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Lakeshirts: Childhood friends are still making shirts, pleasing customers

Mark Fritz and Mike Hutchinson, who grew up together, started Lakeshirts years ago. Photo by Brian Basham

A really good shirt has the ability to actually make somebody feel a little different.  A little sharper. A tad more fun. A bit braver. Energized. Ready to take on nearly anything the day can throw out there.

In Detroit Lakes, two entrepreneurs are finding great success in carefully threading together millions of those good shirts with a good business model. Their result is a stretchy, x-large company called Lakeshirts.

Back when

Mark Fritz and Mike Hutchinson grew up as buddies who lived down the street from each other.

The Detroit Lakes boys seemed born to build businesses.

“We messed around with a number of businesses together,” said Fritz. “From painting houses, to taking out docks, to mowing lawns…”

“…to selling worms,” Hutchinson interjected.

Fritz’s father, a dentist in town, poked around the art of shirt-making, sharing his skill with his son, Mark and his buddy, Mike.

The two started literally cooking up their business in the basement of Fritz’s parent’s house.

“My grandfather was an electrician,” said Fritz, “so he put in a couple of old ovens, and we built a screen print machine out of plywood and metal clamps.”

“We put them on cookie sheets, stuck them in the oven and cooked them two at a time,” explained Hutchinson.

The young men would do this for fun, making T-shirts for different events around the area.

But while away at college in Montana, 19-year-old Fritz couldn’t help but notice how well a particular line of shirts was doing at some of the ski resorts there, “and I thought … well, we know how to make shirts,” he said, calling Hutchinson up with the idea of really making a go of creating a shirt-making business.

The duo put school on hold for a while and went back to Detroit Lakes.

They rolled up their sleeves and took off their shoes.

“That was the good thing about it, we didn’t have to wear shoes,” laughed Hutchinson, who says they would often work all day and into the night that summer making shirts for area resorts.

“The first year was $13,400 in gross income,” laughed Hutchinson. “It was great; percentage wise it was our most profitable year ever.”

They hired a couple of people; they got a store front in Detroit Lakes, and things began to grow.

“It was easy to double your sales when you were doing $30,000 in sales,” joked Mark, “so I don’t know if anything ever felt like it was overnight.”

Lakeshirts and its growing crew and growing inventory of equipment moved around town to different locations before settling down in the Industrial Park.

 A 15,000 square foot building purchased in 1991 has been added onto seven times as Lakeshirts acquired land and real estate around it, sprawling out onto nearly 300,000 square feet of operational space.

Over the 29 years Lakeshirts has been in business, its co-owners made mistakes, made strides and settled into their own strengths.

“Willingness to change is the key to keeping growth going because what we’re selling this year isn’t what we were selling five years ago and it won’t be what we’ll be selling five years from now,” said Hutchinson.

“We want to be the quick and the nimble,” added Fritz.

Living in the now

Part of the change that has happened at Lakeshirts is “Blue 84” — a label Hutchinson’s wife, Cheryl, came up with as a way to deal in its collegiate interests.

When the company handles the resort market, they are Lakeshirts; when it does business with colleges and the 2,500 elementary schools around the country they shipped spiritwear to last year, they are Blue 84.

The company grew 15 percent from last year alone, ringing the registers in at roughly $60 million in sales — half in the resort market.

“We’re passionate about the product that we put out, decorations, garments…” said Fritz, who says there are 29 in-house artists constantly creating new ideas, “We’re passionate about the artwork and the fact that we can do some things that other embroiderers don’t do.”

But as Fritz and Hutchinson sit back and look at the enormous progress their business has made, they don’t sit for long.

“It’s not like we really think, ‘Oh, wow, look at how big we’ve become,’” said Fritz, “We think, ‘I can’t believe how small we are…there’s still a lot of room to grow.’”

And part of the reason they do continue to grow, they say, is the “novel notion” of working hard, doing things right and treating people well.

“Even back when we were barefooted, it was still about satisfying the customers,” said Fritz. “If you tell them you’re going to do something, you do it.”

“If you do things right and don’t try to cut corners, the growth will follow,” said Hutchinson.

A recent addition to the facility is now designed to give Lakeshirts 60 percent more operational capacity to do deliveries faster than before — as they spin out roughly 20,000 to 25,000 items a day, or 7 million shirts a year.

It’s a feat that’s possible when you have round-the-clock shifts and a 450-person staff.

“We used to say it’d be nice to provide a bunch of jobs for people around here,” said Fritz, who says he believes Lakeshirts continues to evolve into a place that provides good jobs.

“We want them to be jobs that people can be proud of … we wouldn’t be here today if we didn’t have so many good, solid people,” he added.

Hutchinson and Fritz say people ask them how they’ve worked together as business partners for 29 years, but they say it’s gotten even easier over the years.

In fact, they still live down the street from each other and they still go on hunting trips together.

“I back him up when he misses,” joked Fritz. 

“I never miss,” laughed Hutchinson.

And while the entrepreneurs and life-long buddies don’t like to be called “lucky,” they hope their big dreams from the ‘80s continue to grow into the future.

“Our goal is just to make a difference in the lives of our employees, our customers and the community that we grew up in,” said Fritz. “We love Detroit Lakes.”