Icehouse to idea hub: Marlin family’s legacy fuels Springfield’s innovation | efactory

Icehouse to idea hub: Marlin family's legacy fuels Springfield's innovation | efactory

Brick City: Where history meets hustle. Those that work at efactory’s Brick City coworking space marvel at the perfection of it daily. Though we made some cosmetic changes and necessary networking upgrades to the space as we moved in, it was as though it was built for us. But it wasn’t. In fact, it has a long history – all tied up with one family that now calls efactory their office. We’re talking about Dennis and Jeff Marlin. Jeff owns Incent Foodservice Rewards, which operates out of efactory at the Robert W. Plaster Free Enterprise Center. Dennis, who owned and operated Marlin Company then later the Marlin Network, works alongside him. At Marlin, Dennis established a strong tie to Missouri State University as he found approximately 40% of his talented staff straight out of the graphic design, advertising, computer science and marketing programs. He knew that many of them desired an urban metropolis agency experience, and he worked hard to create that aspirational space in their location at Brick City 3. Now, there are still small nods to Marlin throughout. The Marlin Odyssey Cafe sign still hangs in the kitchen. Artwork from a few campaigns are scattered in the workroom. A stencil about being creative still glimmers down almost imperceptibly from the wall. And the biggest piece of all – the table made with ice hooks as its legs – still gleams as a gathering spot as you enter. “Somebody should have taken that table with them, but when we built out the third floor, we brought it in with a crane. There’s no way you’re going to get that thing out of there,” Dennis reminisces. “It became kind of a focal point for people to gather around, talk and look at work.” History If you’ve not seen it, the table is referential to the building’s history. The complex known as Brick City was owned and operated by Springfield Ice and Refrigerator Company, a cold storage warehouse. Brick City 3 was constructed in 1914. And that icehouse? Dennis’ grandfather once worked there, too. So, the tie to downtown is strong. Multiple generations of Marlins have worked in the IDEA Commons area. But IDEA Commons wouldn’t be where it is today without a large investment in filling Brick City. “The fact that the university is very vested in this whole area, in giving back, and because of my ties to downtown, I was happy to invest in Brick City,” Dennis said. He began his career at Heer’s department store, and always felt it would be cool to have an old building downtown. The security and resources that came with occupying a building owned by the university certainly sweetened the deal. The close proximity to the students he was recruiting obviously helped, too. New beginnings After 30 years of Marlin, Dennis sold the company when an offer was placed on the proverbial table. As an ESOP, or Employee Stock Ownership Plan, he felt like it was the best thing to do for his employees, since it would give them each a check when he sold. For another year, Jeff stayed on running Star Rewards, one of the six companies under the Marlin Network umbrella. Then he got the entrepreneurship bug and decided to start on his own. “When both your grandfather and your father owned businesses, it’s natural, right? I always thought that I might want to try to do the same thing at some point,” Jeff said. Jeff began food service marketing in 2005, and then during his last five years at Marlin, Jeff took over Star Awards, which was a food service rewards program. When he left Marlin to begin Incent, he transferred his knowledge of the industry to build something on his own. Starting in a downtown loft, Jeff started Incent to offer foodservice manufacturers the ability to have their own branded rewards program to incentivize foodservice operators for purchasing their products as well as their sales force for selling those products. Incent is a software as a service company, offering the manufacturer the software to run their branded rewards program as well as managing their customer service needs. When Josh Holstein, an efactory member, told him about efactory, he was hooked and moved in. “There are so many resources here I can tap,” Jeff said. “I get to network with small businesses, and I’ve freelanced some of our work to businesses in the efactory.” In addition to being less expensive than the loft, it was also enticing that “you get to feel like a bigger business even as you’re running a small business, with access to the conference rooms and all the spaces,” he added. In their DNA Dennis’ father, who owned a trucking business, had instilled in him two pieces of advice that stuck with him. Find the part of the country that you’d like the most, find the best job you possibly can get there, do the best job you can with it, and you’ll be happy. If you’re going to start your own business, think of it as a job that you can’t quit, and you’ll figure out how to survive. Both Dennis and Jeff have now done more than survive. They have run – and are running – successful startups and businesses. Besides the consistent thread of the connection to downtown, they both would tell you that relationships are the most valuable part of business. For Jeff, that’s the relationships he builds with his customer base and salespeople. He listens to what they need and adapts as times change. This was especially true during the COVID pandemic when universities shuttered, and restaurants did not need to order as much food supply either. The foodservice rewards programs had to adapt to reflect the market. In Dennis’ case, it was valuing the employees, no matter if they were an intern or a senior account executive. “I started the business very philosophically, with the idea that the worth of the business is the employees. I wanted to create an environment that allowed creativity to flourish,” Dennis said. This is evident in Brick City (remember that stenciled quote that we mentioned glimmering on the wall). But it’s also important to him that it’s represented in MSU’s Glass Hall room that bears his name, Marlin Think Tank for Creative Thinking in Business. “We valued the ideas, even if it was an intern who had the idea,” he said. “We would allow that intern to present his own ideas to clients. Basically, long-term, it all boiled down to recognizing the worth of people.”