Vincent Padalino captured first place in the New Jersey Student Entrepreneur of the Year for 2009 awards at the Global Student Entrepreneur Awards, sponsored by Edison Venture Fund, at Fairleigh Dickinson University in Madison on May 5.

Like most entrepreneurs, Vincent Padalino was drawn by the lure of earning money. Selling graphics T-shirts out of the trunk of his car, Padalino, then a student at Lawrence High School, was creating shirts one at a time to fill specific orders. Still, it was as much a way to meet people as it was a revenue generator.

“After a while, though, I started making some decent money and it got serious,” said Padalino, who earned his bachelor’s degree in Entrepreneurial Studies at Rider’s Commencement 2009 ceremonies on May 15. “After I graduated from high school, I thought I should really put some effort into this.”

So, Padalino obtained a license and formed Vestiwear, LLC, to sell his edgy brand of customized T-shirts. Vestiwear became a legally recognized entity in January 2006. And while the firm has continued to expand in scope, Vestiwear has also allowed Padalino to earn something besides income. The budding businessman captured first place in the New Jersey Student Entrepreneur of the Year for 2009 awards at the Global Student Entrepreneur Awards, sponsored by Edison Venture Fund, at Fairleigh Dickinson University in Madison on May 5.

“This competition recognizes entrepreneurs who run their businesses while pursuing an undergraduate degree,” explained Dr. Ron Cook, professor and chair of the Department of Entrepreneurial Studies and Strategy. “Students are judged on customer service, quality, obstacles overcome, growth potential, and community outreach and strategies.”

Padalino enrolled at Mercer County Community College after high school, but with an eye already on a bachelor’s degree in business, he transferred to Rider in 2007. “I wanted to stay in the central New Jersey area, and I knew Rider was strong in business, so it was a pretty easy decision to come,” said Padalino, who, by that time, was already supplying himself with a steady income through Vestiwear.

Though the venture was already growing, Padalino says that his classroom experience at Rider only helped improve business. “Rider provided me with the textbook methods of how to do everything,” he explained. “And I applied those operating methods to my own work.”

Those lessons learned have helped Padalino beyond his burgeoning T-shirt business. In 2007, he became a full partner in family of Palermo’s Pizza restaurants owned by his father and cousin. The restaurant, which opened in Bordentown approximately 15 years ago, was joined more recently by locations in Ewing and Roebling, with Padalino overseeing the Ewing operation.

Always with an eye on improving his enterprises, Padalino has found a way to create synergy between Vestiwear, Palermo’s and other local businesses, and it was the very thing he says earned him the first-place nod at the Global Student Entrepreneur Awards. Padalino, who finished fourth in the 2008 competition, says Vestiwear restructured significantly over the past year.

“We started solely as a T-shirt printing business, or anything else you can wear, but between last year and this year, the competition increased, like, a thousand percent,” explained Padalino, who attributes the rise in similar businesses to the development of technology that allows people to create such products in their own homes. “It’s so cheap and easy that out services just aren’t as necessary.”

In response, Vestiwear expanded to add new dimensions of service. “We’re not just a printing and design firm now, but also an advertising company,” he said. Changing the structure of the business is what, I think, most impressed the judges.”

Cook affirmed Padalino’s opinion. “For a repeat winner, the judges will look at what has changed,” he said. “By recognizing the increased competition, Vince devised a way to make himself more valuable to his clientele, and less of a commodity. This was very important in the opinion of the judge, showing how to overcome adverse conditions.”

Padalino’s advertising relationship involved his restaurant and local businesses such as landscapers, flower shops and disc jockeys, all services that will appeal to customers in the area who patronize Palermo’s. “Our pizza boxes now have advertising from other companies, and we all work together, through my business,” Padalino said. “I print stickers – say, for instance, for a landscaper – to put on our boxes. But then, in return, I see if the landscaper is willing to carry a sign on his truck that says, perhaps, ‘Joe’s Flower Shop.’

“It hits a very local, tight target,” he continued. “Not many advertisers can hit such a small, targeted advertising area.”

The connection between the companies is rather simple, according to Padalino. “If the restaurant caters a party, that can mean that they also need a DJ or even flowers,” he said. “Even if it’s not them, there are always Communion parties and birthdays and other events coming up where guests may need those services. This way, all the businesses get access to the action, and it’s worked out very well so far.”

While Padalino’s victory is certainly a tribute to his drive and ingenuity, Cook says that it is also indicative of the success students can gain from Rider’s Entrepreneurial Studies program. “In our coursework, we focus on a process of making your firm more valuable to the consumer and keep adapting to changes in the environment,” he explained. “Vince did just that with his business and the value of his strategy was recognized by coming in first place.”