People - November 2006

He wants products to show some class
By Chris Richter

Phelps Sprinkle knows some parents might cringe at what his Charlotte-based business does: It helps customers get their messages into classrooms. But these aren’t advertising messages. Topics Education Group LLC helps companies such as New York-based Citigroup develop educational materials on financial literacy. It also created a high-school curriculum on HIV and AIDS for Washington-based Black Entertainment Television.

“Our goal is to truly educate, not to find a way to help our clients market themselves,” CEO Sprinkle, 35, says. Their presence on the product usually is limited to logos on the teacher’s guide or material for parents. The business, which employs 11, has rejected work because it didn’t agree with a company’s objectives, he says. Among those that have made the cut have been The Weather Channel and Comcast.

A Durham native who grew up in Greensboro, Sprinkle earned a bachelor’s in English in 1993 from Davidson College, where he was a starting midfielder on its 1992 Final Four men’s soccer team. He enjoyed writing and spent two years in Davidson’s athletics department as director of publications. In 1996, he and two other alumni formed Topics Magazine LLC and started Topics, a publication for middle- and high-school students.

The magazine covered current events, and about half its content came from student writers, who landed interviews with primatologist Jane Goodall and comedian Chris Rock. Expanding through the Southeast, the company also began publishing projects for customers such as what is now Charlotte-based Bank of America. When the partners looked at taking the magazine national, they saw trouble. “We would be competing with people with really deep pockets,” he says. Deciding to focus on custom publishing, they changed the company’s name and, in May 2001, put out the final issue of Topics.

He wouldn’t disclose revenue but says the company has recorded double-digit annual growth since its founding and expects revenue to be about 38% more than last year. “The challenge for me is to make sure I don’t try to cast our nets too wide and focus on where the real opportunity is to do what we want to do, which is help corporations, nonprofits and educational institutions change the face of education in a positive way.”