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Thirty-three years of engineering great customer service
T-Shirt Engineers in Grand Island, Nebraska impacts the community through service and premiere printing.
Their honest storytelling made us feel right at home as we sat, chatted and laughed through our interview. As dog-lovers, the comfort of having several four-legged friends lounging around made us quickly realize we were in good company— a company that has been helping individuals and businesses alike for 33 years.
Gail Yenny and Jane Thorngren each started their careers in education. Thorngren taught art and Yenny taught physical education. They met working at a summer camp.
“I was ordering things from some screen printing places and it was kind of frustrating to get what you really wanted,” said Yenny. “I talked to Jane and said I’d like to start a t-shirt business, but I don’t know much about art. She said, ‘Well, let’s look into it.’ So, we did and here we are.”
Thorngren graduated from Midland Lutheran College and started teaching. After three years, she stepped away from the security of the education industry and began working full-time on T-Shirt Engineers (TE).
A Grand Island, Nebraska, native, Yenny graduated from Kearney State College and continued teaching part-time for a few years while they got the ball rolling.
“We were youngsters back then,” Thorngren said.
Reflecting to when they started their business out of Yenny’s mother’s basement, Yenny was 25 at the time and Thorngren was 23.
After three years of working from a basement, they moved into what their website jokingly states, “ . . . a tiny shop with a ‘1/2’ in its address.” They stayed at the location on Eddy Street for nine years. They moved into their much larger space at 311 West Fourth Street in 1993. That is where customers have had their printing and apparel needs met for the last 21 years.
T-Shirt Engineers and its sister company, Flatwater Apparel, Inc., provide much more than T-shirt prints for their customers. In their 33 years of service, the company has become a full-service apparel and specialty branding company.
Even with the constantly changing trends and industry updates, TE strives to stay abreast of the latest trends.
Their 13-person staff is continually expanding their knowledge-base and craft by attending trade shows, trainings and seminars. In addition to the staff’s education, Thorngren said the simple act of observation keeps them on their toes.
“You just need to keep your eyes and ears open,” she said. “That’s the main way we know what’s on trend.”
Whether it is creating a family reunion t-shirt for a customer or creating every display, pen and shirt for a company’s trade show booth, the group at TE makes sure their products are professional, well done and to the customer’s liking.
“Sometimes we have people call in who don’t know how to submit their designs on our website. We all make sure we take the time to walk them through the process,” Thorngren said. “If that doesn’t work, we tell them to come to the shop and we take care of them.”
The personalized customer service isn’t something new for their experienced team. Customers regularly come in to talk about projects.
“They’re fun to work with. I think that’s important; at least it's important to me,” said Shaun Schleif, Director of Marketing and Sponsorships for the Nebraska State Fair. “It's always fun to go down to their shop. We have fun and always get a lot of work done at the same time.”
Schleif and the Nebraska State Fair have worked with T-Shirt Engineers since 2011.
“There’s nothing that I need that they don’t deliver. Even when it comes to installing [signage] they’re there and do a great job,” he said. “We have a large number of print materials for the State Fair: signs, banners, shirts, etc. They’ve always been top notch with the service. I can tell that they’ve always got my back. In this industry, we have a lot of items that are set for a specific date and even with rush orders I know I can rely on them to have the work done, and done well.”
Making sure projects are done well is something everyone on the team takes pride in. Whether it means Thorngren removes the stabilizing material by hand from the back of their custom-made dog collars or they have to re-run one shirt from an order of 1,000 because the screen shifted slightly.
Every industry changes. Staying on top of those changes can be a challenge, but TE has proven they can keep up.
“Keeping up with what’s new is probably what I spend the most time doing,” Yenny said.
The experts at T-Shirt Engineers know what’s going on in the industry and they use that knowledge to help their customers.
“We’ve got our finger on the pulse of the industry and we know what people want now,” said Thorngren.
That knowledge and over 195 years of combined experience is where TE shines.
“We help our customers pick what will sell. A lot of times you have a customer that will come in and say, ‘I want this and this and this… and this.’ And you say, ‘If we can suggest this, it might sell a little better.’ We want our customers to be successful. We want them to be able to sell, give away or make people happy with what we sell them,” said Thorngren.
While Thorngren and Yenny are the owners, it’s clear they truly respect and rely on their employees.
“It’s important to be flexible,” Yenny said. “It seems like when you give [to your employees] they give more back.”
For a long time, Yenny said, they felt like they could never leave the shop. Today, that is not the case.
“You have to empower your people,” she said. “It used to feel like it was almost impossible to get out the door, but if you can’t walk out of your business, you haven’t empowered your people.”
As the industry changed, the staff at T-Shirt Engineers stayed relatively constant.
The majority of their employees have been on staff for almost 20 years.
Julie Hamik, Office Manager, has worked for the company for 24 years. Her online bio reads, “During high school, she worked part-time at T-Shirt Engineers. She had no intention of staying there after college, but she did agree to work for them for two weeks. That was  years ago. It's like a black hole here. Or the Bermuda Triangle.”
A Bermuda Triangle that creates a happy staff.
“It’s a hard place to leave. They treat their employees very well,” Hamik said. “In last 24 years I have gotten married and started a family. They are very good about knowing where priorities lie. They’re okay if someone needs to leave at 4:00 to go watch their kids play ball.”
An atmosphere like the one at TE doesn’t just manifest itself. The relationship between Thorngren and Yenny makes their company strong.
“They balance one another out very well,” Hamik said.
It hasn’t always been bedazzled hats and custom dog collars for TE. For the first seven years they put every bit of money they earned back into equipment.
"We were told that after five years you’ll know whether or not your business will be successful,” Thorngren said. “At the five year point, we hadn’t made any money, but we committed to two more years.”
Lucky number seven.
At that point their dedication paid off and the business took off.
They have faced economic challenges over the last three decades, but it’s not something over which they changed the company.
“We didn't let one employee go during the economic downturn [starting in 2008.] We told them that we’d all have to make some sacrifices and that if they stuck with us we’d remember that,” Thorngren said.
In addition to the stuffed animal heads and hind quarters hanging out of the walls, and Yenny’s affinity for Hamm’s Beer memorabilia, T-Shirt Engineers is a woman-owned business in a male-dominated industry.
“In some industries it’s tough to be women-owned and sporting goods is one of them. It’s really a good ol’ boys club,” said Yenny.
T-Shirt Engineers was able to join the good ol’ boys club and soon became the presidents as they have proven to be some of the leaders in the industry.
“You don’t worry about those things. You just worry about what’s going on and what you’ve got to do to get better at what you do and keep cranking,” said Thorngren.
That is precisely what these women have done for the last 33 years. Their hard work and relationships with their community truly explain why we have chosen T-Shirt Engineers as our Entrepreneur Extraordinaire.
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