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Sales of Hempfield's Spreadshirt T-shirts leap from small to extra-large

| Saturday, Jan. 26, 2013, 12:01 a.m.
Philip Rooke, CEO of Spreadshirt Inc., stands for a portrait in his Hempfield Township facility on Wednesday, January 23, 2013. Brian F. Henry | Tribune-Review
T-shirts on display at the Spreadshirt Inc. Hempfield Township facility on Wednesday, January 23, 2013. Brian F. Henry | Tribune-Review
Angela Damico, a quality control supervisor at Spreadshirt Inc., looks over an order before shipping it out at the company's facility in Hempfield Township on Wednesday, January 23, 2013. Brian F. Henry | Tribune-Review

More than 3.3 million people “like” George Takei's Facebook fan page, a huge following the former “Star Trek” star built over the last two years.

And when fans of Takei's nerd humor buy a witty T-shirt from the merchandise section of his Facebook page, that shirt is printed, packed and shipped from a Spreadshirt Inc. factory in Hempfield, outside Greensburg.

Sales generated by Spreadshirt partners, such as Takei and other Internet celebrities, as well as companies large and small, are becoming increasingly important to the rapidly growing company, CEO Phil Rooke said.

“The business has fundamentally changed,” Rooke said during a visit this week to Hempfield. “Almost 60 percent of sales come from partner shops.”

That was unexpected, Rooke said. Not only are partners like Takei directing a greater number of customers to the company's website, but also what those customers are looking for has evolved.

Originally the company marketed itself as a place for people to design their own custom T-shirts. But now, if customers are even aware that they're buying from Spreadshirt, they're shopping for existing designs, not creating their own.

Eight out of every 10 pieces of clothing sold on Spreadshirt are existing prints created by one of the nearly 30,000 designers active on site, Rooke said.

Some of those designers have turned T-shirts into a new career, he said. There are some designers making tens of thousands to hundreds of thousands of dollars a year from design commissions.

“Increasingly it is an income stream for people,” he said.

Spreadshirt and Rooke are based in Germany, but the Hempfield plant, opened in 2005, has been expanding rapidly to meet American demand.

The Westmoreland County facility employs more than 200 workers, up from about 160 five months ago. The company in August opened a new plant in Henderson, Nev.

“Our facilities in the U.S. are growing faster than they are in Europe,” Rooke said, adding that Spreadshirt's U.S. operations grew sales by 100 percent in first half of 2012, and by 50 percent in the second half last year.

The Hempfield plant is expected to add 20 to 30 more employees this year, Rooke said. Employment growth will be much stronger in Nevada because that plant is newer.

The privately held business expected 2012 revenue to be in the range of $100 million, up about 40 percent over 2011, Rooke said. But finalized results for the year weren't ready as of Friday.

While a growing number of Spreadshirt's customers may not be aware they're buying from the company, Rooke said he is working on initiatives to strengthen the brand's association with quality.

It is beginning to contract-manufacture its own line of base T-shirts and other clothing to ensure that customers have access to a consistent supply of quality products on which designs are printed.

Rooke said he wants the Spreadshirt name on a T-shirt label to be a “trust mark” for customers.

The U.S. market, and the company's plant outside Greensburg, is key to Spreadshirt's future growth, the CEO said.

He expects sales generated by U.S. customers to be three times bigger in the next three years.

“The U.S. in a couple years could be as big as the whole business is now,” he said. “And at the heart of it is Greensburg.”

Alex Nixon is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7928 or anixon@tribweb.com.

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