What neighborhood do you come from? We all have neighborhoods that we are born in, grow up in, move away from and move into, and they are all unique. They all have a personality defined by the people who live in them and an appearance formed with the buildings, homes and businesses built into their foundation. Neighborhoods are what we are a part of whether we're at home resting, at work working, at a restaurant eating dinner or shopping for the groceries to make dinner with. Our neighborhoods are our communities.
In the Bronx of New York, they know something about neighborhoods. They're important here. And in that neighborhood, a man named Raymond Ramirez and a business named Raymond's Trophy Center have become a big part of the community.
Raymond was born in Puerto Rico 76 years ago, and he spent his childhood growing up on that beautiful island with wonderful weather. As a young man Raymond joined the Army, which took him to Panama and then took him to the Korean Peninsula to fight in the Korean War.
After the war, Raymond went back to Puerto Rico and raised his family while working for the Post Office, where he worked for 30 years. While Raymond was still working for the Post Office, he started his own sports business. He sold sports clothing, sports equipment and outsourced his engraving for awards. In 1973, Raymond decided to do the engraving himself, and he bought a New Hermes Engravograph.
He has been engraving ever since. In 1982, when Raymond moved his wife, Carmen, his two daughters, Maria and Carmacita, to the Bronx, he brought the business with him. His eldest son, Ramon, remained in Puerto Rico. After moving the business to New York Raymond quickly realized that this was fast becoming a great way to prepare a supplement for his retirement of 30 years with the Post Office.
Why move? Raymond left the quiet beauty of Puerto Rico for the opportunity of a better education for his children in one of the greatest cities in the world, New York City.
New York City is also one of the most expensive cities in the world, and its most valuable commodity is space.
Space is so astronomically expensive and difficult to get a hold of in the Big Apple that many professionals have taken to purchasing very large apartments and separating them, so that part of the space is used as a home, and the other part is used to operate a business. Doctors, lawyers, dentists and psychologists do this, and Raymond does this as well.
When the houses and building in the Bronx were built, they were homes for the wealthy and affluent. As time passed, the rich moved on to other areas, and others moved into the Bronx.
However, the rows of red brick buildings still stand strong, and their apartments are still large. In the business half of his apartment, Raymond has more room than most retail locations in his neighborhood, with an office and showroom, a warehouse and a workroom.
As stated earlier, Raymond bought his first New Hermes Engravograph in 1973. What was not stated was that he used the manual machine predominately throughout the 70s, 80s and the first half of the 90s, until 1995. That was around the time that Raymond's son-in-law, Tom DeMartino, came into the family when he married Maria. Tom has a background in computers, and he quickly saw that his knowledge would come in handy for Raymond's Trophy Center.
Tom quickly became a big help. He was also a big help in the interview for this article. Raymond speaks good English, but not as well as he speaks Spanish, besides which, an accent founded in Puerto Rico and finished in the Bronx is not easy for someone with a Western accent to understand.
Tom noted that, "Raymond worked for over twenty years with a manual machine, which you can imagine would be very difficult. Just think of the time needed. He was building the business and getting more and more customers; the poor man was up 24 hours a day."
The poor man was up 24 hours a day because after he retired, Raymond's small, supplemental business turned into a growing, full-time effort. The time for an upgrade in equipment was long overdue.
"Raymond started with his first computerized engraver when I came into the family. It was something he obviously needed because he was so busy, and the manual machine just took so much time. With my background in computers, we explored the world of computerized engraving, and the New Hermes 3400 was the first rotary machine that we bought," said Tom.
As you might imagine, the effects were profound and fast in coming about.
"In terms of customer service alone, it really helped out a lot, because he could turn things around much quicker. It also helped in terms of the artistic aspect of it, being able to offer different fonts and logos and being able to engrave different types of metals, whether it be brass or aluminum or even plastic," said Tom.
The most significant product of the new machinery was time itself. Raymond says that the rotary engraver afforded him a lot more time to work on building the business, time to offer even better service, time to be more creative, and of course, a little time to rest in between.
He liked his new machine because it was so much faster and easier to use, two excellent aspects. But Raymond also considers himself an artisan, and the part he loved was the ability to personalize more creatively with fonts and logos, something the Engravograph simply couldn't offer.
"The manual's a dinosaur now," said Raymond.
In the learning curve that comes about when you make the switch from working with a dinosaur to a machine on the leading edge of technology, Raymond got some help from Tom and Maria-who also has a background in computers.
"Raymond was pretty much computer illiterate when we got started. But he picked up the basics very quickly. We gave him the tools to have a foundation to use his machine, but it was really the people at New Hermes who helped him the most," said Tom. He added that, "They were really excited about working with us when they saw the dinosaur. I think they wanted to buy it."
Years later, Raymond's Trophy Center now has two laser engravers from Universal Laser Systems and a sublimation system (with George Knight heat presses and Sublijet inks), in addition to the New Hermes' 3400.
Oddly, after using the Engravograph for more than twenty years, it was Raymond who made the decision to purchase more equipment.
"Although many of these accoutrements were quite expensive, Raymond was never fearful of going forward. I think we all, including myself, were wary of the pricing and reluctant to get involved with a $25,000 laser engraver or a $12,000 rotary engraver. We were all very concerned about the cost of these machines, but Raymond never wavered. His philosophy is to move ahead and give the best quality and better customer service as soon as possible. Raymond says the customers always want more, and his philosophy is that if you have the right tools, a diverse set of tools, you can do more work at a higher quality and make more money. But it wasn't just about the money, it was also about giving the customers the ability to come in and constantly see new things," said Tom. He adds that all of the equipment has already paid for itself.
However the Engravograph is kept ready, just in case.
After adding the new machines, Tom said the business gained many customers simply by being able to offer a much more diverse product line: acrylic, wood, leather and glass. All these items converted their product line into a very broad spectrum business.
Yet even in a vast selection of products, one will sell more than all the others, and for Raymond's Trophy Center, that item is the plaque.
"Raymond is really a professional when it comes to plaques. Again, this is an art to him, so his plaques usually have a lot of extras that most just don't come with. It's not just a plate on a piece of wood. Raymond adds different coloring and different accessories to the plaques. He adds gold ivy, several different color plates; he mixes and matches," said Tom.
"I'm very good at what I do in terms of the computer, and I work the laser very well. But, Raymond is a perfectionist and has taught me to have a better eye. You don't just give a piece of wood to somebody and say, 'Here you go.' There are probably 50 details that Raymond will go through on a plaque to make sure that it's exactly correct. Some of them are so detailed that I'm amazed he even has the time to create them. He definitely gives 100-percent quality to the customers, all of the time," added Tom.
No one will buy your products or visit your business if they don't about your business and products, but advertising is expensive, especially in New York.
How did Raymond establish his marketing in the concrete jungle? Through grassroots. Raymond used to hand out fliers at the ballparks and introduce himself to the teams. From there, it was all word of mouth.
"Raymond really didn't need any kind of advertising. Initially, his advertising was done through the people he met at church and other events. Recently, we've started using local newspapers, and we're connected to a lot of local churches, and churches have newsletters that they send out. But as Raymond says, the best advertising is the people," said Tom.
At some point, we all ask ourselves why we're doing the work we do. We may or may not be happy with the answers to those questions. Yet we continue to work regardless of those answers, because for most of us, quitting is not an option. But what if it was, or what if retirement was an option?
Raymond is 76 years old. He no longer needs to work, so why does he?
"Raymond told me that he now has such close-knit contact with the churches, the Puerto Rican Day Parade, the police department, the fire department, colleges, local Hispanic organizations, yacht clubs, Knights of Columbus, veterans organizations and little league, that at this particular point, he really feels like he has a special place in the community, and he wants to continue to help those people and continue to work within what he really believes is an art. Raymond says that what he really wants to do is help people. Besides the art side of this business, he really loves the contact with people. This is what really keeps him alive and well. He says it keeps him young, and he feels like he's making a contribution to the community," said Tom.
Raymond's Trophy Center is located near Fordham Road off the Grand Concourse. It's very close to Yankee Stadium, very centralized in the Bronx. Center is good for Raymond, because with all of the different people and groups he works with, he needs to be centralized.
The local churches are one of Raymond's favorite groups to work with. Those are Methodist, Presbyterian and Pentecostal churches.
"There are several different churches and denominations in the Bronx, but they're all pretty much connected, and even though the Bronx is huge, in the area where Raymond works, everything is connected in its own way. It's not just the churches, either; it's the schools, the civil servants, little league, etc." said Tom.
Raymond also enjoys working with the Puerto Rican Day Parade.
Tom explained, "There are actually several parades. There's an International Day Parade, but they're broken down into the Puerto Rican Day Parade, the Honduras Day Parade, the Dominican Day Parade. The parades are huge because they give you so many opportunities to make new connections."
For the Puerto Rican Day Parade, Raymond does very large acrylics and trophies, five to six feet tall. Maria added that it's not just a parade; it's an event. "We also do the banquet awards and handle the pageants. There are three beauty pageants, from the little girls to the teenagers."
She also noted that the events are covered in the newspapers and local TV. "A lot of politicians (Raymond made plaques for former NYC mayor Rudy Guliani) are involved in the Puerto Rican Day Parade, and they get awards, so we've seen these awards on the news a number of times."
Part of Raymond's ability to connect with his community so well comes from his own heritage. According to Tom, "The demographics of the area are largely Hispanic. Amazingly enough, the Hispanic population probably makes up 75 percent of the Bronx right now. The connection that Raymond has with that community is immense, and it really branches out into politics and into many other areas that he covers."
Talking about the place that Raymond has in his community, Tom said that, "It's hard to articulate. Having the gregarious personality that he does, and being the kind of person who's unafraid to get involved into different areas of the community, being a veteran, being a religious man, Raymond just does a fantastic job of reaching out to the community and making great contacts. People really gravitate to him."
At 76, Raymond is still going strong. He loves his work, and he loves his place in his community, his neighborhood. What's next for Raymond? He'll create more plaques and trophies, giving each one the time and care it needs. Best of all, there will be more people for Raymond to meet, and therefore more people to get to know in his community, his neighborhood.
However, something new is coming up around the corner. Soon, Raymond's Trophy Center II (www.raymondstrophycenter.com) will opening in Yorktown Heights, a suburb of New York, where Tom lives. With the new store will come another opportunity for someone else to get to know their community. He is not alone; all across the country, people are starting new businesses. Best of luck to you all, and may your business be as rewarding to you as Raymond's has been to him.