From selling baseball gloves out of the trunk of his car to owning and operating the largest print and embroidery business in all of Puerto Rico, Rondapro’s Charlie Ronda has always been able to find success every step of the way.
Growing up in a baseball family, it didn’t take long for Ronda to start a revenue stream centered around the sport. A friend loaned Ronda $1,000 and he used that money to buy baseball gloves from Mexico.
After finding some success with that endeavor, Ronda starting taking T-Shirt orders and took them to his friend to be printed. After doing that for a while, however, Ronda knew it was time to take his business to the next level.
“I had a friend who used to have an embroidery shop,” Ronda said. “When I started, I took my stuff to him. I sold 15 shirts and I took them to him. He printed for me and then I came back and got him another order. Then when I decided to open the shop, I bought a 1-head embroidery machine and a four-color printer. But it was mostly all sports. Baseball uniforms, volleyball uniforms with numbers. Things like that.”
Ronda’s first real employee was his mom, who supported him from Day 1 of the operation.
“We started at home,” Ronda said. “My mom was very entrepreneurial. My mom used to work at a bank, but her dream was to have her own business. Both of my parents are low-end bankers and my mom was a big help. I wouldn’t be where I’m at today without my mom’s help.”
In those early days, Ronda and his mom were working crazy hours. He spent his days cutting out letters and different things and his mom did the sewing when she got home from work.
“My mom used to come home from work at 5:30 p.m. and make dinner and then we were sewing until 12-1 a.m. every day until I decided to open my retail store,” Ronda said. “Still, she did some sewing until I found some ladies to help me with that.”
When Ronda decided to open his own retail store, it was fairly low-risk in his mind. The son of two Puerto Rican bankers, he himself interned as an accountant for four months before deciding to take his dream seriously.
In the back of his mind, he knew that if his dream of running a baseball shop failed, he could always go back into accounting and follow a similar path to that of his parents.
“I was going to throw myself in and if it didn’t work, I would go back to working in an office,” Ronda said. “So far, so good 23 years later.”
After working out of his house for almost two years, Ronda opened up his first shop, a small 1,000 square foot space around 1997. He made his money selling custom baseball gloves and designed custom uniforms for local youth teams around Puerto Rico.
He designed the uniforms on his computer and used a company based out of California, Teamwork Athletic Apparel, to sell him the garments. As far as his high-end baseball gloves went, he was getting his hands on them any way he could.
The best quality he could find, he said.
“I used to bring stuff from Korea, China 20 something years ago that nobody had,” Ronda said. “Even when U.S. companies came over here to my small shop, they asked me where the hell I was getting this. I’m kind of that guy, I’m a hustler. I’m always looking around at what to find and what to get to my customers that’s different.”
Eventually, though, Ronda’s business model started to change. While the demand for baseball goods was still prevalent, new doors started to open for Rondapro that he couldn’t pass up.
“With time, parents that came to buy the uniforms and gloves for their kids asked me if I wanted to do shirts for their companies,” Ronda said. “And that’s how it started turning into more corporate and promotional things than sports. We kind of phased out of that division around the 10th year of the business.”
Ronda was mostly self-taught when it came to learning the custom decoration industry. With no YouTube in the late 90s to rely on, Ronda turned to people he knew to help him out.
“I was calling people and asking them how do you do this, how do you do that,” Ronda said. “The friend of mine that helped print my shirts was a big, big help for me. His shop was also small. He had a four-head and a six-color. You just learn on the job, you know? Especially screen printing.”
After working out of his retail space for less than two years, Ronda was able to upgrade to a slightly bigger building. He was now able to work out of 1,500 square feet, still way too small than what he would have preferred.
But just like he had operated his business for the first few years, he made it work.
“We were in that place for 12 years until we finally moved to a big 6,000 square-foot place,” Ronda said.
As Rondapro started to garner some attention throughout Puerto Rico, their reputation became known as a business that would produce high-quality work and deliver on time. The prices he charged were higher than others around him, but that didn’t stop people from doing business with him.
“In Puerto Rico, a lot of people don’t deliver on time,” Ronda said. “Here, everything is last minute. I need this next week or three days from now. Our name was being recognized as if you want something done well, call Rondapro. They’re not cheap, but they deliver on time and they have quality stuff.”
As a result, it didn’t take long for the big corporate businesses in Puerto Rico to come calling.
After working with the likes of AT&T and T-Mobile, as well as creating the merchandise for some of the hottest names in the music industry in Bad Bunny and Daddy Yankee, Rondapro was able to partner with Medalla, the largest brewery in Puerto Rico.
“They called us and wanted to do a merch line and we designed it for them,” Ronda said. “When they presented to their boss, to the president of the company, he asked who they were dealing this with. They said we’re using Rondapro. When they told him that, he said it was approved. He said if it’s Rondapro, we want the Rondapro logo on our gear.”
It was that partnership that Ronda truly started to realize just how big they were starting to get.
“That was 2-3 years ago and I was like OK, I think we’re doing it right,” Ronda said. “If they wanted us, I think our brand has spread a lot. I didn’t understand what I had done until then. I didn’t give myself respect.”
In the beginning stages of his business, outsourcing was his calling card. With a lack of space and high demand for his services, Ronda made sure his bases were covered.
“We outsourced a lot because we didn’t have the space of the equipment to do it,” Ronda said. “We were growing, but we couldn’t handle it ourselves. So we outsourced a lot until we moved into the new facility. When we moved to the new facility, which is the one that we’re in now, I told my people about a year after that I don’t know how we did it 12 years in that previous space.
“We jumped from 1,500 square feet to 6,000 square feet. Because right now we’re in 6,000 square feet and we’re running out of space also. But again. They throw stuff at you and if you’re good at it, you will figure it out. It’s as simple as that.”
Ronda said he still looks back on a big job he and his team were able to print back in 2006 that gave his company enough capital to expand.
The job was to print shirts for the Muscular Dystrophy Association, which held an annual event in Puerto Rico.
“It was my fourth or fifth year and I wasn’t ready for it, to be honest,” Ronda said. “They came to me and ordered polo shirts. It was a big order for me. About 12,000 custom polo shirts. It was an $80,000 or $90,000 order and at the time we used to sell like $350,000 a year. So it was a huge chunk of money.”
After running into some shipment issues, Ronda was able to work through the problems and make it happen. Seven years later, they gave Rondapro the entire project which totaled around $500,000.
“That really put us on the map because that was the biggest order in Puerto Rico,” Ronda said. “So if you said that you could handle that order, you can do any order, you know? That was a real turning point on the growth of the business and the cash flow because it was an order that gave us money to get to another level.”
With more space to operate out of in 2021, their outsourcing has been cut down to roughly 25 percent of the business.
Ronda has been using DecoNetwork since 2012. He chose DecoNetwork to help the production management side of his business and that has been going strong with the platform for the past nine years.
“You need a central command center,” Ronda said. “One where it will tell you where are the goods, what do you need to do, when do you need to do it. For me, it wasn’t the selling part (that I needed). It was the production part. I still believe that in this business where you have so many different things going on, if you don’t have anything to organize it with, it’s not a paper world anymore.”
As many print and embroiderers know, managing your staff and making sure that everything runs as smoothly as possible is vital to the success of your business. With DecoNetwork’s help, Ronda said he found that success.
“Still today on Instagram, I see a lot of people that have paper orders and all that stuff,” Ronda said. “I tell my guys that DecoNetwork is the tool that you don’t even need to talk to your employees. Everything is there. I can hire 20 new guys, have them not speak and the business can still run. I think speaking will lead you to have more errors than just following whatever is on DecoNetwork. Before we can sell, we have to make sure we can comply with the orders and do everything right. That’s why DecoNetwork is so important.”
After owning and operating Rondapro for the past 23 years, Ronda says he’s at a point in his career where he’s wanting to get the most out of what he’s doing. Ronda said his main goal in life wasn’t to own a business to make money. At age 47, Ronda said his focus is on taking the business from Level B to Level C and doing it in the smartest way possible.
“I’ve never had financial struggles since I started the business,” Ronda said. “I had some other struggles, don’t get me wrong. But not financial. We’re always been profitable. Still today, sometimes I ask myself if I’m successful enough for being in the business 23 years.”
Never satisfied, Ronda said that while he hopes the future is very bright for Rondapro, his focus won’t be on growing the business for revenue, but rather growing the business for the betterment of Rondapro.
“I’m the kind of guy who does things right and business will come,” Ronda said. “If there’s an opportunity, I’ll go for it, but not in an aggressive way.”