Democrat Gazette – Vic Kennett Self-Portrait

BERRYVILLE, AR — SELF PORTRAIT

Date and place of birth:

Oct. 12, 1963, in La Grange, Ill.

Family:

wife Melody, sons Nik and Kyle, daughter Cassidy

Occupation:

Founder and CEO of Kerusso

My best time of day is

every moment I’m conscious of God’s presence.

A person I look up to is

Jesus.

The best advice I ever received is

“Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your strength and with all your mind,” and “Love your neighbor as yourself.”

My favorite thing

about my job is knowing that I’m serving God and making a difference in the world.

The last great book I read was

besides the Bible, The Contrarian’s Guide to Leadership by Steven B. Sample.

My favorite movie of all time:

Only one? That’s tough! I’d say Lord of the Rings.

One thing I’d like to improve is

my patience.

The place I’d most like to visit is

Israel.

A phrase to sum me up:

“Forgetting the past and looking forward to what lies ahead, I press on to reach the end of the race and receive the heavenly prize for which God, through Christ Jesus, is calling us.” (from the New Testament)

Vic Kennett was ready to throw in the towel.

Actually, it was T-shirts he was giving up on, but it’s not important what form the cotton took. What mattered was that after a year of trying to make a go of selling Christiantheme T-shirts, Kennett decided there was no future in it.

He figured he would stick with construction, and bide his time until another business idea came to mind. His sister pleaded with him to hang on a little longer, though, insisting there was a great purpose in what he was trying to do.

“[My sales] were just paying for the ads,” Kennett recalls. “I was barely breaking even, and I was getting ready to quit. My sister, who is a believer, encouraged me, ‘Oh hold on, God will show up and he’ll work it out.’”

With that encouragement in mind, Kennett decided to make one final push. He took a day off from his construction job and drove around to every Christian bookstore he knew in about a 50-mile radius of Eureka Springs.

He showed the stores the handful of T-shirts he’d come up with, and they liked what he was selling. By day’s end, Kennett was back in business, and his Christian apparel company, Kerusso, was on the road to something big.

Today, Kerusso is celebrating its 25th year in business. It employs more than 100 people in Berryville and will distribute its 14 millionth T-shirt later this year, Kennett says. His company’s merchandise is available in more than 100 countries, and it has donated more than $1.5 million to charities around the world.

After cities such as Joplin, Mo., and New Orleans were devastated by natural disasters, Kerusso gave away thousands of T-shirts to clothe the newly homeless – T-shirts that never would have existed had Kennett called it quits back in the late ’80s.

“I didn’t know anything about business at the time, other than bigger-picture type lessons my dad taught me,” Kennett says. “I hadn’t really gotten into a lot of strong courses at the UA that told me you needed a business plan.”

Kennett was a college dropout in his mid-20s when he started Kerusso in 1987 in a spare room at his Eureka Springs home. He had already started one business that had gone under, a health club, and needed to borrow $1,000 from his brother just to get Kerusso going.

Had Kerusso not made it, Kennett would have likely started another company – and another, and another, until one finally succeeded. But it’s doubtful he would have been able to derive the same pleasure he gets from Kerusso, where he combines a lifelong passion for entrepreneurship with his strong Christian beliefs.

“Vic’s mindset for the company is very evangelistic,” says Rusty Dycus of Berryville, Kerusso’s vice president of sales. “He gives back to so many.

“Vic has a heart that [affects] people. We’re a for profit company, but very mission-focused, and that comes from Vic.”

SOUND IN BODY

Kennett turns 50 in a year and a half.

He sure doesn’t look it, though. Sore knees prevent him from running much anymore, but he remains in excellent shape.

He has always loved to lift weights, and he logs intense sessions on stationary bikes.

“Even when I met Vic, he was very fit,” says Melody, Kennett’s wife of 26 years. “He was always on some new diet, always lifting weights. He opened his health club because he wanted people to be very fit.”

About a decade ago, Kennett opened up a gym next to Kerusso’s headquarters. He has never charged employees to use the gym, and he is always encouraging them to get in a workout or to find some way to improve their health.

This past year, Kerusso took first place in its division in the 2011 Blue and You Fitness Challenge, an exercise competition for members of various organizations across the state.

In this competition, the company would have been penalized had employees skipped workouts or dropped out of the program, but Kennett made sure they stayed on track, according to Kerusso’s Human Resources director, Bob Ahart of Holiday Island.

“He certainly lives [a healthful] lifestyle, and he encourages that in his business a great deal,” says Gary Hayhurst of Eureka Springs, who has been Kennett’s pastor at Faith Christian Family Church in Eureka Springs for more than a quarter-century. “He believes true wellness is both soul and body. Vic wants to be well in all parts.”

Every year, Kerusso enters a team in the 5K running portion of the annual Berryville Ice Cream Social, a race it frequently wins; Kennett finished second in his age group last year. Employees get involved with the event and many other events that take place in the Carroll County city.

“We’re really proud to have such a national company in a small town,” says Ginger Oaks, the director of the Berryville Chamber of Commerce. “Any time we ever need any help and holler for them, they’re wonderful for us. They make a big impact here.”

While physical wellness is something that has always been important to Kennett, a concern for his spiritual health took longer to emerge.

Kennett attended Catholic services with his mother when his family was living in suburban Chicago, but it was limited to Sunday Mass and little more. It simply “wasn’t a big part of our house,” he recalls, and he believes his late father might have been an agnostic.

When he was in fifth grade, the family moved to Eureka Springs and stopped going to church altogether. That same year, Kennett decided he was an atheist.

One day at a yard sale he spotted a book titled The Late, Great Planet Earth. Kennett bought the book for a quarter, and reading it changed his life- but only somewhat.

“I went from being an atheist to being able to take a step of faith,” he says. “I prayed a prayer, invited God into my life, Jesus into my heart, and became a Christian.

“My heart and my mind changed, but my lifestyle didn’t. I didn’t put actions to my new faith. I went through a lifestyle that a lot of teenagers go through, drinking and carousing and looking for girls.”

A deeper commitment didn’t come until Kennett was 21. To him, that meant trying to live a wholesome lifestyle, trying to be a good father, husband and Christian.

It also meant helping the less fortunate. In 2005, Kerusso launched the Live for Him project, selling silicone wristbands with “LIVE FOR HIM” imprinted on them for $1.50 each (today the price is $1.99).

For each one that is sold, a quarter goes to Compassion International, a Christian child sponsorship ministry. Kennett says more than $360,000 has been raised for the organization.

“He’s told me, ‘You could be the next Steve Jobs, making millions trying to do something in the secular market on a huge scale, but what I get to do is the most fulfilling feeling in the world,’” says Kennett’s son Nik, a student at the University of Arkansas. “I truly think my father is one of the least selfish people I have ever met.”

HARDWORKING MEN

Don and Margaret Kennett didn’t believe in idling away the days.

Kennett’s parents were 54 and 42 respectively, when he was born, Great Depression survivors who believed that a good life involved working hard and contributing to the community. After Don Kennett retired from his job as a salesman, he moved his family to Eureka Springs, drawn by the region’s natural beauty and low cost of living.

Vic Kennett had an uncle in Eureka Springs who owned the Swiss Village Inn, and shortly after the family moved, Vic and his older brother Al took jobs there. During the summers, they made beds and swept the parking lot, and then went off to their evening jobs, performing in the Great Passion Play.

“From age 12 on, I pretty much had two jobs every summer,” Vic Kennett says. “I think it was something my dad instilled in us, to just be a productive person.”

Don Kennett had succeeded as a salesman because he believed in persistence, that a person could find success by focusing and working long hours, Vic says.

He also believed in integrity. Before Vic was born, his father owned a furniture store that failed, and he was stuck with the bills when his partner split.

He notes with pride that his father paid back every cent that was owed.

“He was a salesman, but not a salesman type,” says Al Kennett, who lives in Berryville. “He was really kind of serene in the pursuit of his own goals.

“As soon as we moved down here, we both started working right away. That was our dad’s kind of thing.”

Don Kennett’s industriousness inspired his youngest son, and it is why Vic has never been entirely comfortable with the idea of sitting around and doing nothing.

As a teenager, he had a lawn-mowing business and sold shoes door to door.

“I have no idea what he would do [if he ever retired],” Melody Kennett says. “I know he would not be happy unless he was very busy. He has to have something to focus on.”

After graduating from Eureka Springs High School in 1981, Kennett enrolled at the University of Arkansas. He studied to be a business major, but about halfway through, he began wondering what the point was of going to college. He dropped out during his junior year.

He spent a few months clearing his head in Key West, Fla., and then moved back to Eureka Springs, where he opened a gym, Fit for Life. He was 20.

Kennett logged long hours and hustled to sign up new members. He figures that he got 10 percent of the population of Eureka Springs to enroll, but it still wasn’t enough.

“I’m sure there were things I could have done better, but really, the market was just not big enough,” he says. “I was working 12-hour days and averaging about $5 an hour. It was something I loved doing.”

Kennett closed the gym after a year and a half and waited for his next big idea. When he found it, it was staring him in the face.

MAN OF IDEAS

Shop was Kennett’s favorite class in high school.

His senior year, he took three hours of it. He loved working with his hands, and when the gym closed, it gave him something to fall back on.

After closing the gym, he quickly soured on being a Realtor and selling corrugated boxes. So he went into carpentry, working for various carpenters in Eureka Springs.

One day, he was on his hands and knees in a public restroom in downtown Eureka Springs, scraping up old tiles and installing new ones. A tourist walked by, wearing a T-shirt that had a Christian message.

Kennett doesn’t recall what the shirt said, but he remembers that he couldn’t stop thinking about it.

“I thought, ‘Wow that’s cool!’” Kennett says. “I had been trying my best to really follow God and live out my life that way. I wasn’t real happy with the work I was doing and I was searching. ‘God, what’s my path? Whatcan I do that pleases you, that feeds my family and is a fulfilling life for me?’”

Kennett actually had some experience in the world of Tshirts, having spent several summers working at T-shirt shops in Eureka Springs, the kind of places where someone picked out a shirt and some art, and an employee pressed it on the shirt.

Flat-broke, he borrowed $1,000 from his brother. More than half of it, $600, went to pay for a small black-andwhite advertisement in a magazine called Campus Life, which was geared toward college-age Christians.

Choosing the name Kerusso because it meant “to herald divine truth” in Greek, Kennett’s fledgling company offered three designs, all playing off the pop culture of 1987: Christian-theme versions of the Vuarnet sunglasses and Guess Jeans logos, and the slogan “Life’s a beach.”

In those pre-Internet days, Kennett received completed forms and checks in the mail, and mailed out customers’ orders a few weeks later.

That has all changed over time, but Kerusso still has a heavy focus on puns and playing off pop culture, using well-known images and words to spread the Word. “Live for Him,” for example, was a play off the popular Livestrong fundraising campaign (which raised millions of dollars for the Lance Armstrong Foundation), while patriotic-theme Christian shirts led to a $20,000 donation to the American Red Cross and Salvation Army after Sept. 11, 2001.

As the company has grown, Kennett has turned many of the administrative operations over to others but is still a major part of the creative team.

“‘Visionary’ is how I would describe his role in the company,” Dycus says. “Having an eye for great products is his strength. ‘Live for Him’ was basically a project that came from Vic himself.”

Kennett has sought to partner his company with like-minded people, which is how it ended up working with Sherwood Pictures. Kerusso has handled the official licensing for its movies – most recently Courageous, for which it created four T-shirt designs and a cap.

After Courageous came out, Kennett was on a business trip to New York. As is usually the case, he was wearing one of his company’s shirts out in public, this one made for the movie and a stranger stopped him and enthusiastically commented on his shirt.

This sort of event is increasingly common for Kennett. The more Kerusso grows, the more he spots people wearing his shirts – or they recognize Kerusso’s shirts on him – and he knows he is fulfilling his life’s mission.

“I’m thrilled with what we’re doing and the people we have here,” Kennett says. “We’re having a good time, and have a lot of work to do.

“We know what we’re doing is having an impact – we get letters and Facebook posts – but it’s really cool to see it in public.”

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