Hughes earns economic development award for area

Published 12:00 am Sunday, August 1, 2010

Vidalia — Tance Hughes keeps busy crunching numbers, recruiting retailers and brainstorming ideas, while many of his friends are worried about class schedules, tests and campus events.

At 19, Hughes is the creative, marketing and sales mind at Southern Designs and Gifts, a business owned by his parents Janet and Bill Hughes.

Starting while he was attending Vidalia High School, Hughes has grown the screen printing portion of the business to now include Vidalia High School shirts and his personal “Way of Life” line and collegiate items.

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Hughes said his plan has always been to return to Vidalia and be a business owner.

“I love this area,” He said. “I knew I wanted to be here doing this.”

But things happened a little faster than he originally planned.

After graduating from Vidalia High School, Hughes enrolled in college at LSU, but something he heard while attending school made him re-think his path.

“The founder of Raising Cane’s (Chicken Fingers) Todd Graves was giving a talk on being an entrepreneur,” Hughes said. “He talked about having to work all these different hard jobs to raise the money to start his business.

“I realized then how blessed I was to have this business already open and ready.”

Hughes decided then that his talent and resources were better used learning on the job than in the classroom and decided to forego his college education.

“My friends are still genuinely concerned whether or not I made the right decision,” Hughes said. “This is what was right for me, though.”

But so far, Hughes saidhis age hasn’t been a roadblock for business growth.

“People are sometimes shocked that I’m only 19,” he said. “But in mom-and-pop-type stores, they actually are impressed that I’m out here doing this at 19. I think that earns some respect from them.”

So, Hughes, with the support of his family, returned home to focus on growing the business.

“He’s not spending all of his time back there on the computer,” Janet Hughes said. “He’s out working, meeting with people, selling to people. He isn’t intimidated at all to walk up to people and pitch the products.”

That work is paying off. Now, Hughes has items in 18 retail stores in Louisiana and has sold items online in Texas, South Carolina and Tennessee.

He also just recently secured his collegiate licensing abilities with Nicholls State University in Thibodaux, La.

“It has grown in ways I didn’t really expect,” Hughes said. “There has been a lot of learning along the way. I didn’t think about getting into collegiate licensing at first, but now I’m hoping to grow that portion of the business and eventually start adding bigger schools like LSU, Ole Miss and Mississippi State to my license.

“Some of the bigger retailers have basically told me I have to get bigger schools to make it worth their time to do business with me, so that is what I’m working on.”

Hughes’ hard work recently garnered him recognition from the Kisatchie-Delta Regional Planning and Development District, Inc., which named him Entrepreneur of the Year.

The Kisatchie-Delta district is comprised of eight parishes in central Louisiana, Avoyelles, Catahoula, Concordia, Grant, Rapides, LaSalle, Winn and Vernon parishes.

Heather Malone, director of the Concordia Economic and Industrial Development District, wrote the letter recommending Hughes for the award. Malone said it was Hughes’ determination and passion for his business that set him apart from other business leaders.

“He was able to succeed and accomplish what he did starting while he was still in high school,” Malone said. “He found his niche within the current business footprint (at Southern Design and Gifts) and grew it to what it is now.”

Malone said the fact that Hughes has excelled at such a young age makes him a role model.

“Tance is an example to all of our young kids,” she said. “In our area, he is a true asset to Concordia Parish as we are a parish full of entrepreneurs.

“(We) would really like to take advantage of what he has done and maybe use him to start a program to encourage young entrepreneurs.”

Southern Designs and Gifts updated to state-of-the-art screen printing equipment in June that allows the business to print up to 550 shirts per hour.

“We want to provide the best price and the best quality in the area,” Hughes said. “I think we compete well against companies from Monroe (La.), Baton Rouge and Jackson now that we have the new equipment.”