BERRYVILLE, AR – Many young entrepreneurs dream of starting their own business, but a lack of funds, vision or commitment often force them to abandon their goals and settle for a less than exciting career choice. Vic Kennett was one of the lucky ones. In 1987, the 23-year-old worked in the construction trade in his hometown of Eureka, Arkansas. Kennett had accepted Christ a year earlier and had noticed people wearing T-shirts with Christian messages and scriptures. One day while scraping tile off a restroom floor, he thought out loud, “I could make T-shirts like that.” So with a $1,000 family loan and three shirt designs he placed an ad in Campus Life magazine and began a mail order business called Kerusso, a Greek work that means “to proclaim the gospel.” He’d check for orders during his lunch break and when he had enough orders he’d take them to a local screen printer to print. Barely breaking even on this approach, he almost quit but was encouraged by his sister not to give up. He decided wholesale might be a better route and took two days off of work to visit area Christian bookstores and found they wanted what he had to sell. He added a few more designs and found a regional sales group to carry his designs to the Christian market. One of Kerusso's first customers, Lyn Adams of Joy Unlimited of Vienna, Virginia, said T-shirts were a new thing in Christian bookstores in 1987 and when she got her first Kerusso flyer she thought "they were the best things I had ever seen" and went on to sell thousands of Kerusso tees. The Kennett home became a factory for Kennett to print his shirts using a tabletop press and a hairdryer set up in the backroom of his home—a choice he made after vowing not to go in debt for Kerusso. After signing with a national sales group increased his orders, he was able to quit his job and concentrate on Kerusso full-time. “I hung up my hammer and picked up a squeegee,” he said. “When I became a Christian I felt personally responsible for the Great Commission.” When the Kennett house got too crowded for man and machine, Kerusso rented a nearby building and hired its first employee. Within a couple of years, Kennett purchased the entire 30,000 square foot facility to keep up with the 50-100% annual growth Kerusso was experiencing. In 1995, Kerusso had outgrown that facility and a 6,000-square-foot warehouse and offices were built at the current location in the Industrial Park in Berryville. Since then five additions to the building have been made and two additional building have been purchased—one that houses a fitness center for the more than 110 employees. Today the Kerusso campus fills 80,000-square-feet, including an in-house printing facility, which is responsible for the production of 1 million shirts a year.
Becoming a leader
Kerusso came into the CBA market a year behind another apparel leader, Living Epistles, and Solid Light a few years later. Of the “big three” Christian apparel companies, Kerusso is the only one still under concurrent ownership. The company appeared at its first CBA in Anaheim in 1995 with a 10-by-10 foot gridwall. Kerusso’s creativity has carried over into their trade show exhibits. Today, show shoppers can recognize Kerusso’s four linear booths from practically anywhere on the trade floor. The 20-by-30 foot aluminum island is constructed using lights, plexiglass and wood. In 1998, Kerusso made an effort to broaden its offering into gifts with leather bookmarks and floating action pens. Seeing it as a “worthwhile category,” the product development team has added jewelry and accessories, tools and an underserved category in the Christian market: toys. In the last two years, Kerusso has tackled a task retailers often struggle with: merchandising apparel and gifts in tight spaces. Stores that use the Light House Apparel Center report a 330% increase in T-shirt sales by displaying 240 T-shirts in 4 square feet of space. The new Beacon™ Accessory Center is expected to do the same for jewelry and accessories in less than 1 ½ square feet of space. “T-shirts are our backbone,” Kennett said. “I believe in everything we do, but a shirt is so evangelical, probably more than any product—not just in our line, but in any line. It is so public and it is large enough to say something. It’s a large canvas.”