Clothes Call

Illustration by Nate Otto

Here’s a story for all you Cubs fans out there, or anyone who’s ever wondered: Who makes the championship t-shirts you see players wearing in the locker room right after they win the game?

Marathon Sportswear in Blue Island, Illinois is one of those businesses. The t-shirt screen printing company is located in White Sox territory, but its president, Jim Piko Jr., roots for the Cubs. And when the Cubs won the 2016 World Series, he wasn’t just thrilled as a longtime fan of the team. Marathon, which Jim’s father started in the family garage in 1980, began printing tens of thousands of officially licensed Cubs t-shirts as soon as the team won the championship. It was the equivalent of a farmer’s bumper crop for Jim. Being prepared for that moment took weeks of advance preparation — and years of slowly building a business, one t-shirt at a time.


Transcript

WAILIN WONG: Jim Piko Jr. is the oldest of six children and grew up in a Chicago family whose loyalties were divided between the Cubs and the White Sox. His father, Jim Senior, roots for the Sox. But Jim took after his maternal grandfather, a Cubs fan who lived next door. In the summer, Jim would help out with his father’s t-shirt screen printing business and watch the Cubs with his grandfather.

JIM: We really had a nice relationship. He was a wonderful man. He had a TV out in his garage, which was right next to our garage, so we were printing shirts in our garage and he’d be out working on cars and he was a real fixer upper. But he’d have a TV out there and he’d have the Cubs on every day.

WAILIN: Like many other Cubs fans, Jim spent this year riveted to the TV, watching his team move ever closer to ending the longest championship drought by any major American sports team. So on November 2nd, when the Cubs were playing the Cleveland Indians in Game 7 of the World Series, Jim turned on the game at home. The Cubs led off the first inning with a home run.

ANNOUNCER: That’s in the air to center, back at the wall, and is…gone! What a start…

WAILIN: But Jim was still feeling pretty nervous,

JIM: So I just told my family all right, “I’m going in.”

WAILIN: “Going in” meant driving to the shop where, if the Cubs won that night, he would start printing thousands of officially licensed t-shirts proclaiming the hometown team as World Series champions. Jim Piko Jr. is the president of Marathon Sportswear, the apparel screen printing business in Blue Island, Illinois that his father started with a single machine in the family garage. That was in 1980. Thirty six years later, Jim was on the verge of experiencing a Cubs win not just as a long-suffering fan, but as a business owner with very big and direct stakes in the game.

JIM: It’s pretty crazy, I mean, you’re a big fan, because it’s all the local teams, that’s where you get the printing from, so you’d be nervous if it had nothing to do with your livelihood, but the fact that you have a lot riding on the outcome of the game really adds to the excitement or the anxiety, frankly.

WAILIN: Welcome to The Distance, a podcast about long-running businesses. I’m Wailin Wong. On today’s show, the story of a business with a unique perspective on the fortunes of its hometown sports teams, and how the Cubs’ historic win was the equivalent of a farmer’s bumper crop for Marathon Sportswear. The Distance is a production of Basecamp. Basecamp is the better way to run your business. It’s an app for communicating with people and organizing projects and work. If you’re feeling overwhelmed by email, chat and meetings, give Basecamp a try. Sign up for a 30-day free trial at basecamp.com/thedistance.

ANNOUNCER: …drive into left, and it’s gone! Tie game! Rajah Davis, 6–6!

WAILIN: In the eighth inning, with the Cubs ahead 6 to 3, Cleveland scored three runs to tie the game. Jim had been listening on a radio in his office. His brother Dan, who also works at Marathon, was with him and they felt the dread settle in as the game stretched on into the night.

JIM: I was distraught, so I went into the way back of the shop with Dan and we had a job where we had to take neck labels out of shirts, a very menial task, and then we were gonna stamp custom made labels in. So we went back there and sat in the dark back room and we just started tearing labels. They went to extra innings and then the rain delay and I told Dan, “We’re gonna be here until five in the morning and they’re gonna lose and we have all this labor that we’re paying for and we’re gonna be miserable.”

WAILIN: The game was taking place in Cleveland, but Jim was also watching the weather in Chicago and worrying about a storm that was coming in. The forecast was dredging up some very stressful memories from three years earlier. And here’s where we’re going to leave the night of the World Series clincher for a bit, since you already know what happened, and you’re going to hear about what Jim describes as by far the worst 24 hours in the life of Marathon Sportswear. It was June 24th, 2013, and the Chicago Blackhawks were playing the Boston Bruins in the Stanley Cup finals.

JIM: Game 6, they were up three to two, so if they won, they’d be Stanley Cup champs. If they lost, it would come back to a Game 7, two nights later. It was a Monday afternoon, I was in here, and I was gonna go home and have some dinner. So I drive home and a storm blows in and I’m a little west of here, the power goes out at my house. So I call back in here, I said, “The power just went out here, big winds, storm is coming through.” About 10 minutes later, power goes out here. So you know, I come back in, there’s no backup generator or anything. We were at the mercy of ComEd, tell our customer, “The power’s out here,” you know, we’ve got tens of thousands of shirts here, ready to print as soon as the game ends if the Blackhawks win. And I’m calling ComEd, calling ComEd, there’s nothing you can do. ComEd had basically said the power was not going to be on for, you know, 12 or 13 more hours.

WAILIN: Jim’s customer was panicking too. The Blackhawks and the Cubs jobs are known in the industry as hot market, and they require a lot of advance preparation. A bigger license company will hire local t-shirt printers like Marathon in the geographies of the final teams. A small amount of shirts are pre-printed and sent to nearby stores in advance of the series clincher. But the bulk of the production starts the second the winner is determined. And on that Monday night in 2013, as Jim was calling around without success to get a backup generator installed, he found himself hoping that the Blackhawks would lose and the series would go to Game 7. With Boston leading 3–2 late into the third period, it looked like things might go his way.

JIM: I care so much about this place that I just have terrible perspective on it all. I know it’s just a t-shirt, but I can’t convince myself that. So the power was not coming back on. I’m beside myself, having a breakdown and game’s going on. So I went out to my car with about two minutes left in the game to call my wife. She was at my in-laws ‘cause their power was on, our power was still out. I was, I had a plan. I said, “I’m gonna just get a room at the local hotel and maybe we dodged a bullet. We’ll get the power back on, the game will be in two days and we’ll see what happens.” Well, as I’m on the phone, the Blackhawks score a goal with like two minutes left to tie it, and I didn’t even know, and my wife said, “I think the Blackhawks just scored.” I was like, “Come on.”

ANNOUNCER: Score! Toews to Bickell, with 1:16 to go in the third!

WAILIN: Tie game, three three. And then, while Jim was still sitting in his car on the phone with his wife…

ANNOUNCER: They score! Bolland! Three to two with less than a minute to go!

JIM: She’s like, “I think they scored twice.” They ended up scoring again 17 seconds later. It’s like the most famous 17 seconds in Blackhawks history. I’m a huge fan, this should be wonderful, they’re gonna win the Stanley Cup, I hear fireworks going off, and I’m just ready—I’m just hysterical about the fact that this has happened.

WAILIN: Jim had to call his customer and tell him that Marathon still had no power. The customer had other contracts with a couple printers in Milwaukee, about a hundred miles away, so Jim’s brothers started driving truckloads of blank t-shirts up to Wisconsin all night long. By 1 pm the next day, the backup generator arrived.

JIM: Switched the power, got everything up and running. Ten minutes after, the power comes back on. The actual power. So we’ve got electricians here and they said, “You’re gonna have to switch it anyway, you might as well switch it now.” So that’s another hour and a half. I’m telling my customer, “We’re almost there, we’re almost there.” He’s yelling. We get the power back on, we start printing at about 3 pm Tuesday afternoon and we printed constantly for him until Friday afternoon, 24 hours a day, and the—my customer contact came in and the owner of the company came in at the end of the week, sat down with me. I don’t know how many hours of sleep I had but it wasn’t many, and he said, “Thanks a lot. We really appreciate the effort you put in after what happened and it turned out to be a huge success.” So that’s my hot market story that is, you know, my precautionary tale because no matter how much control you think you have, you don’t have total control.

WAILIN: So let’s return to November 2nd, 2016. The Cubs are going into extra innings and a rain delay during Game 7 of the World Series. This time around, Jim had a backup generator ready to go if needed. And as with other hot market jobs, he didn’t have the luxury of worrying about whether his advance preparation was going to jinx the team. He needed everything in place. That meant the artwork, the ink, the blank t-shirts and seven of Marathon’s 10 automatic screen printing machines.

ANNOUNCER: It’s over! And the Cubs have finally won it all, 8–7 in 10!

JIM: A couple workers out there wore Sox shirts in here, which was funny but most of the people were really excited. So it was something, you know, you can’t really celebrate, like we can’t because we’re just starting then, you know, our job is just starting. We started probably about midnight or 1 in the morning on Wednesday night and we were done by—we were done with most of it by Friday night at about 7, 8 PM. So we were able to kind of turn it around quickly. We had it on many machines, so it was able to go really fast. I mean, the first 12 hours of printing we had probably done about 30,000 shirts.

WAILIN: Screen printing t-shirts in a sports town like Chicago has been a good business for Jim and his family. In the 36 years since Jim Senior started Marathon, the Bears have won the Super Bowl, the Bulls have won six championships, The White Sox have won the World Series, the Blackhawks have won three Stanley Cups and now the Cubs are World Series champs for the first time in 108 years. But Jim can’t plan on that kind of bonanza. Marathon’s bread and butter is printing t-shirts for local races and athletic teams. Something like the Cubs winning the World Series is pure gravy.

JIM: We certainly don’t bank on it because that would really — then we’d really be, uh, a lot closer to bookies than, uh, we want to be, or gamblers. So whatever extra we get from this hot market stuff we kind of just try to incorporate back into the, the overall bottom line of the company.

WAILIN: Jim inherited his sense of caution from his father, who started Marathon to supplement his income as a high school history teacher and football coach. While t-shirt trends have changed in the last three decades, the Pikos still grapple with intense competition, thin margins and a lot of unpredictability.

JIM: His philosophy was that um, nobody’s gonna outwork me. So we’re gonna keep the prices as low as we can, we’re gonna be as competitive as we can, and if I work as hard as I can, that would make up for the couple extra pennies, you know, and the quality would be good and it’s really worked. It’s been a fairly simplistic approach but he started the business in 1980. Interest rates were like 19 percent. He couldn’t borrow any money, but he just went step by step by step and, you know, he would handle one issue at a time and try and grow slowly, and over the course of time it’s really worked.

WAILIN: A few years after Marathon got going, Jim Sr. moved the business into the dank basement of a closed-down funeral home. Jim Jr. would help his dad fold t-shirts in the scary basement. Sometimes he would curl up and take a nap inside a box, nestled in a pile of cotton t-shirts. As Jim said earlier, it’s just a t-shirt, but the humble t-shirt has sustained two generations of his family and counting. Jim Sr. is 70 years old and still comes to work every day. And the thrill of seeing a Marathon shirt out in the world hasn’t gotten old, whether it’s a Cubs player on TV or someone the Pikos met on a vacation in the early days of the business.

JIM: We drove down to Disney World for one of the crazy family trips in the middle of the winter. And we were down there in line for Space Mountain or one of the rides and a couple people in front of us was a shirt that my dad had printed for a local race, you know, in Chicago or somewhere and he was so proud. I mean, he tapped the guy and said, “Where’d you get that shirt?” And “You know, we made that at my company,” so wherever we go now, we’re always looking to see if we can find a Marathon shirt. Every day we come in and we work very hard and it’s—it’s not easy. The margins are thin and it’s just a business where you have to work hard. You’ve got to be there, you’ve got to be hands on, you’ve got to work, so it’s not easy but it’s—it provides us all a living. It provides all our families a living. It provides so many employees a living, and, you know, if you’re willing to come through the door and work hard, you can benefit and it can benefit your whole life.

WAILIN: The Distance is produced by Shaun Hildner and me, Wailin Wong. Our illustrations are by Nate Otto. We’re going to be taking a short break this month for the holidays, so we’ll be replaying some old favorites for the rest of December and we’ll be back in January with new episodes. The Distance is a production of Basecamp, the app for helping small business owners stay in control of projects and reduce email clutter. Try Basecamp free for 30 days at basecamp.com/thedistance. Happy holidays and see you in 2017!