It’s a multi-million-dollar company that was essentially started by accident.
Brothers Tyler and Danny Merritt, both Army captains, wanted to do something to help raise funds for Eddie Kline, one of Tyler’s West Point classmates who had lost three limbs in Afghanistan.
Danny, a military police officer just coming off active duty at Fort Hood, Texas, moved to Savannah. Tyler was already here. A helicopter pilot with the 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment Night Stalkers, he was stationed at Hunter Army Airfield. He remains on active duty, currently stationed at the U.S. Military Academy in West Point, N.Y.
“We started in Tyler’s garage, designing and printing patriotic and military-themed shirts to send to Eddie’s family to sell to help with his rehab,” Danny said. “To our surprise, they were selling them faster than we could make them.
“That got us thinking maybe we could start a clothing company and donate a part of the proceeds to help lots of wounded veterans like Eddie.”
So they did, pooling their savings in 2012 to open Nine Line Apparel. The next year, as Nine Line began to produce revenue, they created a 501(c)3 nonprofit they called the Nine Line Foundation, dedicating a portion of every sale to the charity.
When they decided to start their company, the brothers wanted a brand that would resonate with service members, veterans and patriotic Americans.
“In combat, a ‘Nine Line’ is an emergency medevac request, often the difference between life and death for the most severely wounded,” Danny said.
The fledgling company started operations with three employees — Danny, Tyler and Tyler’s wife Angela. Before the end of 2013, they had added a half-dozen more, including artist and Savannah College of Art and Design graduate Miles Burke, who designed the iconic Nine Line logo.
By 2014, there were 15 employees designing, printing and shipping Nine Line shirts, jackets and specialty items around the globe.
Today, that employee number has grown to 100 and Nine Line’s two buildings on East President Street are literally bursting at the seams.
Why so successful so soon?
“We have the best, hardest-working, most innovative employees around,” Tyler said Tuesday from New York. “Nothing happens without them.
“I also think it has a lot to do with the values we hold, such as the advocacy of American exceptionalism and veteran initiatives.
“That’s something that resonates with both our employees and our customers.”
“We pride ourselves on hiring veterans and veteran’s spouses — they are the best employees anyone could ask for.
“We also have women in practically every leadership position and they kick butt.”
How it works
Nine Line operates on the “just in time” manufacturing principle.
“We don’t make anything that we haven’t already sold,” Danny said. “All our products are created here in Savannah. When an order is placed, it normally takes 3-5 business days for it to be produced and shipped out. During the holidays, volumes are heavier and the window expands to 5-7 business days.”
The exception to that rule is something called “pre-order/limited-time specials.” These are designs created and offered for a very limited time, usually two weeks. When the time is over, the order window closes, the items are made in bulk and shipped on a pre-determined date.
The company now employs five designers, most of them SCAD graduates, producing product designs it describes as “relentlessly patriotic.”
One shirt incorporates the Pledge of Allegiance into a flag design, another features a bullet and suggests “Share a round with ISIS.” All sport the American flag somewhere, whether it is on the sleeve or part of the larger design and most carry the Nine Line logo of a line dropping from a hovering helicopter.
The designs clearly resonate with consumers.
“Sales have gone through the roof,” Danny said. “We are moving anywhere from 600 to 2,000 packages a day out the door, with sales volumes averaging $50,000 a day. We have three shifts working 24/7 just to get it all done and we have nowhere else to grow.”
The brothers are working with the Savannah Economic Development Authority to find the right location to build new production facilities.
“We estimate we’re going to need at least 50,000 square feet of space with room to grow,” Danny said.
“Right now we do all our own printing, embroidering, packing and shipping - everything but actually making the shirts. When we have the space, we’d like to add a cut/sew factory so we could start with the raw fabric,” he said, adding the company hopes to be in its new home by this time next year.
“We’re pretty maxed out space-wise right now,” he said. “But we need to keep growing.
“The more we grow the more we can help our severely wounded combat vets.”
Feeding the foundation
While both brothers are still fairly stunned at the magnitude of their success, both agree they get the most satisfaction from the Nine Line Foundation.
“It’s a 100-percent nonprofit, run by volunteers,” Danny said. “Every penny that goes into the foundation goes to the recipient.”
The foundation selects one severely wounded service person at a time, he said.
“We determine what that person is going to need and we concentrate on providing that. It’s not a quick in-and-out thing.” he said. We set a start date, but no end date until we have taken care of all that family’s needs. Only then do we move on to the next person.”
The foundation is currently helping its fifth candidate, he said, adding that all have been amputees.
While they are proud of their success, they are committed to the foundation.
“Everyone who works here is very dedicated to the cause,” Danny said. “There is a real sense of purpose in knowing we’re helping the people who have given up so much for us.
Both brothers have been deployed and experienced first-hand the devastation of war and its effects on soldiers and their families.
“For us, it has to be about more than the bottom line,” Tyler said.
“It’s personal — it means something to all of us.”
ABOUT THE SERIES
As 2015 comes to a close, the Savannah Morning News, Business in Savannah and savannahnow.com continue the tradition of profiling companies and organizations that made major contributions to the local business environment during the past year.
The Business in Savannah staff chose the honorees from a list of nominees submitted by local business and community members, utilizing broad criteria — from growth and success to philanthropy and community involvement.
• Today: Newcomer of the year
• Friday: Manufacturer of the year
• Saturday: Business advocate of the year
• Sunday: Entrepreneurial business of the year
• Tuesday: Retail business of the year
• Wednesday: Small business of the year
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