Dan Alarik, founder and CEO of Grunt Style, Army vet. (Photo: Daily Herald)
Turning conventional wisdom on its ear, one former Army Drill Sergeant has built a multi-million dollar apparel business by uniquely applying military operational techniques and culture.
During his time on active duty, Dan Alarik was deployed to Bosnia and Kosovo. Following his overseas duty, he served as a drill instructor at Fort Benning — a tour that changed his life in a very unorthodox way. Alarik pooled money with a few of his friends and they started to make t-shirts for the various units stationed there. In 2009 he had enough success that he decided to separate from the Army after 13 years and move back to his hometown of Chicago to start a t-shirt company.
Alarik's vision for what he called "Grunt Style" was very clear. He wanted to bring the best parts of his 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. The company has since surpassed the 2,000,000 mark. (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.
But, as any entrepreneur knows, 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 pedigree.
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 100-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 is 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."
Piles of printed t-shirts sit ready to enter the fulfillment stage. (Photo: Grunt Style)
The result of Alarik's strategy is a $36 million business with a large facility complete with multiple warehouses for designing, printing, and packaging product. And every shirt comes with what the company calls a "beer guarantee."
"What that means is if you're not satisfied you can return a shirt for whatever reason — even if it's soaked in beer — and we'll give you a refund," Alarik said.
And Alarik isn't done yet. He recently launched "Alpha Outpost," billed as "the best monthly subscription box for men." Each month subscribers are mailed a box of interesting items around a specific theme. Previous themes have included "BBQ and Chill" (knives, grill gloves, spices, cookbook), "The Medic" (first aid equipment), and "The Gentlemen" (silk tie, flask, leaded glass).
Companies that struggle with hiring and retaining veterans can learn from Grunt Style's approach. Alarik has found that the best way to get the most from veterans is not trying to force them into a corporate culture but rather to create a military-friendly environment where they can quickly assimilate and immediately make meaningful contributions to the company.
Check out Grunt Style's special-edition We Are The Mighty t-shirts here.
And watch what happens when Grunt Style delivers a morale boost to the WATM offices: