From Startup to Industry Leader, the Mission Stays the Same
The company that started in a spare room of Vic Kennett's Arkansas home has become the industry leader in Christian-themed apparel—with Kennett as CEO. But the story of Kerusso, Inc.—named from the Greek word meaning "to preach"— begins years before, in 1987, when Kennett pulled his first messaged t-shirt off the screen press.
"I was 12 years old and working two jobs," Kennett recalls. "In my uncle's motel and at the Passion Play as an actor."
Growing up in Eureka Springs, Ark., home to the outdoor event called The Great Passion Play, Kennett was in fact working three jobs. At age 12 he'd also launched his first entrepreneurial venture—selling shoes door-to-door. The ups and downs of self-employment, Kennett would later say, led to his career sharing the Gospel with products about Jesus.
Those products originate at Kerusso headquarters, a 65,000-square-foot facility in Berryville, Ark., a few miles from Eureka Springs, sitting on 10 acres and selling through more than 5,000 retailers in over 100 countries. But in 1987, when Kennett saw his first messaged t-shirt and thought, "I want to do that," he was coming off one of those "down" periods.
Because a few years earlier, at age 20, he'd left the University of Arkansas to start a fitness center.
"I had the entrepreneurial blood," he said. He also had a nest egg. His parents were shaped by living through the great depression and Vic was shaped by his parents. "Saving money and avoiding debt was the best financial advice I've ever lived by." (In fact, Kerusso today operates debt-free.)
In the 1980s fitness centers lacked the established niche they have now, and rural Arkansas lacked the population to sustain Kennett's enterprise. He was forced to close his center down.
What next? Kennett tried his hand at real estate and other sales jobs. By 1987, he was working construction, even adding a couple of rooms onto the home he shared with wife, Melody, whom he'd married two years before.
Still, the drive to own his own business never left, and about that time he saw his first t-shirt with a Christian message.
Just as he had been on a journey in his work life, Kennett was on a spiritual path as well. He'd been a believer since age 15, but in his early 20s Kennett's walk with the Lord began to deepen. His renewed commitment to serve the Lord was now intersecting with his desire to step out in faith in another entrepreneurial endeavor. And it happened to coincide with a frustrated entrepreneur seeing a product he believed in and believed he could sell.
Kennett jumped in, selling his Christian t-shirt designs originally by mail order through a small black and white ad in Campus Life magazine. "I'd accumulate orders for several weeks then consolidate my order and have a local screen-printer print them up for me. Waiting several weeks to receive your order isn't what we would call a great customer experience today!"
"It's a glimpse into how little I knew," he says now. "But I had a ton of determination and God's grace. It's a great example of ‘not by might, nor by power but by My Spirit."
At that point almost every experience in Vic Kennett's life came into play: His conversion and spiritual awakening, for example, gave him a thirst for a business with eternal significance. Business experience prepared him for the challenges of a startup. Construction work provided a spare room. Even his work in the Passion Play factored: in selling shirts to them he learned about manufacturer's reps, the traditional go-between for producers like him and the retailers he needed.
In short order Kennett was out of the mail order business and Kerusso shirts were on store shelves in a five-state area. Kennett had his own screen press and a dryer he fashioned himself.
"There was no Google then, and I was unaware of the trade association for screen printing," Kennett said. "I received a short lesson from a friend and started printing shirts."
Within a year Kerusso was in a 1,500-square-foot converted garage in an industrial building. Another year and he had the facility's other half. In 1992, just five years in business, he built a 6,000-square-foot building and doubled his space again. Kerusso relationships now spanned the U.S. and year-by-year Kerusso bought and assimilated neighboring properties until it now employs 100 people on its 10-acre campus.
In 1998, Kerusso added gifts, jewelry and accessories to its clothing lines. Exclusive licensing agreements with movie makers and authors are common for Kerusso now, most recently with Sherwood Pictures for the hit film COURAGEOUS and with Todd Burpo for the NY Times #1 bestselling book HEAVEN IS FOR REAL. Kerusso has enjoyed many great licensing relationships over the years including; Max Lucado (several titles including He Chose The Nails and 3:16 The Numbers of Hope), Francis Chan (Crazy Love and Forgotten God), FIREPROOF and The Love Dare (Sherwood), 86,400 by Lavaille Lavette, and The Prayer of Jabez by Bruce Wilkerson to name a few.
The Kerusso story continues to unfold with more than 14 million Christian message T-shirts sold and thousands of lives affected. Kennett routinely hears from customers who have life-changing encounters, often with total strangers, because of conversations started by the message on their t-shirt. Kennett and Kerusso continue to fulfill the mission that has guided them since they began over 30 years ago: "Proclaiming the Good News to the world, through products about Jesus."
Read more About Vic Kennett.