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Lakeshirts came from humble beginnings

Lakeshirts co-owner Mark Fritz speaks at the Detroit Lakes college about his business.(Brian Basham/Tribune)

In 1984, longtime neighbors and best friends Mark Fritz and Mike "Hutch" Hutchinson came up with an idea for a new business, selling custom-decorated T-shirts from the basement of Fritz's parents' home in Detroit Lakes.

Today, that business, known as Lakeshirts, has become one of the most successful customized apparel companies to be found anywhere in the U.S.

Along the way, it has grown from a small beachfront retail business to a company that serves 5,000 client accounts nationwide as well as in the Caribbean, Canada and Mexico.

On Friday, Mark Fritz shared the story of how he and Hutch took that entrepreneurial idea of opening up their own T-shirt shop and grew it into a thriving business.

His presentation at Minnesota State Community & Technical College in Detroit Lakes was the latest in a Speaker Series hosted by the college's Business & Entrepreneurial Services program.

Fritz said Friday that he was initially reluctant to make this presentation, in light of the recent employee layoffs at Lakeshirts.

But then, Fritz added, he realized that "every business runs into challenges," and the story of Lakeshirts' history is still a successful one.

"There really is nothing like starting and building your own business to really know you're alive," Fritz said.

Right from their first order of 100 shirts, the partners faced challenges.

"We burnt over half the shirts in the (drying) oven," Fritz said, drawing a laugh from the audience. "There went our profits, and our nest egg."

Because it was their first-ever order, the T-shirt makers encountered a little difficulty making the quality of the printing on each of the shirts uniform, and the customer wasn't too happy with the outcome.

He refused to pay for the order, "so we had to take him to court," Fritz said. After each of the shirts was hand-inspected for quality, the customer ended up having to pay for 87 of the 100 shirts in the order.

In their first full year of business, Hutchinson and Fritz made $25,000 in sales. By 1987, that number had grown to $118,000.

In their early years, the duo owed much of their ability to stay afloat to the faith shown in them by their parents and friends -- and by their bankers -- in providing them with loans when needed.

One of the misconceptions about growing a successful business, Fritz said, is that some people say, "You guys were lucky."

"Luck certainly plays a part, but successful companies also make their own luck," he added.

You have to be willing to take chances and try new things in order to achieve lasting success, and not become stagnant, he said.

Real entrepreneurs, Fritz added, are those who believe in coming up with their own ideas and dreams, and making them happen.

"They see opportunities where others might not," he said.

Vicki Gerdes

Staff writer at Detroit Lakes Newspapers for the past 16 years, currently editor of the entertainment and community pages as well as covering city council and the Lake Park-Audubon School Board. Living in DL with my cat, Smokey.

(218) 844-1454