When Terry Matthews began looking for someone to print T-shirts for his car detailing business back in 1991, he never guessed it would lead to owning his own T-shirt company one day. While employed full-time at Whirlpool, Matthews worked on the side to make an extra income. He asked a friend about getting custom T-shirts made, which led to a conversation that sparked his interest in growing a business.
“The man I reached out to thought I was interested in joining his screen printing company, not getting shirts made,” Matthews said. “Once he told me what the job entailed and I ran some numbers, I was interested.”
Someone offered to buy Matthews’ car detailing business and, once the sale was complete, he explored a new avenue of side work. His stepmom purchased a heat press for him at a yard sale and the first shirts he created were made in a 12×12 foot shed.
“I think I got more sweat on those t-shirts than ink,” Matthews said.
Without the use of the internet, Matthews had a lot of learning to do. He would rent VCR and Beta tapes from the local library and any other materials he could find about heat pressing. He remembers ordering inventory on a pay phone while on his breaks at work. He also used his lunch hour to work on his new T-shirt business.
“I was a sponge,” Matthews said. “I wanted to learn as much as possible.”
Eventually, he purchased screens and ink which led to a more effective way of fulfilling larger orders. Terry’s Tees was birthed during these years. Matthews moved his business out of the shed and into a garage on Eastland Drive. His business began to take off as he filled orders for local organizations and unions.
This expansion led the business to the current location they have been in for nearly fourteen years on East Fourth Street. Although the business has continued to thrive throughout the years, Matthews is most pleased with the personal growth he has seen in each of his employees.
“With our team, we have here as far as I’m concerned, there’s none better. It’s fulfilling for us to see our people succeed and go on to do bigger and better things,” Matthews said.
One of his previous graphic designers went on to become the senior editor of a newspaper in Texas. Another former employee is a lead customer service representative over a huge internet company. According to Matthews, seeing employees reach their full potential is the best reward he can receive. He doesn’t want his business to be one based solely on the owners.
“We try to show the people on our team that it’s not just geared to us. The people here are our partners,” Matthews said.
In recent years, his team has grown to include as many as nine employees at one time. He has created orders for customers as small as twelve pieces to as large as in the thousands. When the University of Kentucky Wildcats won the national championship in 2012, Terry’s Tees fulfilled an order of nearly seven thousand pieces.
“I put a lot of hours in. [As many as] 80 to 100 hours a week, several months a year during our busy seasons,” Matthews said.
Matthews is willing to work weekends, but he does not require his employees to do so because he believes it is important to give the time with their families. While a growing business could easily equate to opening multiple locations even in other cities or states, Matthews says they are not ready for that right now.
“We like to keep a close eye on product quality,” Matthews said. “That can be tough to do when you aren’t personally seeing the product that is put out.”
Twenty-eight years later and the small business owner can’t believe how far his t-shirt company has journeyed. From the days of putting in orders on a pay phone, to currently operating a six-man team, Terry’s Tees has become his place to call home. Sometimes it’s hard for Matthews to remember that he once ran his business part-time out of a shed.
As for his favorite part of the job, Matthews loves to help people out. This includes creating custom projects for families or businesses and witnessing his graphic design team to evolve into their work. Watching others enjoy what they’re doing reminds Matthews that the job is worth it.
“People get burnt out. It’s a part of life, I get that. But if you don’t like what you’re doing, do something else,” Matthews said. “I’m blessed to love what I do.”