ANN ARBOR – Despite the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, Ann Arbor T-Shirt Company has continued to grow. And a large part of that is due to Amazon.
The company was founded 15 years ago by friends and University of Michigan students Jerry Kozak and Ricky Winowiecki, who sold T-shirts they printed in their dorm room in Mary Markley Hall.
Fast forward to 2010 and the pair had a full-fledged business with employees and plans to move to a 12,000 square foot warehouse. They also got their products onto online marketplace giant Amazon.
“It was a pretty big game changer,” said Kozak, who said it allowed the cofounders to move to a real apartment after having slept for months in their 900 square foot warehouse.
A large chunk of their business is still on Amazon, and they also have University of Michigan hospital, local schools, military and more as clients.
Once the pandemic hit, like many businesses across the nation, Ann Arbor T-Shirt Company had to temporarily shut down. But thanks to Amazon, they still had inventory to sell online.
“We keep 3-4 months inventory in Amazon’s warehouses,” said Kozak. “In March when everything went south, we had to shut down -- but our sales didn’t -- which is critical. Long before we announced the PPE program and any support, we were able to tell our people: ‘Don’t file for unemployment. You still have a job. You still have healthcare.' Some people were put on hold but were able to keep full compensation. So, we were already just positioned by our business model with Amazon to weather that part of the storm.”
Once they were cleared to return to work, Kozak and Winowiecki provided their employees with masks and sanitizer, constructed plexiglass barriers around their warehouse and ramped up their HVAC system after it became clear that COVID-19 is primarily spread in the air.
Preparing for another shutdown in the fall, they moved their production schedule forward.
“We are pretty much done with our Christmas printing for now,” said Kozak. “It was a hectic year but we were able to roll with the punches and plan for it more conservatively.”
When asked if being on Amazon saved their business, Kozak replied, “It absolutely saved our business.”
On Amazon Prime Day, Ann Arbor T-Shirt Company more than doubled its normal day sales. Beyond the extra cash flow, it helped them understand customer demand heading into the holiday season.
“It pulled the shopping season a little more forward,” said Kozak. “It gave us more insight on what would be popular, and we’re hoping that if people are buying online it will be a little earlier.”
Keeping it local
With about 100 employees, all operations are still based in Ann Arbor.
Production and manufacturing takes place at the company warehouse at 505 S. Maple Rd.
“We’re both from metro Detroit and we came here for school and absolutely loved the city,” said Kozak. "We also just happened to be here as we were starting and realized the benefits – you have a really good agile work force, the manufacturing end of the business you’ve got all these suppliers that serve the auto industry that make it a really good place to manufacture.
“We have a little chip on our shoulder, too, about all of our friends getting hoovered out to Chicago or New York. Kids in Michigan should be able to start a career here.”
Giving back to the community
Ann Arbor T-Shirt Company has been growing 50% a year for more than half a decade. And with success comes responsibility, said Kozak.
“It’s great to make profit and a good living, but it should give you a sense of responsibility to the people who are struggling," said Kozak. “COVID has pushed more people into E-commerce and we want to spread that around and make sure our neighbors are okay as well.”
Throughout the pandemic, they have bought their staff gift cards from local restaurants, and recently donated $10,000 to SOS Community Services in Ypsilanti.
To learn more about Ann Arbor T-Shirt Company, visit www.annarbortees.com.