Big-Business Printers: T-Formation Finds a Perfect Fit in Midway

Big-Business Printers T-Formation finds a perfect fit in Midway By Daniel Mutter Originally published in the Feb/Mar 2010 issue of 850 Business Magazine


Deafening motors scream as the giant, 18-armed metallic monster presses down new colors onto tightly stretched T-shirts. Workers bustle about at an almost frantic pace as they print, package, tag and dry Chick-fil-A T-shirts here and Walt Disney World shirts over there. Thousands of boxes are piled to the roof, filled with blank shirts waiting to be printed, while trucks sit outside, ready to ship the next load anywhere from Key West to South Africa.

Welcome to T-Formation, a massive facility that prints millions of T-shirts a year and sits 10 miles west of Tallahassee in the Gadsden County town of Midway.

With more than 120 employees and 22 years in business, T-Formation is one of the largest T-shirt screen printers in the country. The company designs, prints and embroiders shirts for a clientele that includes Adidas, Chick-fil-A, Coca-Cola, GEICO, Kellogg’s, Lowe’s, McDonald’s, Nestlé, Nike, Regions Bank, Southwest Airlines, Sun Trust, Under Armour, the U.S. Army, Wells Fargo and hundreds of Fortune 500 companies, universities, nonprofit organizations and small local businesses around the world.

T-Formation owners Bart Mitchell, Drew Mitchell and Alan Gentry in the Midway plantPresident and co-founder Alan Gentry graduated with a finance degree from Florida State University in 1986. After 10 months as a stockbroker, the market plummeted and he was looking for a new profession.

He and Sigma Chi fraternity brother Bart Mitchell came up with the idea of starting their own screen printing business.

“We just went through a ton of T-shirts in college,” Gentry says, explaining the genesis of the company.

They brought their business plan to Mitchell’s father, Peter Mitchell, president of Peter Mitchell Associates, a Tallahassee-based advertising agency. Soon Gentry and the Mitchells were in business as T-Formation.

The company’s first shop was a small, 1,500-square-foot warehouse at the corner of Apalachee Parkway and Capital Circle Southeast in Tallahassee. The shop eventually expanded to 4,500 square feet and housed five employees. Gentry worked the sales end of the business, and most of the production was geared toward the fraternities and sororities at FSU.

As the company grew, Gentry relied on the advice and experience of the Mitchell family to carry out daily operations.

“We would meet at Sonny’s (barbecue restaurant) on a daily basis to talk about the business and what was going on,” says Drew Mitchell, Bart’s brother and an associate of Peter Mitchell Associates. “He’d ask questions, we’d ask questions, and that’s how we did business back then.”

Besides providing the financial backing to start up T-Formation, the Mitchells’ experience with larger clientele enabled Gentry to grow the business like never before. Their advice and wisdom in the business and public relations worlds proved invaluable for the young CEO.

By the early 1990s, T-Formation was FSU’s second-largest licensee and printed the college’s 1993 national football championship T-shirts. Contracts with the Florida Lottery also brought the company to new heights. Yet it was the work with nonprofit organizations that led the company to print more shirts than ever.

A contract with the National Multiple Sclerosis Society in the early ’90s had employees printing upwards of 50,000 shirts for the organization’s national MS 150 walk.

“We started to grow in the nonprofit world like kudzu, and the MS Society national office up in New York City had always selected a national vendor,” Gentry says. “Well, the problem was that they kept selecting a national vendor, but we were printing for more of their chapters than the national vendor. So they pretty much had to give us the national vendorship by default.”

T-Formation soon outgrew the Capital Circle facility, leading to the decision to build a new 7,000-square-foot home at Garber Drive in Tallahassee.

“We moved into that place and thought it was a blimp hangar, it was so large,” Gentry says. “We never thought that we would outgrow it.” However, the company did exactly that — and expanded to more than 13,000 square feet in only 10 years.

The growing demand for T-shirts had the screen printers buying more tees than ever before. They had to keep an additional warehouse around the corner just for blank shirts.

“We had started purchasing a lot of T-shirts from Hanes, and they took notice of the fact,” Gentry says. “They started introducing us to higher corporate clients, and that is when we met Coca-Cola.” In 1996, T-Formation was the soft drink company’s contract printer for the Olympics in Atlanta.

Some of T-Formation’s largest clients began pouring in as the company started printing “hot market” items such as locker-room T-shirts, similar to those that athletic teams wear on the sidelines after winning big games; they are printed quickly so fans can purchase them in stores the next day. Clients have included the NCAA Final Four, the NFL Conference Championships, the past three summer Olympics, multiple Super Bowls, various NASCAR teams and even a World Series or two.

“It’s a lot of fun. I always look forward to those events,” says Marshall Atkinson, T-Formation’s vice president of operations. “Sometimes we’re only printing for one team, so we’ll have a tailgate party with all the employees and we’ll be rooting for that one team, whether you like them or not, because we’re only printing if that team wins.”

T-Formation now sits in a 45,000-square-foot shop in the small town of Midway and operates 24 hours a day. Printers operate three manual presses and nine automatic presses. The largest is an 18-color press capable of layering up to 18 different colors on one shirt.

“A lot of printers don’t have this technology, it’s really expensive,” Atkinson says. “We use it for more high-end clients, like Disney.”

The company also employs a digital press for smaller orders and events. It works just like a home desktop printer, except it prints on T-shirts rather than paper. The digital press can complete a shirt in as little as a minute.

In addition to the printing presses, the facility houses 19 automated sewing machine heads, a custom label printer and bagging machines. There are more than 500,000 blank T-shirts on hand at all times.

“We need to keep a lot of shirts around because it’s not uncommon to get a call on Monday for a couple thousand shirts on Friday,” Atkinson says.

T-Formation now employs more than 100 workers in order to provide fast and dependable products for clients all over the world.

“More from an employment standpoint, especially in today’s world, those employers that employ over 100 folks are becoming much more important to the business community,” says David Gardner of the Gadsden County Chamber of Commerce. “I can only say great things about them, and any business that employs a lot of folks right now deserves all the accolades they can get.”

Now producing more than 5 million T-shirts a year, T-Formation continues to soar. In 2008, it was ranked the eighth-largest screen printer in the nation by Impressions magazine, a leading trade publication.

The company continues to expand every year. It grew more than 9.5 percent in 2008 despite the troubling economy.

“One of the things that we pride ourselves in is that you come to us and we can do just about anything for you; we call it the one-stop shop,” Gentry says. “This economy has lent itself to challenges that nobody could have expected, but we keep getting better, and our goal as a company is to continue creating an efficient and enjoyable buying experience.”



Efficiency Through New Technology and Green Practices


T-Formation uses integrated software that tracks the progress and location of all products in every department of the shop. When products are shipped, the program automatically notifies clients and provides them with a tracking number. The company saved more than $2,000 in 2009 alone on postage and paper by e-mailing invoices rather than mailing them.

In addition to notification of shipment via Internet, T-Formation’s tech experts are setting up Web sites for each of their clients to send orders directly to the company, which streamlines the process.

T-Formation has also started doing its part to help the environment by offering products that use recycled plastic. In partnership with Coca-Cola, the company has begun to produce T-shirts that are made from 50 percent recycled plastic soft-drink bottles. The shirts feel just like normal T-shirts but are made from a 50/50 blend (50 percent cotton, 50 percent recycled plastic fibers). T-Formation has printed these shirts and shipped them across the world to companies in Poland, Australia, New Zealand, Africa, Europe and North America.

The company’s innovations don’t stop there. It recently achieved a Sustainable Green Printing Partnership certification, making it part of an alliance of printers who improve their environmental stewardship by ending wasteful processes. Each year, members must create and complete one project that will ultimately improve the company environmentally. T-Formation’s goal for 2009 was to reduce its electricity usage by 5 percent.

An energy audit from T-Formations’ power company, Talquin Electric Cooperative, changed business practices dramatically. Workers turned off 54 of the 112 high-wattage bulbs in the factory. They also moved office thermostats to new locations and updated air ductwork across the facility. As of September 2009, the company had reduced its electricity by 10.24 percent — more than twice its original goal — and now saves an average of $1,000 a month on utility bills.

T-Formation has also set up its own recycling program. Each month, the company gathers all of the recyclables from around the facility as well as from the homes of employees. Large plastic ink drums are reused as recycling bins and trash cans, and broken pallets are donated to a local craftsman. —Daniel Mutter