A March On Vets Exclusive
A lot is spoken about applying military skills into the business world and how to better transition from the military into a corporate environment– All models for successful veteran employment… Or are they?
Turning conventional wisdom on its ear, one Army veteran is showing how simply applying military operations and culture -- creates a successful environment to leverage over 100 veteran employees and build a $70 million dollar apparel business.
During his time on active duty, Dan Alarik was deployed to Bosnia and Kosovo. He also served as a drill instructor at Fort Benning -- a tour that changed his life in a very unorthodox way. He pooled some money with a few of his buddies, and they started to make t-shirts for the various units stationed there. He had enough success that he decided to get out of the Army after 13 years and move back to his hometown of Chicago to start a t-shirt company.
His vision for what he called "Grunt Style" was very clear in his mind. He wanted to bring the best parts of the Army experience -- especially the elements of patriotism and service -- to the rest of the nation.
Alarik on the Grunt Style factory floor with an employee holding up the 1,000,000 t-shirt the company has manufactured. (Photo: Grunt Style)
As the company grew, Alarik took two bold steps: He moved the business out of his apartment and into an office space and he hired an employee -- a fellow vet. From there growth was rapid. The company outgrew the office within five months and moved to a bigger space that they, in turn, outgrew five months after that.
A "New" Veteran Employment Model
The company grew fast, but rapid growth can hobble a startup as much as the absence of it unless there's a sound strategy behind it. And that's where Alarik leveraged his military experience.
He modeled Grunt Style after the most effective military units he'd been part of during his time on active duty. The company is organized into two platoons: Maneuvers (marketing sales, and design) and Support By Fire (production and fulfillment).
And, more importantly in terms of being true to his business vision, Alarik has populated that military-themed organization with veterans. Seventy percent of his 90-plus employees are vets. (Also of note, manpower-wise, is that his wife, Elizabeth, is the chief financial officer.)
"I had my own challenges with fitting into office culture right out of the Army," Alarik said. "From the beginning, one of my goals was to make Grunt Style feel familiar to vet employees. Not only do I love working with people who are patriotic and proud, there's a strong business case behind that idea."
Another military best practice that Alarik has put in place is pushing responsibility and authority to the lowest level possible. For instance, on the shop floor, "sew leaders" (the title given to front-line manufacturing personnel) work with very little oversight. He also instituted a "battle buddy" program for new hires that ensures the onboarding process is smooth and tackles any issues quickly.
"A paycheck is important, but for vets a job more than that," Alarik said. "They joined the military, for the most part, to be part of something bigger than themselves, something of consequence. That's how we want them to feel about Grunt Style."
“I knew when I met Dan that I wanted to be part of Grunt Style,” said Tim Jenson, COO and first sergeant. “It feels like ‘home’ working alongside people that get each other and work towards a common goal.”
Alarik’s military doctrine and operations has created a model of operating efficiency that many companies will never achieve.
The result of Alarik's strategy is a $70 million business with a large facility complete with multiple warehouses for designing, printing, and packaging the product. And every shirt comes with what the company calls a "beer guarantee."
Lessons For Other Companies
While many companies still struggle with hiring and retaining veterans, they can learn from Grunt Style and consider the best way to get the most from veterans is not fitting them into a corporate environment but create an military-friendly environment where veterans can quickly assimilate and let their contributions come to bear.
While 50% of veterans turn-over in their first post-military job, Grunt Style has almost eliminated turnover.