Nick Sunderman was barely 30 with a company teetering on the edge.
His custom apparel business had expanded to high school teams across Texas. But with bills to pay, Sunderman couldn’t wait for money to arrive in the mail. So he went out and got it, driving west out of Fort Worth toward Abilene and into the Panhandle. He darted south to Austin and San Antonio and east to Houston. At one point, with his stack of invoices shrinking, he pulled into NASA to meet the president of a booster club. When he finally got back to North Texas, he went to a Wells Fargo and deposited around $170,000 worth of checks.
Things are less tenuous now for Sunderman, the 36-year-old president and founder of Fan Cloth, which coordinates apparel and merchandise sales with fundraising campaigns for high school teams. Sunderman, a Fort Worth Southwest graduate and a former minor league baseball player, started Fan Cloth in 2007. Back then, it was a two-man operation, with Sunderman handling sales and creative director Ojay Juarez designing products.
Sunderman started with one client, his former baseball team at Southwest, and grew to several more across the Fort Worth school district. Soon enough, Fan Cloth was working with schools across the Metroplex and then out of state. By 2010, it was working in every state. This year, it’ll work with around 16,000 teams.
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Fan Cloth employs more than 700 people — 200 full-time — and operates out of two facilities in Grand Prairie, including a 120,000-square foot headquarters that includes an art department, a sales floor, a customer service call center and a large warehouse, where orders are churned out and stored.
But Fan Cloth’s specialty isn’t screenprinting or production — it’s incorporating that with teams’ fundraising campaigns.
As Sunderman put its, a team can have no money and change that — without risk — by working with Fan Cloth.
When a team or club signs on, Fan Cloth designs custom merchandise and presents it on a handout catalog for free. The products range from long sleeve T-shirts to duffel bags. The team then uses the catalogs to sell the products. Orders are taken and Fan Cloth produces what’s needed in-house.
“There’s no wasted product at all,” Sunderman said. “If you order 104 things, we make 104 things.”
At the end, Fan Cloth bills the team for its cut, and the team keeps the rest. From July 6 through March 21, Fan Cloth sold more than 70,000 items to DFW teams and organizations, helping raise more than $420,000.
Fort Worth Arlington Heights baseball coach Shad Whitely said his district-provided budget nearly dries up after he purchases baseballs. Using Fan Cloth the last three seasons, the Yellow Jackets raised around $2,000 the first year, double of that last year and around $5,000 this year.
“We’re selling our logo and branding our program, and at the same time, making some money,” Whitely said.
Sunderman’s idea for Fan Cloth hatched after he sold his stock in a New York-based online startup. He worked briefly for Fort Worth investment tycoon Bobby Patton, managing apparel-related accounts for Patton’s Guggenheim Partners investment firm. When Guggenheim exited the apparel business, Sunderman bought equipment from Patton and began screenprinting for people he knew around town. Sunderman soon realized there was a market to merge custom apparel with fundraising.
“So you can go to Dick’s Sporting Goods and buy a hoodie, or you can go to your coach and pay $50 for a hoodie, and now your team is making the money from that,” Sunderman said.
Chris McKinley, a former baseball coach at Southwest, Burleson and Cedar Hill, joined Fan Cloth as the director of business development shortly after it was founded.
“I coached baseball, which is not a heavily funded sport anywhere,” McKinley said. “One of my fortes was trying to stretch a dollar out of nowhere to raise money for my program.”
McKinley estimated that Fan Cloth has reached about 10 percent of its targeted market. It’s expanded into Canada this year with plans to reach Puerto Rico soon. It’s also now backed, financially, by Valesco Industries, a private equity firm in Dallas.
“Fundraising — it’s kind of funny — because it’s this one thing that 99.9 percent of people would never think about what we do,” Sunderman said. “And that’s fine. We think about it every minute of every day. We just try to specialize in our one tiny sliver of a niche.”
Ryan Osborne, 817-390-7760
Fan Cloth timeline
2007 Founded in Fort Worth by Nick Sunderman
2008 Expanded out of state
2010 Worked in every state
2014 Inked deals with Under Armour and Adidas
2015 Introduced online stores