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Mostly cloudy with some showers this afternoon. High 64F. Winds SSW at 5 to 10 mph. Chance of rain 40%..

Cloudy with periods of rain. Low around 50F. Winds WSW at 5 to 10 mph. Chance of rain 80%. Rainfall near a half an inch.

From left, Bryce Owen, Laura Thomson, Patricia Gatling, Martha Owen, Johnny Owen. Courtesy of Andrew Stilwell

Businesses have come and gone in Aberdeen over the last 40 years, but there has been one name when it comes to trophies, awards and engraving in the Moore County area over those years, and that’s Johnny Owen of Johnny O’s Awards.

“People say you’ve got it made with your own business — you should do what you want to and work half a day,” Owen said, “I say ‘yeah, I work half days. 12 hours!’ There has been a lot of satisfaction in the 40 years I’ve been in business! I think we’ve been good at locking in on what we can do well and not trying to do everything.”

Owen first got into the trophy business in 1979, while working for a friend who opened a trophy shop in the little Moore County community of Niagara. From the beginning, Owen was running the business and bought in as a partner in October 1979. After multiple partner/owners and multiple stores, Owen split off on his own in 1985 to create what is now known as Johnny O’s Awards.

“When I first started, I was making $7 an hour with a business degree from Carolina. It was my first job,” Owen said. “My dad used to say, ‘you’re going to make a living putting together trophies?’ He thought that was the dumbest thing. I had to work, and the profit margin was good enough to survive.”

Since then, Johnny O’s has grown into a family business, with Owen bringing in his wife Martha in 1994, and son Bryce following his graduation from North Carolina State University in 2016.

From left, Bryce Owen, Laura Thomson, Patricia Gatling, Martha Owen, Johnny Owen. Courtesy of Andrew Stilwell

“We all get along for the most part, and it’s not like we’re butting heads all the time,” Bryce said, on working in the family business. “When you spend that much time with anyone, much less your parents all the time, it can be difficult but it’s been good so far. We all do our own thing so it’s not like we’re all on top of each other all the time.”

Now retired, longtime employee Patricia Gatling knew Johnny Owen because her husband played sports with him. She learned a lot over her 13 years at the store.

“It was just learning the ‘right’ way they operated and the different things I did. As time went on, things began to grow, and I enjoyed it,” Gatling remembered. “The store really did expand a lot when I was there and they added new items for all the customers. Johnny O’s has had a lot of good clients over the years, too.”

What originally started as 70 percent trophy sales and 30 percent gift sales and engraving has now flipped to 30 percent trophies and 70 percent gifts and engraving.

“Fortunately, it’s gotten more into the ‘art’ of engraving, and the trophy part has faded down to more about quality than size, more into wood bases and the like,” Johnny remarked. “You still have your smaller ‘kids’ trophies, mostly plastic – they’ve gone the opposite direction from marble to plastic over that time, but with the millennials and parents these days, they are so used to buying on the internet, our business has fallen off a lot for supplying small trophies.”

“Another trend in the awards is going to more useful and practical items,” Martha added. “We do a lot of engraved cups for recognition or retirement, or clocks for employee of the year-type things, items that can be used for recognition or for gifts.”

While much of their business has local origins, Johnny O’s Awards has developed a more regional and, at times, national customer base.

Outside Moore County, Hoke County (NC) High School Athletic Director Gary Brigman has been looking to Johnny O’s for trophies and plaques for 15 years because of hometown business ethic. He is also the President of the Sandhills Athletic Conference, which covers schools in Cumberland, Hoke, Scotland, Richmond and Moore counties.

“One thing I enjoy about this company is that they are a family-owned business, and the folks there are very genuine,” Brigman added. “Both Johnny and Martha are sports-minded folks, and they understand what you want.

“Martha also has a knack for being very creative and actually helped come up with a new logo for our plaques when the conference was realigned. They also worked on another project for us and never missed a beat.”

“Some of the business is from people that have lived or worked here in the county and have moved and continue to use us as their supplier, and other business comes from our website, johnnyosawards.com, where people are just finding us online,” Martha said. “We have a customer database of more than 1,500 ‘regular’ customers. Our size allows us to give more personalized service that people appreciate.”

“One of the big areas we’ve expanded over the last couple of years has been the military business that we get,” Johnny said. “A lot of the people from Ft. Bragg are living in the local area, and they’ve found it’s easier to come here than to fight traffic in Fayetteville and near the base. They are definitely pleased with our work.”

Regardless of the product being produced for their customers, the Owen family was quick to point out advances in technology that have made their jobs significantly easier over the years.

“When I started in 1979, there wasn’t anything like computerized engraving,” Johnny explained. “It actually started after that in the early 80s. When computerized engraving first came out, like all computers, it was huge in size and it took forever to engrave one name tag. I remember going to a trade show in Atlanta, seeing a demonstration of a machine that was $30,000! It took forever to do a name tag so one year later they came out with a compact model that was $10,000 and did a great job. I bought one and kept it for 20 years probably.

“I’ve gone from that Pantograph machine to what’s called computerized engraving, and we have two of those machines and have a new one coming in to learn new software. It’s hard to teach old dogs new tricks, but I have to suck it up and do it,” he laughed.

“We had this one machine that you could only do one label at a time, and there were only certain sizes you could do,” Bryce said. “Now I use a laser the majority of the time, and with that you can theoretically set up 200-300 labels to go on trophies at one time. We can pretty much have that done in a couple of minutes by having it set up in the computer.

“I can now set up 200-300 tags for trophies, press ‘Go,’ and walk away, which will take 20-30 minutes to run. But I can be doing other things, like putting together plaques or running other machines, or proofing other things while the machine is running,” Bryce explained. “That would have taken 3-4 hours to do that if you had done it with a machine like a Pantograph, cutting your plates by hand and then engraving each one of them. It would take a long, long time to do.”

Bryce also operates the Sublimation equipment at Johnny O’s. With this equipment, he is able to add color to name tags and plaques while replicating logos and creating custom designs.

“It’s rewarding to us when we hear about a child getting a trophy for the first time and how excited they were about it and how much it meant to them,” Martha said. “When somebody gets recognized for something they did and were not expecting it, we mention it to them after the fact, and they say ‘you already knew?’ It’s a fun business to be in, and rewarding to see a picture in the paper and knowing you made that plaque or trophy.”

But now the question becomes: after 40 successful years of entrepreneurship, what does the future hold for Johnny O’s Awards? Johnny hopes to keep it in the family by passing the business down to his son.

“I know many of my friends who retired five or 10 years ago and are living the dream,” Johnny smiled. “I don’t really see a pathway for that. I would like to start cutting back, and that’s our plan. I’d like to think Martha and Bryce will keep the business going and hire new people.”

“I guess you’d have to ask Bryce, he’d probably change the sign out front for one thing!” Johnny said with a laugh.

“Bryce is the type who could do it right now, he could hire people to move on with it,” he continued. “He’s smart and he has a good work ethic, and the things that he mentions that I do that he can’t do, he could learn that pretty quickly if he wanted to. Probably if he wanted to, he’d be able to eliminate some of the stuff that I’m doing. If we gave it to him today and said, ‘we’re not coming back in’, he’d be fine.”

“I enjoy it, it’s something different every day, and owning your own business, there are a lot of freedoms that other people don’t get to enjoy,” he said.

“There are times you have to step up and do what you have to do. You can’t always do what you want, but sometimes you can.”

That is the personal service – doing what you have to do for the customer –which has made Johnny O’s a successful business.

While the future is bright at Johnny O’s Awards, Johnny is clearly reflective on how the last 40 years has treated him and his family.

“It’s a big accomplishment to say you’ve started something from scratch. We didn’t buy the store from someone else, one that was already started,” he added. “We’re not celebrating our years on top of others years that someone else started.”

I used Johnny's for awards when I was the AD at Pinecrest HS and always found the staff very cordial and professional and always produced outstanding awards.

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