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OOBE Founder shares story of success with Greater Lexington Chamber

The message was straightforward. “I’m not having any OOBE days.”

A simple phone call from one college friend to another sparked the innocuous beginning, and twenty years later, the two friends have built one of the leading companies in the apparel industry.

Tom Merritt, one of the co-founders of OOBE, a Greenville-based apparel company, spoke at the Greater Lexington Chamber’s December breakfast and told the story of how the company was started and why it has enjoyed so much success. View OOBE’s Business Strategy.

To understand, you have to go back to the beginning of a lifelong friendship that started at Clemson, where Tom and Mike met through Fellowship of Christian Athletes.

“We got energized by our new faith in Christ and how we were going to live that out. We really became friends,” Merritt explained. “Our lives got knitted together during that season of life when we were growing spiritually. We were finishing college and thinking about what’s next.”

It was also the time when the word OOBE was created. Travel back to the early ‘90’s when the psychic friends network was popular, and at some point, Tom and Mike saw them talking about an out of body experience, which they found hokey.

“I said they need to have an out of Bible experience. They need to have an OOBE, and the word was coined,” Merritt said. “It was very personal for us.”

From that point forward, the word OOBE referred to an ultimate experience, like a day of skipping class in order to go hiking or playing ball.

So when Merritt received the call from Mike that day a few years after graduating, something had to give. Mike was working in Charlotte, and Merritt was teaching and coaching in Easley.

“He called back a couple months later and said I need to leave, let’s start a business together,” Merritt recalls. “My family was in landscaping, so I told him we can plant trees. We can stripe parking lots. That doesn’t sound awesome, but we can do that.”

Mike’s response was that the pair should go into the clothing business. But neither of them knew anything about the clothing business.

“That’s how smart we weren’t to just go ‘let’s do this.’ We quit our jobs, quit our church. I mean it was brilliant some of the decisions we were making,” Merritt said. “I look at my 21-year-old son now, and I don’t want to tell him our story, because I don’t want him to make these same decisions. But when you’re young, and you don’t really know any better, sometimes that’s actually what you’re trying to find now. Where did that energy come from? Where’s that bravery?”

That energy and bravery has led OOBE to the top of the apparel market, but it was apparent that the business is about much more than apparel. That isn’t even the focal point. It’s mainly about the people. That’s a point Merritt drove home repeatedly during his presentation.

“It’s not real complicated, but it’s sometimes very challenging to stay focused on what the most important things are. The most important things are always going to be people and it’s always going to be your integrity in business,” Merritt said. “I don’t care if you’re a small retailer trying to finish the year strong or a big manufacturer trying to shift the paradigm, it never becomes where it isn’t about people and your culture and your word.”

That laser-like focus on serving people has propelled OOBE to two decades of success in the apparel industry, working with clients that include Chick-fil-A, BMW, Krispy Kreme, Food Lion and Hendrick Automotive Group.

Merritt also discussed the business direction for OOBE. The company’s purpose is “we want to love and serve people with our time, talent and resources so God may be celebrated through our faithful stewardship in all our relationships.”

“See how much that talks about apparel? None. The same amount Mike and I knew about apparel 20 years ago – none. I can’t tell you how good God’s been to us,” Merritt said. “We don’t own anything, we’re just taking care of people and resources for this small amount of time that God’s given us in life, and then it’s gone, and we’re gone. What are we gonna do with it? Without losing our integrity, we’re responsible for helping our clients grow, invest wisely and be accountable.”

That strategy has worked well for the past 20 years. The company has enjoyed steady growth throughout its existence, before doubling in the past 18 months, including a 65% growth in customers in the last year.

“We call it blessing management – you get blessed, you’ve got to figure out what to do with it now. We’re trying to keep it simple and stay faithful with what’s been entrusted to us,” Merritt said. “Our goal is to be the most excellent apparel company in the world at what we do and what’s been entrusted to us. We want to be dreamers, we want to be aggressive, we want to be creators, but we’ve got to do it in a culture of stewardship.”

Tom and Mike also make sure everyone has some OOBE days along the way.

The breakfast was sponsored by Security Federal, and the food was provided by Crescent Moon and US Foods. And to top it all off, our members gave many families a merry Christmas thanks to their donations to LICS and The Salvation Army of the Midlands!

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