“I hate manufacturing,” joked Dean Wegner, founder and CEO of Authentically American, a Nashville-based apparel-making startup. To be fair, he wasn’t saying he hates all things industrial, but that it’s simply not his bailiwick. “It’s not my area of giftedness,” he added. “I’m much more into the business development and sales and marketing end of things. Don’t get me wrong – I’ve had many days when the guys in manufacturing were some of my best friends!”
Wegner’s company provides U.S.-made custom branded apparel and merchandise to corporate, educational, and nonprofit clients around the country. The whole category is an $8 billion per year business, and while Authentically American is just getting started in it, it’s posted growth rates of over 300% each of the past couple years. Those rates are handily beating out the growth of its foreign-produced competition, and Wegner forecasts even stronger growth for the future now that his supply chain is fully established.
Founded two years ago, Authentically American is aimed at reshoring a chunk of production of custom branded garments that companies spend big money on each year. Wegner first had the inspiration during his days working at Procter & Gamble (P&G). “I saw all the logo items that P&G was buying over the years, and did some digging,” he said. “That’s when I discovered the huge size of the corporate- and organization-branded apparel business. And I thought, why not give companies like them a high-quality American-made choice that’s competitively priced?”
That’s an approach that’s won the support of a good number of investors, including one of national prominence. “Darrell Waltrip is the most well-known,” said Wegner. “He’s a family man, a man of faith, and a very strong businessman, and he looked at us and said, ‘Dean, I love what you’re doing here, and I’m going to back you up.’ We have a total of 18 angel investors, including some West Point grads who want to make a difference and leave a legacy.”
Wegner is a graduate of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, New York, too. In addition to his devotion to U.S. manufacturing, he’s committed to continuing to serve his brothers and sisters in arms, and the company donates 10% of proceeds to charities supporting U.S. military veterans, first responders, and their families. That combination garnered them some healthy publicity, including an appearance on Fox & Friends. While their original business plan was to stick to the B2B side of things for a number of years, that publicity has prompted them to recently launch a consumer brand as well. That will help accelerate their future growth. “B2B and our consumer brand feed each other,” said Wegner. “You get some great cross-pollination.” The brand has some upcoming movie placements that will help too.
Today his company uses a whole slate of U.S. contract manufacturers to produce their wares. “We have t-shirts being made in Texas, hats in New Jersey, socks in North Carolina, and athletic jerseys in Georgia,” said Wegner. “In total, we have production in 12 states across the country.”
Wegner has a CPG background, which is one piece of what led to him running his own company. He spent six years doing sales for P&G, then moved on to Mars Inc. Eventually they sent him and his wife Kelly and their family to Nashville – their tenth move. “Mars is a great company, but we knew they’d be wanting me to pull up stakes again,” said Wegner. “Kelly grew up in Tennessee – in Jackson – and went to UT. We’d talked about eventually settling down and buying our own company, and figured Nashville was the place to do it.”
Another factor driving him was his military career. After he attended West Point, Wegner went into the U.S. Army, where he was a helicopter pilot and a Ranger, achieving the rank of Captain. That certainly played into his decision in 2012 to join a partner in purchasing an 18 year old company called Omega Apparel. “We made uniforms for the U.S. military,” Wegner explained. “We produced trousers, skirts, and slacks for the Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines, and Coast Guard.”
That business fulfilled a good bit of what Wegner and his family were after. But he realized it wouldn’t lead to one of his ultimate goals, to launch an iconic brand and create jobs. “My work experience at P&G and Mars taught me that a truly iconic brand needs to reach one billion dollars in sales,” he said. “So I sold my share of the company to my partner, and in July 2017 we launched Authentically American.”
Wegner is open that they’ve got a long way to go to reach their iconic brand goal. “Launching a new brand from scratch is an incredibly difficult thing,” he said. “I was at P&G for their Swiffer launch. The year one marketing budget alone was $100 million. Obviously we don’t have those kinds of resources.”
But he’s happy with their progress. “It couldn’t be a better time to be doing this,” Wegner said. “Put personal politics aside – whether it’s on the left or right, you talk to people across the board and you hear lots of talk about patriotism and made in the U.S.A. I was blessed to attend West Point, and now we’re a supplier to them. We also serve universities like Belmont, Vanderbilt and Lipscomb, and a number of charities. For the charities we provide our business services at cost. Giving back is a core company value for us.”
In the meantime, Wegner is just enjoying what he’s doing. “People ask me how I’m doing, and I tell them, ‘I’m exhausted!’”, he said. “Equally, though, I’ve never been more energized.”