Treasured memories of times spent on Gull Lake near Brainerd, Minn., in his youth were among the factors leading David Burke ’13 to create a clothing brand built around the Midwestern dedication to an outdoor lifestyle.
Launched in 2012 by Burke and longtime friend Spencer Barrett, while still in college, the Great Lakes Collection of clothing shows a commitment to American-made products and to giving back to the lakes that inspired the brand by donating 1 percent of each sale to Conservation Minnesota and Alliance for the Great Lakes. To further emphasize this connection, Burke and Barrett chose a logo for Great Lakes that would be simple, iconic and representative of the Midwest: the loon.
“If you’ve ever heard a loon call, you have to stop and pay attention to it because you rarely hear it, and when you do, it’s a beautiful thing. We like to think our brand elicits a similar response,” Burke said.
An entrepreneurship major at St. Thomas, Burke started toying around with the idea of Great Lakes his junior year. He had noticed that other states were using clothing as a way to highlight their region and felt inspired to do the same with Minnesota.
“The textile industry is all based mainly down [south] and out west. ... There are very few clothing brands and clothing companies that have been rooted in the Midwest,” Burke said.
The Entrepreneurial Financial Resource Management course, taught by Jay Ebben, Ph.D., helped him figure out how to finance the venture.
“That information has been helpful today and will be helpful when we actually take in equity money, hopefully within a year,” Burke said.
As with any startup, Burke and Barrett found a trusted source to assist with the venture early on – Burke’s neighbor, Paul Karos of Whitebox Advisors, who also was one of their initial investors.
“He’s a finance guru. ... Whenever I have a question about any large business decision or purely finance, he’s the guy I go talk to,” Burke said.
Burke cites Grant Spanier ’13, who assisted with shirt and website design, as another initial big help.
Barrett believes he and Burke make a good team because they’ve shared the same vision from the start and have capitalized on their personal strengths and delegated tasks: Burke handles finances and product development while Barrett takes on branding and marketing.
The first year saw major success, with Great Lakes exceeding its $75,000 goal by $10,000 in online revenue for the year, a figure that includes a Kickstarter campaign that surpassed its goal and speaks to the network the company built in its first year.
While Great Lakes’ initial merchandise consisted of wholesale American Apparel shirts emblazoned with its logo, Burke and Barrett are currently busy making a transition to the next tier of manufacturing; they are working with one of the largest cut-and- sew plants in the country to create a new line from the ground up. T-shirts will be made in North Carolina, polo shirts sewn in Chicago and leatherwork done in Maplewood, Minn.
The benefits are numerous: more control over the finished product, better communication with the development teams at each factory and transparency in the manufacturing process.
“A lot of it is ... connecting the final consumer to the people actually making their product. So whether that is Brian down in North Carolina who’s manufacturing our new shirts or Dave, our local screen printer here in Hopkins, I think people see a lot of value in transparency,” Barrett said.
Burke and Barrett are taking Great Lakes beyond their online store and entering retail this spring at Brightwater Clothing & Gear in Excelsior, Minn., and Seaview Outfitters in Oxford, Ohio, and Bloomington, Ind.
Both agree it has been exciting to not only watch their dreams become reality, but also to become a financially successful reality. After two years, Burke and Barrett have finally reached the stage all entrepreneurs hope for: a paycheck!