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Duluth screenprinter changes ownership after 3 decades

On The Limit Founder Liz Howard has sold her screenprinting and embroidery business to Frost River owner Chris Benson, who plans to keep the company operating to create promotional products for local businesses, events and organizations.

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Terry Juntunen places a just-printed Frost River sweatshirt on a belt to go through a drier as Matthew Kohlin operates the screenprinting machine at On The Limit on Wednesday, Nov. 10, 2021. Frost River owner Chris Benson recently purchased the Lincoln Park embroidery and screenprinting shop. Steve Kuchera / Duluth News Tribune

When Chris Benson brought Frost River to Lincoln Park in 2011, the Duluth neighborhood wasn't exactly considered a business hub. But at least one business, On The Limit screenprinting and embroidery, was holding strong under its owner and founder Liz Howard.

Today, as Lincoln Park is revitalized, attracting business development and expansion, Benson credits On The Limit as one of the reasons the neighborhood was able to make a comeback.

“Ten years ago, this neighborhood was going the wrong way," Benson said. "There were a lot of vacancies. So for Liz to be a holdout here, and for Liz to be bringing all of these people into this area, helped it continue.”

Now Howard can retire after 33 years in business knowing On The Limit will continue its operations in Lincoln Park. Benson purchased the company from Howard on Oct. 22. He said owning the embroidery and screenprinting business is a "natural progression" for Frost River, which makes canvas and leather packs and already offers some apparel.

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On The Limit founder Liz Howard discusses an embroidery machine at the screenprinting and embroidery shop Monday, Nov. 8, 2021. Howard sold the business to Chris Benson in October. Contributed / Steph Anderson

"I thought, we’ve been wanting to get into embroidery to customize our stuff for a long time,” Benson said. “What an opportunity here, that when Liz is looking to retire, to be able to have existing equipment and staff and keep things going on in Lincoln Park."

Howard started On The Limit at age 38, looking for a transition in her career. She came across a screenprinter while visiting a colleague, and realized her artistic background gave her the ability to make it a business in Duluth.

“It just sparked my interest, and I was making a transition in life and I said, ‘I can do this,’” Howard said. "My dad thought I was going through early menopause when I said I quit my job and was going to start this up.”

She started On The Limit on her own in Morgan Park, and slowly added one employee at a time. She moved to the more centrally located Lincoln Park store at 2224 W. Superior St. in 1998, and at one point had 17 employees, plus her sister, who she credits as the "backbone" of the company, and her father, who spent a lot of time volunteering to help create products. Benson said the current 10 employees at On The Limit have stayed on and are now under Frost River's payroll, continuing their work in the screenprinting and embroidery workshop.

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Chris Benson, owner of Frost River and On The Limit, talks with Dawn Moen at On The Limit on Wednesday, Nov. 10, 2021. Steve Kuchera / Duluth News Tribune

The building, which was a bingo parlor before it became On The Limit, gave Howard the perfect open concept work space. It has rooms separated by large windows around the perimeter — now used for embroidery rooms — that used to be the nonsmoking rooms.

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“I put the fear of God in the construction workers," Howard said of the renovation when she purchased the building. "‘You break a window, I break your legs, so be very careful with the windows.’”

Howard said she looked to complement, not compete with, other Twin Ports screenprinting shops when she opened. However, she noted that her company had something the others didn't: a woman in charge.

“They would just get it out the door, whereas being a female, we brought the female touch in," Howard said. "We folded all of our clothing, where they just kind of stuffed them in boxes and such like that. ... I soon found that I had a following because I didn’t partake in (the 'Good Ol' Boys Club') with the boys and I did it right and I was on time.”

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Joanne Peterson places sweatshirts in an embroidery machine at On The Limit on Wednesday, Nov. 10, 2021. Steve Kuchera / Duluth News Tribune

She said all customers' orders for custom promotional products have been treated equally, but there was one memorable Friday evening where she was up late in the workshop making T-shirts for the YWCA of Duluth Mother's Day Walk/Run until midnight because the organizers called her at home, saying they needed more.

"I shouldn't have answered the phone," Howard said with a laugh.

Benson said he looks forward to being able to continue to provide the services On The Limit has offered to the community. At the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic, Frost River made personal protective equipment like face masks and shields for health care workers, police and firefighters. Benson said having that interaction with the community was on a level Frost River hadn't achieved before, and he looks forward to interacting with more customers at On The Limit.

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“I sit and look at all these boxes and I look at their customer lists and the people that they have existing relationships with. We want that," Benson said. "We want to be more connected to the community.”

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Harrison Cross, right, prepares to fold a shirt just emerging from a dryer at On The Limit on Wednesday, Nov. 10, 2021. Steve Kuchera / Duluth News Tribune

Howard acknowledged that On The Limit could've grown to be an even bigger company, but she preferred to keep her business mostly local, servicing "from preschool, to corporate, and everyone in between," she said.

“The company has grown by word-of-mouth, referral, satisfied-customer return," Howard said. "That has kept us very busy so I haven’t had need for having salespeople out there.”

Benson said he doesn't have any plans to change the operations at On The Limit, but he is constantly striving to find the easiest way to streamline all forms of production at his businesses. He said he looks forward to combining several aspects of production at Frost River and On The Limit because the businesses are so complementary to one another.

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On The Limit customer Duane Caywood works with sales and marketing representative Paula Lonetto on placing an order Wednesday, Nov. 10, 2021. Steve Kuchera / Duluth News Tribune

“There’ll be lots of synergy, and being three blocks away is really convenient,” he said.

The coronavirus pandemic has impacted On The Limit, just like every other business. Supply chain backups have caused some orders from the spring to just now get finished, and Howard was required to be in the work room manually printing some designs onto clothing, which was too physically demanding for her.

In her retirement, Howard plans to do woodworking and finally get to catch up with friends who have supported her and her dedication to On The Limit over the decades. She said she'll only be a phone call away if anyone at On The Limit needs her — just maybe not at midnight on a Friday night.

Laura Butterbrodt covers health for the Duluth News Tribune. She has a bachelor of arts in journalism from South Dakota State University and has been working as a reporter in Minnesota and South Dakota since 2014.
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