When Michael Horn graduated from what was then Towson State University in 1991 with a degree in English, he had no thought of starting a business, let alone one that would become an award-winning, multimillion-dollar company.
In fact, he had no interest in studying business at all.
"Everybody is surprised when they hear that," said Horn, 34, of Clarksville. "I did not take a single business course, except for business law, with the thought of maybe going into law. Everything I learned about business I learned from experience."
Horn is president and chief executive officer of Elkridge-based Palisades Marketing LLC, which earned about $4.5 million last year. And on May 14, the Baltimore District Office of the U.S. Small Business Administration will honor Horn as the Entrepreneurial Success of the Year at its 20th annual Maryland Small Business Week Awards Breakfast.
Horn's earliest business experience came during his childhood in Cecil County. "My family got involved in the comic book industry in the '70s, when it was just getting started with weekend comic book conventions and flea markets. ... I grew up around buying and selling old comic books," he said.
After college, Horn answered a job ad in The Sun and was hired by Diamond Comic Book Distributors Inc. of Timonium, where he worked from 1991 to 1994.
Horn started Palisades in 1994 as a marketing and sales consulting service to companies interested in making products related to the comic book industry. His biggest motivation, he said, was not money, but the desire to set his own schedule and take control of his life.
"It was Mike who had the vision," said Travis J. Allen, 27, marketing manager at Palisades. "This is all because of something Mike started."
Thousands of figures
Since 1997, Palisades has manufactured tens of thousands of licensed collectible action figures, statues and other merchandise based on characters found in comic books, video games, movies and television shows.
At Palisades' offices in Elkridge, the walls and shelves are filled with G.I. Joes and Transformers, and with action figures from movies such as Alien and Predator and from the video games Mortal Kombat, Resident Evil and Final Fantasy.
Muppet action figures have been their most successful product so far. Outfitted with a bullwhip, brown slouch hat and leather jacket, Adventure Kermit, which was released this year, stands ready to rescue damsels in distress, battle bad guys and find the "golden Gonzo," according to the notes on the back of the blue-and-green Palisades package.
Collectible toys bring back memories people want to preserve. "Transformers and G.I. Joe were really big in the '80s, so our core audience is now 35, and they're making a living," said Horn. "So to buy a $50 statue, to get something really cool that they remember from their childhood, is not a lot of money."
This year, Palisades is launching a line of action figures based on the Cartoon Network's Adult Swim cartoons that appeal to college students and young adults. And, for the first time, Horn and his designers at Palisades have created their own line of action figures, called Crittaz and Freakables.
Horn credits his success to a management style based on common sense, intuition and experience. He has shared his experience with students at Towson University as a guest speaker for Towson's marketing and e-business program.
He participated in a networking event at the college March 31, and last week he returned as a prospective employer at a job fair.
"Students are mesmerized by him," said Laleh Srnec, lecturer in Towson's department of marketing and e-business. "Students love him. He provided a wealth of information about starting a new business. He stayed an additional 2 1/2 hours at the networking event to answer students' questions. He is very generous with his time and is making arrangements for students to tour his facility."
Looking to the future, Horn said he would like to teach business courses at the college level.