Mike Bowen of T-Shirt Champions

Photo by Larry Kuzniewski

You’ve seen Mike Bowen’s work. If you’ve lived in Memphis for any length of time, chances are you’ve worn it. Bowen is CEO of T-Shirt Champions (formerly Champion Awards & Apparel). Since joining his family’s business in 1979 — an operation founded by his parents in a family barn nine years earlier — Bowen has helped make sure more than 100 million apparel items were screened to precision and delivered on time, both locally and beyond. Combining art, science, modern technology, and old-fashioned want-to (we’ve come to call it “grit” in Memphis), Bowen’s operation has, quite literally, brought color — and some fashion, let it be said — to sports fans, music lovers, and anyone else who might choose to display a logo or message on his person.

In 1987, Bowen was on the truck that delivered 40,000 St. Louis Cardinal rally towels to Busch Stadium just in time for Game 3 of the World Series. (The Cardinals had to match the efforts of Minnesota Twin fans who had made the Metrodome a laundry party.) Merely hours after the New Orleans Saints won Super Bowl XLIV in 2010, shirts screened in Memphis could be purchased on Bourbon Street.

Bowen has overseen expansion on a scale that would be the envy of most small businesses. The 5,000-square-foot building in southeast Memphis that housed his operation in 1982 can now be called a wing of the 40,000-square-foot property on the same location. And revenue? What was a $400,000 business in 1982 brought in $11 million by 1991.

There have been down times. Bowen acknowledges significant hits when, first, NAFTA sent countless jobs in his industry south of the border in the early 1990s, then when the country suffered the attacks of 9/11. But through it all, Bowen has led a team that strives to make customers as happy as the team itself.

“Our people are more important than our customers,” says Bowen. “I believe that. A happy team makes happy customers. You can always get new customers. There’s an old saying: You don’t pay people too much, you don’t treat them too nicely, you just keep them too long. Because once you’ve lost someone on your team, you’ve lost them.”

Bowen’s current staff numbers around 40, including six graphic designers, but has swollen in years past to more than 200 during peak seasons, when around-the-clock screening is necessary to meet demand. Among the keys to Bowen’s success is adapting to needs — whatever the quantity and deadline — of customers large or small. T-Shirt Champions is armed with manual screening equipment as well as automatic machines (that print as many as 4,000 pieces in eight hours) for larger orders needing a quick turnaround.

“We don’t care if we’re doing 3,000 pieces a day or 30,000 pieces,” says Bowen. “It’s about the amount of orders. We can do up to 150 orders a day. We’ll stay here and get them done as needed. We call it The Champion Way. It’s a matter of your team having the right mentality. If an order is due on the 28th of the month, we don’t leave here before it’s done by midnight on the 27th. It’s called a service-level promise.”

Bowen takes tremendous pride in supporting the Late Bloomers program, hiring and training former prison inmates. The program helps individuals pave a new life path while learning a trade and, not incidentally, helping Bowen’s business thrive. “They’re some of my best employees,” says Bowen. “We’ve all had to start over at times, needed a hand up. That’s all these people need: a hand up.” Over the last six years, Bowen has hired 25 people through the carefully vetted program, and 13 are employed today.

When asked about leaders he admires, Bowen starts with FedEx founder Fred Smith. In 1977, Bowen’s mom received an order for 500 plaques (to be awarded employees) from FedEx, a job that kick-started the company’s trophy division. Says Bowen, “We’ve learned more from FedEx and what Smith has done than any book or any class. He’s been one of my inspirations.”

As for his own leadership style, Bowen describes an upside-down pyramid … with him at the bottom. “I’ve spent 35 years of my adult life trying to find people smarter than me,” says Bowen. “What I wasn’t doing was giving [employees] the chance to show me they’re smarter. It’s my job to coach, and sometimes a coach has to let a player talk back to him. I need to teach them not to make the mistakes I did.”

Bowen sees Memphis — the community — learning from some of its past mistakes. “We’re embracing our diversity and our problems,” he says, “instead of running away from them. We need to embrace what makes us strong, and our racial diversity is first and foremost. We have to get rid of our inferiority complex when it comes down to the race card. My biggest hope for this city would be to develop a burgeoning minority middle class. [The city’s struggles] come down to oppressed economic situations.”

The next generation is on its way at T-Shirt Champions with Bowen’s son, Colby, serving as sales manager. The family philosophy on life applies equally to their business. “We work to live,” emphasizes Bowen. “We don’t live to work. I’ve found a balance to be able to do both. I like doing what I’m doing. There were times I didn’t. And if a leader doesn’t like what he’s doing, his team’s going to know it.”

Mike Bowen is a past recipient of the Leadership Memphis Community Champion Award.

For more info, go to gochampion.net.

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