Alpha Industries‘ CEO and third generation leader of the company, Mike Cirker, took the reins of the private, family-owned business in 2011, after the passing of his father. Founded in 1959 by his grandfather as supplier of military textile products to the Department of Defense (DOD), Michael describes Alpha Industries as his roots and heritage. Alpha Industries now designs high quality, authentic military-inspired outerwear sold to the private sector.
What does “entrepreneurship” mean to you?
Mike Cirker: Entrepreneurship is about identifying a problem with a particular product or service, dreaming up a solution, and creating a sound, long term vision that is understandable and achievable.
How did your company come to be?
MC: My grandfather, Samuel Gelber, was an accountant living in Brooklyn, NY in the 1950s. One of his clients was a defense contractor based in Knoxville, TN called Dobbs Industries. The story goes the owner of Dobbs was engaging in some shady practices and was ultimately suspended by the Pentagon while in the middle of an open contract. My grandfather jumped at the opportunity to establish his own manufacturing company and subcontract the open orders from Dobbs. He uprooted his family in Brooklyn, leased factory space in Knoxville, and picked up the orders of the N-3B Cold-weather Parka and USN Shipboard Shirt for the US Navy, all while the ink was still wet on the incorporation papers for Alpha Industries, Inc.
How has your business changed in response to the COVID-19 pandemic?
MC: In the two years leading up to the pandemic, Alpha fortuitously underwent a restructuring process to fast track our DTC ecommerce operation while making adjustments to improve operational efficiency. By the end of 2019, the company was tight with expenses and inventory, onboarding virtual tools like Zoom and Slack, and investing heavily into digital sales and marketing. These adjustments set us up nicely to weather the approaching pandemic and retail recession. The main changes following the onset of the pandemic and lockdowns were tactical; we accelerated the ecommerce growth strategies and shifted to 100% virtual communication for global brand management.
What is your proudest and darkest moment so far?
MC: The highest point in my time as CEO of this company came recently when I finally felt truly secure in the vision, strategy, and management team I had assembled. I had 10 years of poor vision, multiple versions of strategies, and a bit of a revolving door at the top. Now, with a clear vision and smart planning, I have set in place a newly minted senior management team capable and passionate to drive this brand and Its future.
A low point in my journey was recognizing a critical opportunity that I let go by. In 2013, Kanye West was photographed wearing an Alpha Industries MA-1 Bomber jacket promoting his Yeezy Tour. This isolated event spawned a huge global trend for the bomber, and Alpha reclaimed its notoriety as the authentic military-heritage brand in the market. We rode this trend to new heights, opening pinnacle wholesale accounts, running collaborations with top coveted brands, and driving a bit of brand frenzy. I, and thus the company, became complacent with all the attention and record profits. We stopped building and innovating. We stopped challenging ourselves. We became drunk with the success of one style, and we lost sight of our objective to be a full-lifestyle fashion brand, and instead, exited the trend as the bomber jacket company. I learned that success is nice, but not without risk, and to never stop driving forward.
How is your company changing the landscape?
MC: Alpha is changing the landscape by creating contemporary fashion trend through an authentic military and utility lens. Many brands out there design product that incorporates some military utility aspect, whether silhouette or fabrication. But Alpha stands out from this crowd by using authentic details pulled from our archive and telling authentic stories around the original purpose and utility of the product or detail. For example, the historical military-specification for the nylon flight jackets included pen caps in the utility pocket on the left sleeve so the pilot had easy access to pens when making in-flight notes. This was as real-life need for the pilots and mandated in the spec of all government-issued jackets. Most brands making bomber jackets aren’t aware of this minor detail, or choose not to include, whereas Alpha is fanatical about the details and prides itself on authenticity.
What do you wish you knew when you started? Is there anything you would do differently?
MC: Perhaps the biggest lesson I learned taking over a company at a relatively young age was the value of having a strong financially minded person on your right side. Not long after I hired Alpha’s CFO, the company began to improve in so many areas that I would never have considered, most of all the tremendous value of accurate forecasting. (More on this can be found in the video below.)
What advice/credo do you live by as you grow the business / what is your professional and personal mission statement?
MC: My number one job is setting and clearly communicating vision and building a superior management team to plan and execute against that vision. There are so many elements to running a business but focusing on the north star and establishing a strong, passionate, and dependable team of leaders is the key.
Where do you find inspiration when faced with challenges?
MC: I find inspiration through other people. I dedicate a significant amount of time to building and nurturing my business network so I can rely on people with varying experience and perspective, and a willingness to support me.
What does “success” look like for you? What do you think will help you achieve it?
MC: I look toward a future where Alpha Industries is a global brand driven by one vision, one mission and a single set of values. The global positioning of the brand today has too much variance in certain regions, which is the result of our legacy business model of licensing and 3rd party brand-building and distribution. Purity of brand message and creative direction is my measure of success. To achieve this, I would need to adopt the same lessons for building my American business with clear vision and first-class management team, expanded for global brand management.
Has personal or professional “success” changed for you since the COVID-19 pandemic?
MC: Not so much. The pandemic has made us stronger and accelerated Alpha DTC channels, which only puts more urgency on unifying the global brand to achieve the aforementioned measure of success.
What’s it like to work alone or with your partners? What advice do you have for fellow entrepreneurs about building and leading teams?
MC: Nothing should occupy your time more than finding, recruiting, and nurturing your management team. With a well-defined and articulated vision, an entrepreneur needs to find people who compliment their strengths and supplement for their weaknesses. The entrepreneur’s work is never complete in this task and is constantly painting the picture forward and inspiring passion among their staff.
Many entrepreneurs continue to perfect their daily routines to support their work and greater vision; would you mind sharing your morning routine or a regular ritual that grounds your work each day? How has it changed in recent months?
MC: I do not have a particular routine, however I have determined the needs of my life, personal and professional, and allocated enough time to both. For example, being a present husband and father is very important to me, so I try to clear schedules and dedicate most mornings to getting the kids up and getting them to school every day. Many entrepreneurs complain there isn’t enough time, and I empathize with that feeling, but I also have met extremely busy super-entrepreneurs who have figured out the balance, so I believe it is a matter of proper planning and setting achievable expectations.
What keeps you motivated during this time?
MC: I have a deep and uncompromising belief in the brand and its destiny. Over the years I have met enough people who know and love the brand and want to be associated, that I end up making and drinking my own energizing Kool-Aid.
What kind of an entrepreneur do you want to be known as, as in, what do you want your legacy to be?
MC: Alpha 1.0 I define as my grandfather supplying garments to the US military. Alpha 2.0 was when my father transitioned out of government supply to commercial sale and positioned in the Army/Navy surplus channel. My time is Alpha 3.0, where I take this company with a tremendous history to a new contemporary era where we pursue our mission to become the most authentic military-heritage fashion brand In the world.
What is a quote or some words of wisdom that help get you through the tough days?
MC: “Every day you may make progress. Every step may be fruitful. Yet there will stretch out before you an ever-lengthening, ever-ascending, ever-improving path. You know you will never get to the end of the journey. But this, so far from discouraging, only adds to the joy and glory of the climb.” -Winston Churchill
Have you experienced mentorship in your career? Do you feel it was easily available to you?
MC: I consider myself extremely lucky that, from the beginning, I was surrounded by a number of incredible entrepreneurs and businesspeople who were friends of my father and took a personal interest in my success. Probably my first lesson was you don’t know what you don’t know. To start something new or build upon something already existing, an entrepreneur must be a learner and open to critique.
Who are the people who have mentored or influenced you in your life or career? How has their influence changed the trajectory of your entrepreneurial journey?
MC: My first mentors were businessmen who were friendly with my father. They took me under their wing with no alternative agenda and gave me the basic education and critical thinking skills to avoid as many land mines as possible and make more wins than losses.
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