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Manufacture This

The blog of the Alliance for American Manufacturing

Chicago-based Rags of Honor exclusively hires homeless vets for its American-made t-shirt operation.

Mark Doyle has gone from walking the hallways of the White House to the floors of Chicago’s homeless shelters. And along this journey, he spent a year on the dangerous terrain of war-torn Afghanistan.

Doyle, a 59-year-old Chicago native, served as Deputy Director of White House Personnel in President Bill Clinton’s administration and then worked for Vice President Joe Biden during the 2008 presidential campaign.

After the successful 2008 presidential bid, Doyle returned to Chicago to revive his forensic accounting company and was soon asked to bid on a contract to investigate corruption in Afghanistan. His firm won the bid and Doyle spent a year on Task Force 2010. The team went to Afghanistan to do flow-of-funds analysis on United States contracting dollars. He discovered that America was wasting billions of dollars on corrupt projects in Afghanistan.

Mark Doyle

While in the Middle East, Doyle gained an even more profound bond and respect for the men and women of the U.S. military.

Returning once again to Chicago, Doyle was soon troubled by the sight of homeless veterans living in their cars, under bridges and homeless shelters. And while driving home one evening after dinner with a friend, he decided he was going to do something about what had befallen some of America’s war veterans.

Not long after that night, Rags of Honor, a silk-screen, American-made T-shirt business staffed by homeless military veterans was conceived.

Starting From Zero

“After coming up with the idea driving home that night, the next morning I called my friend who has a small public relations company,” said Doyle. “I told him I’m going to start a company and we are going to go into homeless shelters and I’m going to find men and women veterans who are struggling.”

Doyle didn’t have a business model nor a sales or marketing plan. He took money from his savings account to initially start the business and hired four homeless veterans. Then, still without a manufacturing facility, he hired two more homeless veterans.

While working out the logistics of his new, for-profit business, he sent his now-employed military veterans to learn the silk-screening operations with Jose Concepcion, a former Marine who has a small silk-screening company in Chicago. Approximately eight months later in July of 2013, Doyle opened the doors to Rags of Honor and had six highly trained veterans to begin production.

Today there are 14 former homeless veterans employed at Rags of Honor and 36 have been hired during its nearly two years of operation. In the first year of business, Rags of Honor grossed more than $395,000 in sales while operating out of a 1,000-square-foot space in the West Loop. But thanks to an investment by AAR Corporation, whose CEO David Storch makes a practice of hiring veterans, Doyle purchased an additional $250,000 worth of machinery and moved into a 10,000-square-foot facility on the North Side. Rags of Honor employees are now producing thousands of T-shirts per day, and the company is on track to double its sales this year.

“When I returned from Afghanistan, the veteran unemployment rate was 25 percent if you were between the ages of 19 and 25,” said Doyle. “Unbelievably high unemployment rate. Skyrocketing suicide rate. This was happening right in front of us every day. There were 2,000 homeless veterans just in Chicago. It made me want to be more giving to those who did it for us for so many years.

“It’s very hard. It’s hard if they’ve deployed, it’s hard if they’ve seen a lot of action, it’s hard if they are struggling with stuff that happened to them. I have guys and women who were living in their cars when I hired them.”

“He offered me a job and really helped me out.”

Greg Montgomery is a 25-year-old Army veteran who was homeless before entering the military. He took part in more than 150 combat missions while serving in Afghanistan as a combat engineer.

“I was doing route clearance in southern Afghanistan,” said Montgomery. “I did everything from flying UAVs to operating a remote-controlled ID detector in vehicles. But I was mostly a .50 caliber machine gunner.

“When I got out of the Army, I was in a pretty sticky situation and then Mark offered me a job and really helped me out. He’s helped me out with rent and purchasing a car. He really helped me get on my feet when I came out of the military.”

Montgomery has worked at Rags of Honor for a year and a half printing the T-shirts and helping out wherever he is needed.

"I lost my apartment and I was homeless for about two years. Someone who was working at Rags of Honor referred me to Mark. I came in an interviewed and I started working the next week." Mike Irby

His co-worker Mike Irby is a 35-year-old Navy veteran who is now the sales director at Rags of Honor. He served a 10-month tour in Iraq before his discharge in 2009. He was attending Columbia College in Chicago when he was involved in a car accident, which resulted in a three-year long lawsuit.

“I got sued by the person that hit me and I lost the case, so I went into major debt paying off and fighting that case,” said Irby. “I lost my apartment and I was homeless for about two years. Someone who was working at Rags of Honor referred me to Mark. I came in an interviewed and I started working the next week.”

Irby has been employed at Rags of Honor for nearly one year and he is back in a two-bedroom apartment.

Another former homeless vet is Dion Maggette-West. He was raised in a series of foster homes before he decided to join the Navy. Maggette-West was in the Navy for five and a half years before requesting an early discharge so he could return to Chicago to take care of his father who was battling cancer.

“Unfortunately he passed away and my younger brothers needed guidance, said Maggette-West. “It didn’t take and I moved into the suburbs with my sister. After a while she really couldn’t afford for me to stay there and eventually I found a veterans housing group which provides help in transitioning.

The 29-year-old Navy veteran went to Chicago’s Homeless Prevention and Rapid Re-Housing Program to find housing and a job. They sent him to Doyle at Rags of Honor.

“For the most part, I take on the management position. I am technically the Director of Logistics, but I also do payroll and oversee the employees,” said Maggette-West. He finally has a place to live that he can call home.

Doyle’s passion for Rags of Honor extends beyond the business numbers. He feels helping all homeless veterans is just the right thing to do.

 “When you are homeless, you are a shattered soul,” said Doyle. “So we can see the value of restoring dignity to somebody.”

Made in America

Doyle’s whole mission when starting Rags of Honor was to employ homeless veterans and to promote Buy American. He uses all-American made T-shirts from Bayside Made in the USA Apparel and Bella Canvas. Both suppliers are based in southern California. The T-shirts are shipped to Rags of Honor in Chicago where the veterans do all of the silk screening work.

His employees earn between $14 to $15 per hour, nearly double the standard in the T-shirt, silk-screening industry. Doyle is not taking a salary for himself.  He has already invested more than $200,000 of his own savings to get the start-up rolling. His usual daily routine is overseeing Rags of Honor in the morning, while afternoons are occupied with his business of consulting legislators and others to set up a communications plan. He is also a director of a small bank.

“That’s what I do to make a living,” said Doyle. “Rags of Honor is what I do to leave a legacy and try to make the world a better place.”

Any free moments Doyle has when he is away from the Rags of Honor factory, he is checking in by phone and hustling for new business. Doyle has secured preferred vendor status from Blue Cross Blue Shield, State Farm, AAR Corp., and Crowe Horwath. Rags of Honor also handles the T-shirt business of the Chicago Blackhawks, the local NHL franchise, and recently it began working with Outerstuff, one of the largest licensees of the NFL. Rags of Honor has also printed thousands of T-shirts for baseball’s Chicago Cubs, Los Angeles Dodgers and the San Diego Padres.

Orders from these companies keep a somewhat steady flow of business at Rags of Honor, but Doyle has an eye on profitability and wants to continue the company’s growth. The online business and some of the clients he supplies receive their T-shirts under the Rags of Honor brand. But they also supply other companies with printed T-shirts under a different Made in America brand name.

Excluding the online store, Rags of Honor most often sells its apparel at wholesale prices. But Doyle wants to expand into the retail business and has contacted a number of large department store chains like Kohl’s and Macy’s.

“What I want people to take away from this is we are not a silk-screening operation, we are a brand,” said Doyle. “We are the only brand that makes sure we buy American and we hire veterans and get them back on their feet.”

There are 160,000 chronic homeless every year who are veterans. Two years ago there were 300,000 homeless for at least one night.

Doyle is hoping to grow his sales exponentially within the next year and would like to raise his workforce to 75. The number of shirt orders he receives dictates how many homeless veterans he can hire.

“I may not be able to change the world, but I can change the world around me,” he said. “My mission is to be the largest employer of homeless veterans in the country. If we do it and do it right, it will change the lives of hundreds and hundreds of people along the way.

“If you want to show them you love them, give them a job. They can do anything.”

Visit the Rags of Honor online retail collection at www.ragsofhonor.us