In Season: How an NFL Cheerleader Outfitter Navigates the Challenges of Booming Growth
Do you wanna dance with somebody?
Deb Erickson, alongside 125 of her customers, did when they turned the floor of her thriving performance apparel business into a giant stage for a few incredible minutes. And, yes, their powerful music video was set to the Whitney Houston classic (with some Rihanna mixed in).
Dancers and cheerleaders from the NFL and NBA, as well as high school and college, descended on Erickson’s Eden Prairie, Minnesota-based facility to help her celebrate 25 years of designing and manufacturing custom clothing for performance teams.
While the road to success hasn’t been without its challenges, The Line Up is a $3 million performance apparel enterprise that employs about 50 people at any given time, depending on seasonal demand. Watching the video, as the camera pans from one team to the next dancing through her 16,000-plus square foot shop, it’s hard to believe that this whole operation started out of Erickson’s home—with no plans whatsoever for turning it into a full-fledged business.
Early Days, Early Success
Back in 1989, Erickson was a state counselor for the deaf and hard of hearing. She had studied textile design in college but decided later to go into social services. She didn’t let her sewing talent fall by the wayside, though, creating clothes that she could wear when working out.
“There weren’t that many seams so it was easy,” she says. “But I never set out to do this as a business, it was mostly just a hobby.”
But fitness instructors and coaches started to notice and soon they were asking her to make workout clothes for them. Her instructor, in particular, was instrumental in lifting Erickson’s business, as she also coached the Minnesota Vikings cheerleading squad. Soon The Line Up was creating the team’s practice wear and later their uniforms for game day.
Not long after that, the Minnesota Timberwolves dance team enlisted her services. And then the coach for the Washington Bullets (now Wizards) found out about her company, giving her an East Coast presence. Now Erickson’s company creates apparel for 16 NFL and 22 NBA teams, as well as a few in the NHL—not to mention countless college and high school groups.
“This is a really tight community,” she explains. “So for me, it really did start with word of mouth and connections.”
Finding Room to Grow
As her thriving organization settles into its own space for the first time (her two previous locations were retrofitted), Erickson finds herself in perhaps the toughest phase of her company’s expansion.
When she moved to the new building, she made sure to come in with a plan for optimizing the space. So it was built to meet her specific production and staffing needs with efficiency and room to grow her team. But as her company gets bigger, requiring her to build a management team, Erickson is finding that bringing the right people on board is a tougher challenge.
“This is has been the hardest jump,” she says. “The kind of people I need now are a different caliber, requiring more cash flow.”
To handle this and other challenges, Erickson turns to her Vistage group. Earlier this year, the format of her group changed where business owners at her level were paired up with leaders of larger companies. The experience has been invaluable for her, as she tackles how to get The Line Up to the next level.
“The issues I have now are different so having someone who can think at a higher level and then come down to my level to advise me on how to scale has been extremely helpful,” she says. “I moved into this building thinking we could grow sales and manage the costs of moving into a larger space at the same time. We grew sales but not enough to incur the expenses of being in the bigger building.”
Through Vistage she was able to get to the crux of the problem, which was finance management, and find the right person to create processes and implement procedures that would help them become more cost efficient.
As she reimagines her management team, Erickson’s company continues to thrive with sales up by 25 percent over last year. She’s looking to bring in $3.5 million in 2015, with the goal of doubling that number over the next five years. But she isn’t letting increased capacity take away from the quality her impressive roster of clients has become accustomed to.
“I won’t sacrifice customer experience,” she says. “A lot of our customers come and stay with us for many years so we take great pride in developing those relationships.”
By the look of that giant office dance party, clearly, her customers do too.