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Posted: October 01, 2008

Executive edge: Mark and Annie Danielson

Trinidad couple's ventures helped fulfill vision of downtown

Lynn Bronikowski

When Mark and Annie Danielson returned to Trinidad in 1990, the mine was closing and 40 percent of the people were on some kind of government assistance. Trinidad was a virtual ghost town.

Annie’s father, a local pastor, spoke passionately from the pulpit about how poverty breaks the human spirit, and the couple, who had married in 1985, knew it was time to come home.

"We asked ourselves, ‘How can we be part of the solution?’" Mark Danielson said. "We felt we could bring new life here."

Annie brought her skills as a product developer for a greeting card company and Mark his woodworking skills. Within a year they formed Danielson Designs, an environmentally sensitive manufacturer of decorative signs and photo frames that today boasts annual sales of $10 million through more than 4,500 independent retailers across the U.S. and Canada.

"We wanted to make a difference as well as a profit," Annie said. "We wanted to offer opportunity — our corporate love offering."

They started out small — taking a handful of Annie’s frames to a trade show; working round-the-clock around a kitchen table to crank out designs; scrounging for boxes from a grocery store to ship their products down 12 miles of dirt road to get to UPS.

They went from hand painting their designs to silk-screening them and in 1996 began construction of a modern high-tech plant that today is one of Southern Colorado’s largest employers, with 85 on staff. The plant is just off Interstate 25, and UPS and FedEx trucks line up each day to ship hundreds of products constructed from recycled compressed wood.

"There’s a ripple effect as more jobs are created from our being here," Annie said. "FedEx told us they were able to start here because of our business."

As the company grew, the Danielsons started a unique profit-sharing program in which 10 percent of pre-tax profits are put into a virtual bucket. Each time the bucket fills to a predetermined level, it "dumps" and the profits are distributed to employees.

"Their share is not based on salary or title but on how long they’ve worked here, so someone working in shipping can receive more profit-sharing dollars than managers," Mark said. "We offer chances for people to increase their skills and grow with the company."

The Danielsons also donate $4,000 to dig a water well in Africa every time their virtual bucket dumps. In 2007, they dug 10 wells serving more than 150,000 villagers.

"As the economic outlook of Trinidad improved, we wanted to pay it forward," Mark said.

In 1998, the Danielsons turned their vision to helping revitalize downtown Trinidad, converting a five-and-dime store in the heart of Trinidad into Danielson Dry Goods and The Café, and they helped found a professional repertory theater company.

For all their efforts, Danielson Designs won a Stevie Award for Best Corporate Social Responsibility Program for companies with fewer than 100 employees in The 2008 American Business Awards.

"We were proud to win the award, but most of all we love Trinidad and wanted to be part of revitalizing this historic town," Annie said. "We felt we could bring new life here, and it’s great to see our vision come to life."

Lynn Bronikowski is a freelance writer in Denver.

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