Sticky Business: Working to the highest standard

By Lauren Jefferson | December 13th, 2018

Joel Gross ’76 owns a vinyl graphics business in Conley, Georgia. He and his wife Karen are both EMU graduates, as are their son Conrad ’09 and daughter Amanda ’06, MA ’13 (counseling).

EVEN THOUGH he used to be a social worker in Atlanta, Joel Gross ’76 says his more recent decades as a business owner have “enabled me to do more for people than I ever did while working as a social worker.”

Both he and his wife Karen Kurtz Gross ’75 share an entrepreneurial spirit and community-oriented values. The couple met while in voluntary service in Durham, North Carolina, in 1970 and moved to Atlanta after graduation to work with Mennonite Central Committee.

In 1990, Karen co-founded a fair-trade retail business that eventually joined Ten Thousand Villages, raising more than $3 million to benefit global artisans by the time it closed in February 2018. Joel left his job with Atlanta’s Community Relations Commission in 1981 to start a graphics installation company that has grown into a thriving full-service graphics company.

Thirteen people, including several who have been with him for nearly 20 years, work with Gross from the Sticky Business headquarters in an industrial park near the Atlanta airport. There, he is able to “do more” by empowering his employees through on-the-job training and off-site educational opportunities, as well as offering mentorship and a community-oriented faith-filled support network.

“Our management team comes from diverse backgrounds but we all are believers,” he said. “We want to glorify Christ through the business; it’s the core and center of who we are.”

As he leads a tour through the multi-bay warehouse, Gross introduced each person by name, stopping to share a joke or two, but also to point out their expertise. The business, he knows, would not be successful without their shared dedication and skill.

Joel Gross, with two of his 13 employees, has been influential in creating professional, ethical and educational standards for the vinyl graphics industry. He has also provided leadership for the area business community and as a mentor in his church.

“This is not something everyone can do,” he said, stopping to admire a work in progress with an employee he joking calls “The Old Pro.”

“This is a craft. The conditions, the type of vinyl, the temperature – all these things change how the vinyl behaves, so this work requires someone who can adapt and adjust and has a good knowledge of just how far the material can be stretched. Ae [pronounced air] can do amazing things with vinyl, he’s been doing it so long. His signature is like calligraphy. Ae is also a musician, too, and an artist in what he does here.”

Clients look to Sticky Business for an astonishing range of products and applications. During the months surrounding Atlanta’s hosting of the 1996 Olympics, approximately 80 employees worked at Sticky Business, with 35 dedicated to installing special graphics on more than 1,500 buses.

His employees have designed, printed and installed vinyl graphics on boats, box trucks, cars, trucks, and trailers, as well as pianos, ATM machines, pedestrian bridges, roller coaster cars, Turner Stadium’s outfield walls and giant ceremonial baseballs.

Sticky Business prides itself on good customer service, a quality that Gross says has always set him apart. “I was a good old Mennonite boy,” he said, of his first days in the business. “I would tell people, ‘I am coming to your place on Tuesday,’ and I would show up on Tuesday and they thought I was a rock star because they were comparing me with people who would tell them they would be there on Tuesday but they wouldn’t tell them Tuesday of what month.”

An early advocate of professionalizing the industry, he is a founding member of the Professional United Application Standards Group, an association of 3M-certified installation companies. Members send their installers to complete training and testing at 3M’s headquarters to meet industry standards. It’s another opportunity for Gross to help his employees develop their skills and also provides opportunities for industry networking.

Gross would be the first to claim no special business skills – “You make many, many mistakes – and you hope they’re not fatal – until you are able to find and hire good people to do the things you can’t do,” he said.

Bending his attention towards leadership for the common good, however, comes naturally.

As past president of the Conley Area Business Association, he helped to launch a feasibility study that resulted in the new Greater Conley Industrial Community Improvement District. He now chairs the district’s volunteer board, which works to improve the area’s business environment by addressing safety and security concerns and infrastructure improvements through partnerships with the county, state and adjacent neighbor- hoods. The CID is funded by the area’s property owners through a voluntary tax levy.

Gross also volunteers as a mentor – and a mentor to the mentors – at North Point Community Ministries’ Buckhead Church, and he counts these relationships with men to be among his greatest rewards.

His independence as a “small” business owner undergirds all of these endeavors, Gross says. “If you want to do good things and make an impact, small business is where it’s at,” he said. Through Sticky Business, he can work to create beneficial situations in which his employees can be successful; their successes, in turn, motivate and free him.

“Lord knows, I’ve made mistakes and had to apologize,” he said. “We’re all imperfect, but we strive to represent our Lord to the best of who we are in what we do every day.”

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