In 2005, Alternative Apparel was a young, hip, B2B company, supplying blank t-shirts and other sportswear to retailers and wholesalers. But in its own youthful hip-ness, the company had become a challenge to operate. The actions of the workforce rarely aligned with the vision of management. In fact, they often moved in distinctly opposite directions. And although Alternative Apparel was growing, it lacked the basics; like a brand vision, well-defined culture, and basic standardized processes that everyone could understand and embrace. To compound matters, management was highly frustrated by the even greater success that their major competitor, American Apparel, was enjoying.
In collaboration with the executive team and a hand-picked team of front-line employees from all parts of the company, we used a Reason for Being exercise. It taught us that the people who wore the product (not the retailers) should get most of the brand’s attention. The new Reason for Being gave the business heart and helped employees answer the “Why come to work today?” question. It also re-focused the entire organization on moving in one, collaborative direction.
The process included a series of exercises, beginning with a whole-group intervention, followed quickly by breakout sessions of smaller teams of employees. These teams explored dozens of different options with implications on both current and future business. Each person was given the opportunity to think through how their professional role would be affected by any changes. The breakout teams were then brought back together for group discussion and validation.
With management’s wholehearted endorsement, each person who was part of the project played an important role. Each had different books to read, homework to prepare, and observations to make. Everyone was involved. This organized, methodical process gave employees a sense of involvement and empowerment. Gradually, the feelings moved from a “me” attitude to a “we” attitude. Everyone began to work together toward a common goal, one that they came to believe they could only achieve collectively, not as individuals.
These efforts ultimately resulted in new corporate governing principles, the definition of emotional outcomes, and a Roles and Accountabilities design.
As part of this evolving process, Alternative Apparel has had four engagements with Mike between 2005 and 2010. The brand and the company are dramatically different then they were so many years ago. They’ve encouraged employees who didn’t fit the new culture to find places that serve them better. They’ve changed their hiring protocol to find—and keep—the people who do fit. People now stay with the company longer and contribute more quickly. Employees feel much more comfortable and prouder in their roles. The opportunity to promote from within has increased immensely.
More importantly, sales have grown 40% the past two years in a declining market, and profit is up significantly. The company has also branched into the B2C marketplace online, opened four retail stores, and earned in-store distribution deals with major retailers like Nordstrom, Bloomingdales, and REI. Today Alternative Apparel no longer considers itself a t-shirt company. They are proud to call themselves a lifestyle firm with an emphasis on individual expression and comfort.