When Jeff Schaefer and his partner John Vandewiel bought a Rock Hill screen printing company in 1996, they had one employee, one press and one computer — and none of them knew how to operate the machines.
“We learned as we went along,” says Schaefer. “We did a lot of cold calling, picked up some small accounts. At the time, our company was located next to a Subway restaurant. We could hear the orders coming through the walls!”
Nonetheless, the unusual name, Wild Man Industries, opened doors and the two partners’ pure moxie got them through their first few months. Their big break came when the World Wrestling Federation (WWF) came calling.
“We were turning out 50 to 60 printed shirts a day, and they wanted 35,000 to 50,000 units a month,” says Schaefer. “ ‘We’re your people,’ I told them.”
Of course, the officials from WWF wanted to check out the plant before making a deal. So Schaefer called a realtor and borrowed the key to a vacant building just off Interstate 77 on Old Pineville Road. He bluffed his way through the visit. Two weeks later, with no equipment, no building and no staff, they had the contract — and two weeks to set up the business.
“We ran the first WWF order without test running,” says Schaefer. “The shirts were horrible. I thought it was over.”
But Wild Man Industries made the necessary adjustments and successfully delivered the order. The company evolved from that contract and is now turning out over 100,000 shirts a month for the WWF. It also markets caps, shirts and other souvenirs for other organizations, such as Alltel Communications and Black & Decker US. In addition to the World Wrestling Federation, the company’s clients now include sports teams, movie studios, musical acts, and department store chains. “We created a one stop shop for any type of corporate identity,” says Schaefer. “We’ll put a corporate logo on anything — coozies, pens, golf balls, mouse pads, apparel. We do all the work ourselves and promise overnight fulfillment.”
Last year Wild Man Industries was purchased by Speedway Motorsports Inc., which is building them a new facility in Harrisburg, near Lowes Motor Speedway.
While Schaefer hit a home run with the WWF contract, it did not take him by surprise. This former professional player prepared to run his business by studying the game of baseball. “If you’re a baseball purist, it’s the greatest strategic game there is,” says Schaefer.
Schaefer grew up on Long Island, the son of a judge and the oldest of four children. He went to the University of Maryland where he was named to the
All ACC Baseball Team in 1981, his junior year. He left college because he wanted to play major league ball, but promised his parents he would return for his degree (which he eventually did in 1985). He was drafted in the 12th round by the Baltimore Orioles and was assigned to what was then the Charlotte O’s.
Schaefer spent three years in Charlotte with the Orioles organization and was a member of the 1984 Charlotte O’s team that won the Southern League Championship. That winter, Crockett Park, the O’s homefield in South End, burned down. During the next decade, Schaefer moved up and down the minor and major league ranks. He made it briefly in the big leagues with the Chicago White Sox in 1989, but by 1993 he was back in Charlotte, playing for the Knights. He is the only player in Charlotte baseball history to win championships with both the Charlotte O’s and the Charlotte Knights.
Altogether, Schaefer spent eight and a half years in the minor leagues and four and a half years in the majors. He says the time in the minors was the best in his life.
“We had no money,” he recalls. “We traveled everywhere on buses and ate on $10 to $15 a day. We bonded as a franchise and a team, and I made some real close friendships.”
When Schaefer made it to the Major Leagues, it was a much different lifestyle — single rooms, chartered flights, someone else to carry the luggage.
“Every kid who ever puts on a uniform dreams of playing in the ‘big leagues,’ ” says Schaefer. “There is an adrenaline rush just stepping onto a big league field and knowing you’re one of the best 800 players in the world.”
Although Schaefer hit only two home runs in four years, he thought he would wear a uniform for the rest of his life — if not as a player, then as a coach or manager. But when the players’ strike closed down the ball parks in 1994, Schaefer was 35 years old, a utility player, and a free agent. It was time to look for a challenge somewhere else.
Schaefer liked his initial exposure to Charlotte and had returned nearly every off-season. He had invested in Buzsaw Apparel, a Charlotte company which manufactured golf clothes, and saw that the city was growing and its economy beginning to boom. He decided to settle in Charlotte, and it was while playing golf with his friend, John Vandewiel, that the idea of Wild Man Industries was born.
“The name Wild Man came from the way I played baseball,” says Schaefer. “It also stood for our attitude about business — aggressively getting business and doing whatever it takes.”
Together the partners purchased the Rock Hill screen printing company, Pro Expressions, and haven’t looked back since. One of the reasons is Schaefer’s application of baseball management principles to his business.
Schaefer has organized the company like a team. He’s the general manager, not the executive director, and while the final decisions rest with him, the company operates in a linear, rather than hierarchical fashion.
“Nobody is greater in value than anybody else,” Schaefer says. “There are no superstars. It’s fun — like being inside a clubhouse.”
It’s also a little like a family. Schaefer’s mother, Pat Rodgers is a partner; his sister, Courtney Rodgers, is on the sales team; and his fiancee, Tracy Thatcher, is assistant general manager. Vandewiel is creative director and, says Schaefer, the two are as close as brothers. “We’ve shared houses, drunk together and clocked each other.”
Roddy Broadnax, who left Alltel to head up corporate sales at Wild Man in January, says Schaefer runs the company more like a coach than a general manager, promoting teamwork and encouraging everybody to do their best. “And there’s nothing he won’t do himself,” says Broadnax, “whether it’s picking up the trash or making a delivery.”
Broadnax got to know the team at Wild Man as the buyer for Alltel’s sportswear. He appreciated the customer service the company provided and thinks it is one of Wild Man’s greatest assets.
Wild Man Industries now employs 80 people, including two in-house graphic artists and an information technology specialist. It runs three shifts a day and, with seven automatic presses, can produce 500 to 800 shirts an hour. It has the capacity to do 70,000 impressions a week, including printing on black, and can print up to 14 different colors.
“No one person can build anything like what we’ve built,” says Schaefer. “The people who work here are the best. And, theye want to come to work here. It’s addictive.”
Playing in the Big Leagues
Last year, just two and a half years after Shaefer started the company, Wild Man Industries was purchased by Speedway Motorsports Inc.
“We were profitable; we had the WWF contract, and were small enough to develop into whatever they wanted,” explains Schaefer. For a company that set its goal to be the best in Charlotte, being associated with Speedway meant a giant stride towards home plate.
“It meant that what we envisioned happening in 10 years would be accelerated,” says Schaefer. “It was also a relief. The pressure of owning and operating a company growing so fast was intense. We were flying, working crazy hours, doing whatever we had to do to get the job done.”
During busy times, the company would rent rooms at a nearby Howard Johnson. Schaefer was once so exhausted, he fell asleep in the bathtub for three hours. Now, Wild Man has the backing of SMI. This month it will move into a new 53,000 square foot facility in Harrisburg, replacing the two buildings it is now using on Old Pineville Road
“Being associated with SMI gives us credibility,” says Broadnax. “We can leverage the relationship. It demonstrates that no job is too big for us."
Schaefer expects the association with Speedway to propel Wild Man Industries onto the national scene. “We’re playing in a tougher league now,” he says. “The field gets smaller, the higher you go. The strong and the good survive.”
Wild Man Industries grossed $8 million in sales this year. In two years Schaefer anticipates grossing over $10 million and, in ten years, $35 to $40 million. “We’re slowly getting national awareness, now,” he says. “Things will really pop when we hit the national market.”
While Wild Man Industries gears up for the corporate big leagues, Schaefer is looking forward to returning to baseball for the first time since 1994. This summer he plans to coach a team of 16 to 18-year-olds. It will be the first time he’s put on a uniform in seven years.
“I’ll be glad to get back into ball,” says the former pro ballplayer, who’s now swinging for the fence in his own business.