Ethan Denson stacks magnets in a box at Morris Magnets in Monroe, Washington on Wednesday, Sept. 13, 2023. (Annie Barker / The Herald)

Ethan Denson stacks magnets in a box at Morris Magnets in Monroe, Washington on Wednesday, Sept. 13, 2023. (Annie Barker / The Herald)

Gift and souvenir maker Morris Magnets calls Monroe home

Morris makes 30,000 items like refrigerator magnets and key chains a day out of its factory.

MONROE — Step inside a gift shop at any zoo, aquarium, national park or concert hall, and there’s a good chance one of the souvenirs was made in Monroe.

Since 2008, the city has been home to Morris Magnets, a manufacturing company specializing in refrigerator magnets, key chains and other knickknacks.

The company produces 30,000 items a day at its main facility, everything from wooden holiday ornaments for Disney to merchandise for touring musicians like Paul McCartney, Garth Brooks and Phish.

“We’re anywhere they’re selling tchotchkes,” said co-owner Bill Peterson, 65, of Monroe.

When he bought the business nearly three decades ago, Morris Magnets had six or seven employees who made products by hand using tools like power-saws and flame torches. Peterson called it “very labor intensive.” Today the company employs 60, and uses automated laser machines to mass produce.

Most orders fall into two categories: promotional products for corporations and gifts sold to wholesale distributors that resell to retailers. Most products are made with customer-submitted designs, logos or artwork. Peterson guesstimates they’ve used a couple hundred thousand different images by now.

The graphics department prepares the art for production.

Once the design is finalized, the picture is printed on material like paper, wood or acrylic, also called plexiglass. Workers cut out the items with different machines then assemble and quality check them before shipping. Multiple shifts ensure the factory operates 24 hours a day.

“It’s quite the chore to keep everything moving,” said co-owner Jeff Cannon, 44, of Snohomish. Deadlines are tight, with the goal of completing an order in seven to 10 business days because, as Cannon explains, “we have to be faster than China.”

Competitors often rely on overseas manufacturers. Cannon attributes the success of Morris Magnets to speed and quality. Plus, selling an American-made product has its own appeal.

Left to right, president Bill Peterson, vice president Jamie Gamez, and executive vice president Jeff Cannon pose for a photo at Morris Magnets in Monroe, Washington on Wednesday, Sept. 13, 2023. (Annie Barker / The Herald)

Left to right, president Bill Peterson, vice president Jamie Gamez, and executive vice president Jeff Cannon pose for a photo at Morris Magnets in Monroe, Washington on Wednesday, Sept. 13, 2023. (Annie Barker / The Herald)

‘Oh Bill’

Peterson didn’t plan to enter the novelty industry. He just stumbled across the right opportunity. Ali Morris founded the business in 1988 and originally operated it from a San Francisco garage. At some point she relocated it to Seattle’s Capitol Hill neighborhood. It was the kind of small-time operation in which products were shipped in beer boxes fished from the dumpster of the deli next door.

In 1996, Peterson and a business partner bought the company after learning of it through a business broker. The two previously worked in the title insurance industry and wanted to try something new. Peterson thought Morris Magnets had growth potential due to its nationwide customer base, and had some ideas on how to automate and expedite manufacturing. Still, he understood how weird it was to tell folks he bought a refrigerator magnet factory.

“When I first decided to buy this company, I told my mother about it and her two words: ‘Oh Bill,’” Peterson said. “Because who would’ve thought, right?”

Six months after the purchase they relocated the business to Redmond. About a decade later they moved again to Monroe after getting pushed out by an expanding Microsoft. The company has been at its current facility after buying it in 2015. The company also leases another building in town.

Peterson’s former business partner retired in 2007 and was bought out. Today he shares ownership with Cannon, who at 27 started work at Morris Magnets in sales and “as we grew, grew with it.”

Examples of completed magnets at Morris Magnets in Monroe, Washington on Wednesday, Sept. 13, 2023. (Annie Barker / The Herald)

Examples of completed magnets at Morris Magnets in Monroe, Washington on Wednesday, Sept. 13, 2023. (Annie Barker / The Herald)

‘Record sales’

When businesses closed during the pandemic, Morris Magnets thrived. Peterson said the supply chain issues caused by the COVID-19 pandemic helped grow their business as it was more difficult to import products from abroad and they primarily make everything locally. Plus when the world put vacations on hold, the company pivoted to a new product that would find high demand.

“When COVID hit we were shut down, because we are a souvenir business and nobody’s traveling,” Peterson said. “So Jeff and I got together and decided what to do to keep our doors open.”

That led them to start making sneeze guards, those plastic shields seen at grocery store checkouts. They shipped across the country and outfitted the concession stands at Lumen Field in Seattle.

“We were having record sales,” Peterson said. “We sold more than we’d ever had before within about a month or two.”

Looking forward, Peterson said the plan for after he retires is to hand things off to his daughter Jamie Gamez, 35, of Bothell, who serves as company vice president. She said her goal is to make Morris Magnets a name brand and expand their product line. In 2021, they acquired Dusty City Gifts, a company specializing in eco-friendly stickers made out of wood.

“We’re just going to keep an eye on the industry,” Peterson said, “and figure out where there are profitable segments that we can get into.”

Eric Schucht: 425-339-3477; eric.schucht@heraldnet.com; Twitter: @EricSchucht.

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