The owner of a successful business, Over-the-Rhine's Metaphor Studio, Ran Mullins' aim is to make other businesses look better"”what Mullins calls a "creative consultancy focusing on branding." For many, owning a business like that would be the mountaintop. Time to count your blessings and, well, your money, kick back and enjoy life.
But passion can be a stubborn affliction.

The 36-year-old entrepreneur, who grew up in both Clermont County and Walnut Hills, and graduated from Glen Este High School, saw something in the troubled neighborhood and decided to take it on. And he has"”with considerable success.

Metaphor Studio, founded in 2000, topped $3.5 million in annual sales last year, clearing $1 million in profit, Mullins says. He accomplished that at his Reading Road facility, an old car-parts factory on the eastern edge of Over-the-Rhine. Currently with 10 employees at Metaphor, he's working to secure new business and expects to have another banner year.

Mullins is also the creative mind behind iRhine, Over-the-Rhine's community Web portal that includes positive weekly newsletters about the neighborhood's people, places and hidden gems.

Mullins says the Web site allows the whole Over-the-Rhine community to come together for a "safe, clean and profitable" neighborhood. The dot-com in iRhine stands for "community," not the assigned "commercial" designation, he adds.

Because of that work, people now look to Mullins for inspiration on how to save urban areas.

"As far as I am concerned, Ran walks the walk," says Otto Budig, a local philanthropist and business owner who mentors Mullins. "It is one thing to publish a newsletter about Over-the-Rhine, it's quite another thing to be so directly involved with the modest successes that Over-the-Rhine has had. He certainly has been a part of that process."

Collette Thompson, who now works with national community-engagement expert Peter Block, used to work with the Washington, D.C.-based National Main Street Center, a branch of the National Trust for Historic Preservation. When she worked with the Main Streets project she helped Harrison, Ohio, begin to resurrect its downtown area. She says that when people all across the United States discuss the best way to represent their communities online, they use iRhine as the main example.

"When talking about Web sites, marketing or branding, iRhine was always mentioned," she remarks.
Thompson, who now serves on the iRhine board of directors, admittedly gushed when she met Mullins for the first time in person a few years ago. "It was the Ran Mullins," she recalls.

Mullins has also been working with 3CDC (Cincinnati Center City Development Corporation) on projects to develop/redevelop the Banks, Fountain Square and Over-the-Rhine. He cites plans for bringing Washington Park back as Music Hall Park, as well as the millions they've spent to purchase and fix up along Vine Street. He believes these OTR projects are vital to Music Hall taking a prominent place in the community.

And even with all the recent attention on the Banks and the reopening of Fountain Square, Mullins says he doesn't feel like those endeavors take away from time spent on Over-the-Rhine. "It's not slowing the work they're doing in Over-the-Rhine," he says, "I think Over-the-Rhine a longer process than Fountain Square."

Mullins and his wife Suzanne married in October and he became the stepfather of her two pre-teens. And he's moved out of his beloved Over-the-Rhine (but plans to keep an apartment there) to an historic Cincinnati home that has a yard"”the Langdon House, built in 1855 in Columbia-Tusculum. 

On the business side, he plans to spin-off Metaphor's proprietary Editspot into its own company that will deal with software licensing, sales and other aspects of that burgeoning enterprise. Editspot, Mullins explains, is a Web-based content management system which allows companies to "put their geek back in the closet." He'll also work to continue Metaphor's explosive growth.

Suzanne is Metaphor's vice president of brand strategy. She says when she met Ran she was struck with his vision. Having come from a traditional advertising background, she was unsure how to handle the interactive Web side of community involvement.

She says iRhine is part of what's called "community experience development," combining technology and marketing. It's not something the traditional advertising sector is used to.

"I just had not heard some of the language and the ideas he was espousing at the time," she remembers.
After a few years working as an independent consultant, Suzanne started working for Ran full-time in August 2004. Soon after, the two started to grow closer. His brains, not his business savvy, won her over. Then she discovered he's an accomplished artist, with an office decorated with several of his own paintings. Suzanne says she also loves his integrity: the examples he tries to set for others and the positive role model he is now for her two children, Sam, 11, and Lily, 8.

"He is truly a self-made man," she notes. "No one has handed him anything."

Raymond Buse III of the Cincinnati USA Regional Chamber observes that "he's a guiding light for our urban core revitalization," adding, "he's a spiritual leader for the Cincinnati creative underbelly." Buse should know: he's worked with Mullins on various endeavors over the last decade.

Mullins says Suzanne helps him keep in check. His patience can run thin. Having a good middle manager keeps him and the employees happy.

His upbringing was not easy. His father left the family for Southern California when Mullins was 3 years old. The father joined a motorcycle gang, battled chemical addiction and became a police informant, while their mother cared for Mullins and his older brother. (His older brother was "too lazy" to say his full name, Randall, and the shortened version stuck.)

As a youngster, Ran was a skater, break-dancer and graffiti artist"”and decent at all three, he says.

He credits his mostly urban upbringing"”living on Kemper Lane near Nassau Street in Walnut Hills"”with giving him a love for saving his inner city. The student body at his elementary school was nearly entirely black, giving Mullins an early education in the meaning of diversity. Whenever Roots was on television he dreaded the next day at school.

Friends would not speak to him for weeks after. Some even beat him up to resolve their own anger, he remembers.
"Teachers would make them apologize to me in front of the class," he recalls.

Yet, he cherishes those memories. "It was a great spot to grow up."

In 1992 he graduated from the Art Academy of Cincinnati with a bachelor of fine arts in communication design. He then moved to New York City, hoping to get work at a gallery that would lead to a benefactor so he could pursue his art. He moved back a year later.

"It didn't," he says plainly, when asked if the plan worked. The New York art scene is more about whom you know, not what you can do with a brush, he suggests. And having more skill than social connections meant no one was willing to pay for his art. Mullins took five years off from painting to start his company, but creativity remained a part of his daily life. He resumed painting last year.

"I look at the company as a piece of art," he explains.

Budig said it remains to be seen if Mullins will take a place among the next generation of philanthropists working to better Cincinnati. But he sees promise. He says that he wouldn't be surprised to see Mullins "break loose" and give much more back to the community he loves.

"Availability of funding will be key," Budig says. If there is capital for Mullins' projects, then he thinks Mullins will be a big success.

"Ultimately, I don't know if he'll have the fiscal abilities that I have, but that remains to be seen," Budig says. "He has the good sense to seek counsel of people that he respects. That's a rarity. Many times you see people who go full steam ahead like torpedoes. And that's not Ran."

As for walking the walk, Buse explains even further: "To say that he walks the talk is not even accurate, because he accelerates it."