Growing up in Parkway Village, Mike Bowen and his brother learned from their mother that everyone is a person, worthy of being treated equally.
There was only one color this entrepreneurial family saw.
“One of the great gifts my mother gave my brother and I. She said the only color we see is green and hopefully it has a Benjamin on it,” Bowen said with a laugh.
Today, Bowen uses that gift of acceptance as president and CEO of T-Shirt Champions. Through its Late Bloomers program, Champion hires those re-entering society after being incarserated. But the path to that program’s creation wasn’t straight-forward.
Champion is in its 47th year in Memphis, and other than a couple of years early on, Bowen has been with the family business for 40 of those years.
The business started in 1970 as a trophy company out of a barn on South Germantown Road before moving to what Bowen called a country shack on Winchester Road near Hickory Hill Road a year later. It moved near the intersection of Mendenhall Road and Winchester a year after that.
Bowen’s father later decided to start a T-shirt business, and the two entities eventually were combined in the current location.
Business was great for many years; by 1991, Champion had printed 100 million T-shirts operating out of a 40,000-square-foot building with 225 employees working seven days a week. But as the world of manufacturing shifted – specifically, Bowen said, the 1994 enactment of the North American Free Trade Agreement that opened the U.S. to more markets – Champion downsized to adapt to the changing landscape.
By 1996, there were 33 employees, and what had been an $11 million company was now $3.5 million a year. Bowen said the U.S. textile industry had gone from 23 million jobs to 230,000 in a 10-year period.
Today, Champion has 45 employees and does between $4.5 million and $5 million in annual sales. But as the company has found stability in a drastically different textiles industry, Bowen found another challenge.
“One thing a CEO does is to look into the future and try to plan for it and in 2005, 2006 I noticed that young people no longer wanted to work in a factory setting,” he said. “Meaning that in our neighborhood, there are a lot of people out of work in Parkway Village but a lot of kids quit coming in to fill out applications. They want a sizzle job. A sizzle job is you get a minimum wage, but you get air conditioning, a uniform shirt and you get a microphone and a cash register. And you’re stuck for the rest of your life. We don’t have sizzle jobs at Champion. We have jobs you have to work your tail off. We’re going to sweat even though the plant is air conditioned.”
As he noticed fewer applicants, Bowen got more involved in his adopted school, Wooddale High. Champion got a few interns that way, along with working through some of the community churches.
The Late Bloomers program didn’t begin because Bowen had a burning desire to improve re-entry for Shelby County’s ex-offenders. Bowen needed employees, someone willing to do a 20th century job in the 21st century.
Bowen said he received a phone call from a church pastor, which led to the program’s first employee. That was 2007, and that first hire is still with the company.
About the same time, his mom, Susan Bowen, was retired from the business. She spent time in prisons teaching re-entry, sharing skills such as how to interview for a job and fill out an application. She sent a prospective hire to Bowen.
It was 2008 and Champion had its second employee, and Bowen had an idea. He began calling halfway houses to find additional employees, and Late Bloomers was born.
It wasn’t easy in the beginning, Bowen said. They went through about 80 people, retaining only about 10 percent.
“The problem was until about 2011 it was me doing this,” Bowen said. “It was my program. I called our managers together and said, ‘Y’all have got to make this your program to make it work. I can’t find any better employee than this to make it work.’ … They got together and formed Late Bloomers apprenticeship program. It turned into a journeyman program. So now we have a four-year program.”
Participants are employed in jobs meant to give them a real livable wage. They are cross-trained so they can do anything in the facility.
Today, 18 of the company’s 48 employees are from the program. Yes, the program provides much needed labor for Champion. But to turn those ex-offenders into productive Champion employees, the company had to alter its management style.
“We decided to focus on who we had and improve our training and improve the way we treated them,” Bowen said. “That meant going from Warden Mike to Dr. Mike. And the same thing with our managers. We had to become a hugging company, which we’d never been. We had to realize the reason why these men were in prison. Most of them didn’t go to prison because they wanted to. Most went to prison because they needed to eat and it was the only option they had. And quite frankly, since then we’ve learned that many of them shouldn’t have gone to prison to begin with. … Justice costs money. My managers saw that and it changed them. It changed the company and, quite frankly, changed it for the better.”
Champion’s management began providing counseling sessions to listen to employees’ problems. Bowen said they provide small loans, anything from $800 to replace the transmission on an employee’s car to an amount that will help with the first month of an apartment rent.
“The biggest heroes of the Late Bloomers program are the people who decide to go from prison to straight life,” Bowen said, adding that as they make the transition that’s when the real challenges begin.
“Once they go from subterranean existence – which I call sub-human existence – to being a man or woman, a proud man and proud woman, their past comes back to haunt them. Creditors from credit card companies, the baby mamas, the garnishments for child support, alimony. The bills, the payments to attorneys they didn’t make to keep out of jail. We’ve dealt with all of that. We require all of our people to pay their alimony and child support. It’s just part of the program. We’re not going to run from it. … They’re the heroes because they decide they’re going to have a life.”
The program isn’t perfect; not everyone stays employed, some even falling back into a former life that finds them getting arrested again. But Champion also has rehired some of them.
“It’s working for us. Will it work for anybody? No,” Bowen said. “There are so many people out there that need a hand up but the people that are doing the handing up they shouldn’t do it for a pat on the back. They shouldn’t do it to benefit them. They should go into it with eyes wide open that the people who re-enter society need more help than just a job.”