Pelotonia, the Columbus Foundation, Kaufman Development—and a bunch of cover designs for nationally bestselling books. Terry Rohrbach's studio has been happy to fly under the radar.

Terry Rohrbach is the soft-spoken leader of creative firm Fort, which has its offices in a nondescript building in the Short North. If you’ve never heard of the firm, that’s OK with Rohrbach—he knows the business has never really promoted itself much.

But look closer, and it does not take long to breathe in and appreciate the body of work that has kept driving clients to the tight-knit environs of Fort’s Brickel Street location, where a team of seven people builds brands and strategy for businesses through design, digital and print materials, including hundreds of book covers.

From creating the Pelotonia arrow brand to working with L Brands, the Columbus Foundation and international shoe company Ecco, Fort’s imprint is visible in many venues. The key to its success, Rohrbach says, is the nimbleness of its staff and the long-lasting relationships the company builds with its clients. Pelotonia has enlisted the company as its branding agency for 10 years, while Fort’s relationship with the Columbus Foundation goes back 18 years. Rohrbach said Kaufman Development has used Fort since the real estate firm was founded. “We invested in their success and became a true partner,” Rohrbach says.

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Fort, he says, thrives on creative design. Cindy Hilsheimer is a Pelotonia board member and managing principal of BeecherHill, the Columbus-based executive search firm. She says Fort maintains a “disciplined commitment to the [Pelotonia] brand, creating a newness each year and a loyalty to the brand. What you see is pretty much some of the best branding and marketing in the Midwest,” she says, pointing to the Pelotonia arrow as an example. 

Pelotonia CEO Doug Ulman says Fort’s creative efforts have been instrumental in the development and design of the group’s annual campaign as well. He points to the 2019 campaign, which let people make individual arrows to be rolled up into one massive statement.

“The ‘What’s Your Arrow’ campaign really, for the first time, democratized the movement and allowed the community to take ownership of Pelotonia’s iconic mark,” Ulman says.

“The way the campaign played out and engaged people was inspiring on many levels,” he says. “Pelotonia has always been grassroots, and this campaign truly allowed us to give up control and allow the community the opportunity to share their story.”

What put Fort on the map was a weekend trip to New York City that Rohrbach took in the late 1990s before leaving his job as art director at the Wexner Center for the Arts. A freelance project had him designing the book cover for a local businessman. It turned out well, and Rorhbach wanted to test the publishing market in the Big Apple.

“I met with this guy [at Knopf Publishing] and we just hit it off. He started contacting his friends and pitching me,” Rohrbach says. “I soon was hopping from cab to cab, meeting with different publishers, and I came home with several projects from that visit.”

Since then, Fort has designed more than 1,000 book covers across myriad genres in the publishing field. Titles include Flags of Our Fathers by James Bradley, The Time of Our Lives by Tom Brokaw and The Invention of Wings by Sue Monk Kidd.

Rohrbach will tell you the book covers generated word-of-mouth promotion for the company’s branding and design that continues today. The company has seen such steady work, it doesn’t use business cards and hasn’t ever had to prospect for new jobs.

One thing that has changed is the company’s shift toward the digital side of its services versus print materials, like the book covers. Rohrbach says digital now represents about 60 percent of Fort’s business.

Regardless of the segment, Doug Kridler, CEO of the Columbus Foundation, says the organization’s relationship with Fort remains strong because the company knows its mission and how it wants to position itself. “The benefit of this long-term relationship is that they share our branding DNA,” Kridler says.

Craig Lovelace is a freelance writer for Columbus CEO.