’t diminish his gratitude.
“I think a tear leaked out, to be honest,” he said.
On Friday, Jan. 17, Alderson’s Awards West Printwares was officially named the Centralia-Chehalis Chamber of Commerce’s business of the year.
The recognition from his fellow Lewis County business owners is much appreciated, Alderson told The Chronicle.
“Obviously it’s a wonderful honor,” he said. “Without a doubt, as a business it’s our biggest honor.”
Bull said the business is an original Chamber member, and was chosen as Business of the Year by Chamber President Bob Jackins in part because of their dedication to giving back to the community through sponsorships and donations.
“We see Alderson’s as the ultimate choose local business, which is a campaign we wholeheartedly support,” Bull said. “Their love for our community, their work ethic and their business’s presence in our community are all things we want to celebrate!”
The Alderson family has been at the helm of the business for 34 years.
Tom Alderson grew up in Lewis County, and after graduating from college came back to work for the county’s parks department.
However, a former boss and mentor — area business owner Bill Conrad — had inspired Alderson years earlier to pursue owning his own business.
“As a high schooler I went to work for Bill,” Alderson said. “It was awesome. He was a mentor of mine and someone I highly admired.”
After five years in the parks department, Alderson made the move into private business, becoming a partner in what was then known as Awards West, owned by Pat Swanson.
The pair spent 10 years running the business together before Alderson and his family took it over.
Today, Alderson’s wife Karen and son Alex still work at the business. His daughters, and now his grandchildren have all also been regular fixtures at the shop over the years.
“They all grew up at the shop,” he said. “My oldest daughter works full time and her grandson goes to school but we’re able to bring him up every day and bring him here for a couple of hours until she gets off work. There’s a lot of hard work and disadvantages to owning a business. There are certainly advantages. I would say that is a big one for us.”
The transition from the parks department to being a business owner wasn’t easy, Alderson said, remembering times he worked 24 to 36 hours straight to fill a large order, and other long days in difficult conditions.
“I was used to moderately long days but when we started it was still a relatively new business and we were developing it and pushing it and expanding it,” he said. “It was an adjustment for all of us.”
When Alderson came in as a partner, the business focused mostly on awards and trophies. Since then, they’ve diversified to add custom screen printing, embroidery, engraving and other services.
The business started at a location in downtown Centralia, but outgrew that location and moved to its current space at 1124 Kresky Avenue in 1987. Alderson said the Voetberg family built the building, then gave the business a good deal on a lease-to-own arrangement.
“We did all of the inside work, all of the finish work ourselves,” he said
That was in the evening — after a full day spent running the business. Today, Alderson’s Awards West has 16 employees, many of whom have been with the business for decades.
“(The Voetberg family) made it so affordable and so attractive for us to do this,” he said. “Well beyond a normal tenant-landlord situation. They really had a heart for helping. … We’ve been blessed.”
Alderson gives much of the credit for his family business’s success to his employees, but also credited his loyal customer base.
“The majority of them are just wonderful people and we’ve been fortunate to get to know some of them really well and those have turned into friendships, if not employees,” he said.
Today, in a position to give back, Alderson’s Awards West does so often and with enthusiasm. The business sponsors sports teams, but Alderson said the business gets almost as much benefit from that as the team, through name recognition.
What he gets really excited about are opportunities to give one-on-one. The business often helps with fundraisers for children with medical issues. One particular memorable donation came after devastating flooding in Texas in 2016.
“We wanted to do something,” Alderson said.
The business reached out to its vendors and businesses in the printing field in Texas to see if everyone was alright. Their Texas contacts reached out, and the Aldersons learned a woman who worked at a similar business named Tuffy had been flooded out of her home. On the spot, the business sent “Tuffy in Texas” $1,000.
Later, employees raised another $500 for Tuffy.
“I think that was one of the … neater things that we did,” Alderson said.
Closer to home, the business sells screen-printed shirts reading “Thankful,” and donates the proceeds to the Lewis County Food Bank Coalition and the United Way. Alderson said the business stands behind United Way of Lewis County’s effort to lift 30 percent of county residents out of poverty by 2030.
“We really like the United Way’s (30 by 2030) poverty initiative,” he said. “We think it’s the long term solution, but we also realize people have immediate needs. The food bank takes care of that.”