Chasing The Dream
Sports were a constant in Vince Winters’ childhood. He grew up in Wantagh, New York, on the south shore of Long Island, in a close-knit community that was teeming with kids. His group of friends motivated and competed with one another in baseball, football, hockey and track. He played in every local league he could find, as well as on his junior high and high school teams.
A talented baseball recruit, Winters, who is now president of supplier EG-PRO, was offered several college scholarships, but they were all rescinded after he underwent reconstructive hand surgery due to an accident.
Luckily, Winters had other talents to fall back on. “At an early age, my brothers and I were encouraged to remain occupied (and keep quiet) by drawing, coloring and creating art, so I was exposed to both sports and creativity throughout my youth,” he says. When the School of Visual Arts in New York City offered him a scholarship, he seized the opportunity.
During his first semester, Winters was introduced to the newly released Macintosh computer and the world of desktop publishing and computer graphics. Following his professors’ advice, he set aside his paintbrushes for a keyboard and mouse.
Winters’ expertise in desktop publishing led to freelancing opportunities at several top advertising agencies in New York City, but instead of joining one of these firms after graduation, he decided to start his own clothing company.
“I enjoyed screen printing artwork onto t-shirts, and color separation came easy to me, so I launched a company called Twisted,” he says. “I sold t-shirts and hoodies to beach shops up and down the Eastern Seaboard. I found a screen-printing factory that backed me, and two years later a group of investors came on board to support the brand.” Three years after his college graduation, Winters had built Twisted into a $2 million business.
When disagreement arose among the partners about the direction of Twisted, they made the decision to dissolve the company. Winters was hired as a headwear designer for Starter, an athletic brand that partners with professional sports teams. Combining his art talent with his passion for sports was a dream come true.
Winters’s role at Starter led to a series of high-profile positions in the athletic apparel industry with companies such as Nike, Knights Apparel, HanesBrands and Iconix. But despite his corporate success, he yearned to do something on his own.
In 2014, an industry friend suggested that Winters talk to a factory owner in China who specializes in polyester and poly-blended fabrics for blank athletic apparel and team uniforms, and performance technologies incorporated into apparel. He was looking for a partner. Winters booked a flight to tour the factories and find out more. He was intrigued by the idea of starting a company that would be 100 percent vertical—meaning all of the resources would be proprietary, not imported from other suppliers. Seven days later, Winters quit his job and forged a partnership.
“I know it sounds crazy, but on the last day, we formed the outline of our partnership on the back of a tea shop menu,” he says. “I returned to New York, left Iconix and, with full support from my wife, Holly, plunged into a startup called Jettco International, Inc. My son’s name is Jett, and my partner’s son is Cody, so the name fell into place.”
Winters got straight to work, contacting everyone he knew in the apparel business. To get started, the company primarily focused on private label production for companies like G-III, Fancloth, Russell Athletic, Varsity Brands, BSN and others. “Once we got off the ground, we started importing blank athletic apparel, taking on an inventory position to support this market. Through trial and error, we built a strong following and branded the blanks business as EG-PRO performance gear.”
It was not an easy road, though. “The biggest obstacle was that my partner does not speak English and I don’t speak Chinese. So, I had to employ a trusted team that is bilingual, and my partner had to do the same. Not only was communication a daunting task, but managing expectations and cultural differences was not easy during the upstart,” he says.
Through persistence, Jettco flourished. The partners were able to introduce a third brand, appropriately called Elbowgrease, a young men’s “street leisure” fashion brand that is sold to trendy sneaker shops, boutiques and department stores across the United States. By tapping into the efficiencies of a vertical structure, the team at Elbowgrease designs and imports apparel that color coordinates with the latest sneaker releases and then ships it direct from the factory. The styles have been so popular that they often sell out before the containers are even loaded onto cargo ships.
“At Jettco, we own our fabric mills, dye houses, cut/sew factories, screen print factories and embroidery factories in China and Africa,” explains Winters. “We even own the land all of our factories sit on. As a completely vertical organization, we have the luxury of importing ‘fast fashion’ direct from China to retailers, so we’re utilizing our capabilities to build all three tiers of our company with great success.”
The private label, EG-PRO and Elbowgrease businesses are all experiencing year-over-year growth of over 250 percent. An additional distribution center was recently opened in Ontario, Canada, to further service the western U.S. In addition, Winters is in negotiations to take EG-PRO and Elbowgrease global.
“We see the market continuing to expand as consumers become more comfortable wearing athletic apparel all day long,” says Winters. “Therefore, with the demand for technologies like cooling yarns, wicking and anti-microbial fabrics, as well as vapor-drying fibers, we integrate these attributes not just into our blanks and team uniforms but also into athleisure-inspired programs. We’re building items with high-end fabrics that have the look and feel of Lululemon or Nike, but at a fraction of the cost.”
As president of Jettco, Winters works until three a.m. several nights a week so he can set goals for his team, correspond with the divisions, recap with sales managers and consult with his overseas partner since there is a 12-hour time difference.
Life outside the office revolves around raising Winters’s active five-year-old son. He takes morning duty so his wife can get to work—she has her own demanding schedule as a company president, so he eats breakfast with Jett, makes his lunch and walks him to school. He also tries to sneak in a morning run along the Hudson River when he can.
The competitive spirit that formed in his early years through sports continues to drive Winters forward. “Jettco happens to be something that I love, and I really enjoy watching it grow. I come from a blue-collar family, so I practice what I preach. I am determined to make Jettco successful.”
Terry Ramsay is associate editor of PPB.