Tuesday, May 11, 2010
The Road Less Traveled Leads a Nebraska Farm Kid to a Place in Pop Culture History
I likely stumbled upon Verne Holoubek’s story the way I do a lot of figures I end up profiling — by coming across an article or item mentioning them or by someone telling me about them. Sometimes I’m given a fairly full portrait of the person, other times just a sketch. In the case of Holoubek, it was another profile subject of mine, folklorist and author Roger Welsch, who mentioned his friend Holoubek in the course of an interview as someone I should look up. Long story short, I heeded Welsch’s advice and arranged to meet Holoubek, and I’m glad I did. He has a helluva story. My take on his story originally appeared in The Reader (www.thereader,com).
The Road Less Traveled Leads a Nebraska Farm Kid to a Place in Pop Culture History
©by Leo Adam Biga
When Verne Holoubek left his family’s homestead farm near Clarkson, Neb. in 1961 for the state university in Lincoln, he fully intended on getting an ag degree, then coming home to help his dad run the place. It’s what the eldest son of a traditional Czech farming family was expected to do. But by year two a restless Holoubek embarked on an unimagined path as a hip entrepeneur in the printed apparel field.
He was in his 20s when the dreamer in him — he expressed a talent for drawing in high school — merged with the pragmatist in him. It all began with magic markers and army surplus jackets. Holoubek applied basic designs to white parkas he sold at home Husker football games. Then came T-shirts, what became the core of the company he formed, Holoubek Inc. Fraternities snatched them up. His operation evolved from the Alpha Gamma Rho fraternity house basement to the regional festival-fair circuit to a downtown Lincoln print shop to a full-scale production plant in Pewaukee, Wis., a Milwaukee bedroom community. Holoubek Inc., became an industry legend and made him a fortune. Many of his T-shirts are collectibles.
His journey from farmland to boardroom took some unusual routes. He did time as a “Forty Miler,” a reference to his early days as a carny hand-painting T-shirts at carnivals within a 40-mile radius of home. The allure of the road beckoned him to travel ever farther out. He got his ag degree alright, but opted to make a go of this T-shirt thing with his wife, Terri. The company survived many early struggles.
By the late ‘60s-early ‘70s, this once summer sideline turned serious business venture. A big break came when a then-fledgling discount store called Target gave him end-cap display space. His T-shirts sold-out. At the height of the T-shirt craze Holoubek designs were in every shop in every mall in every town in America. He expanded, going international. Along the way he acquired a client, Harley Davidson, whose open road nonconformity and anti-authoritarian spirit fit his own.
“I was a rebel from the beginning,” he said. “I’ve never liked the status quo. I’m not real big on authority. I mean, I always kind of go around it if I can.”
On a recent Nebraska visit Holoubek stood in a dirt road that intersects the small family farm he grew up on to consider how he’s come so far from so little. He used to ride a pony to the wood-frame, one-room school house just up the road. As he looked past the undulating corn and soybean fields to the far rolling hills poet Ted Kooser likes to call the “Bohemian Alps,” he grew quiet, only the sound of wind and meadowlark interrupting the stillness. Then he spoke.
“I guess I was always looking at these horizons wondering what’s over there. When you stood atop a haystack over here,” he said, indicating a field, “you saw all the lights in David City across the river. That’s about 46 miles. It’s just that curiosity. Intense curiosity. The word ‘vision’ has been used in a lot of interviews I’ve done. Where I get that, I don’t know.”
Upon further reflection, he gave his father props. “My dad was really forward thinking,” he said, “and maybe that’s where I picked up some of that vision. He always used the latest stuff” on the farm. “He was big into conservation” before it was popular. “We terraced all these fields. He built the first steel shed in the area.” It’s still standing. “He and Mom hired an architect to build their house. It has innovations that still seem modern.”
Holoubek’s sense for this place and for the land is profound. He’s never really left it or it him. “That’s really where it starts. Growing up on a farm, learning how to work, learning how to have fun — freedom, independence. Every day you made you own day,” he said. He proudly showed two visitors from the city the tiny Catholic church, long abandoned, and the adjoining cemetery where his family attended services and where his grandparents are buried, respectively. He pointed out, too, where he ran a tractor over the only rock in a field, the ditch he slid his car into and the gully he and his pals partied in.
His parents, now in their late 80s, still live on the land. When they’re gone, he said, “we don’t know what’s going to happen to this farm. There’s nobody left in the family to run it.” He admires how his parents hung on there. How his dad diversified with an automotive service business. Verne’s followed in his footsteps, always keeping hands in different pots. And just as the old man bucked convention agitating for agricultural reforms as a National Farmers Organization activist, Verne’s gone his own way the whole ride.
Known as a pioneer in printed apparel, Holoubek found innovative applications of words and images by pen-and-ink, air-brush and silk-screen, iron-on heat-transfer, which he’s an originator of, and multi-color press. He fed the counter culture movement’s creation of a new casual wear market for shirts emblazoned with ads, artwork, pop icon figures, sport team logos, protests, phrases, lyrics, poems, jokes, names or just about anything else. Few anticipated the demand. Poised to capitalize on it, he helped make the heretofore naked white T-shirt a colorful medium for commercial exploitation and personal self-expression. A walking billboard/canvas equated with cool.
“People wanted to identify with something or identify themselves,” he said. “I think rock ‘n’ roll and the Vietnam War gave it a little help because it was a protest…a statement. You could say things, you could be comical, you could be serious, you could be political, you could be religious, you know, whatever you wanted to put on your shirt.”
Wherever he looked, he saw opportunity. He plugged his company into a then- burgeoning lakefront Milwaukee music festival called Summer Fest, where upwards of a million people come see name acts over ten days. In charge of merchandising, Holoubek-printed T-shirts sold big and fast. He also tapped the rock-pop-country music concert scene, printing T-shirts for KISS and Charlie Daniels, among others. And right from the start he hopped on the Hollywood merchandising bandwagon that began with Star Wars and Superman.
Besides the vision to see these trends, Holoubek was in the very age bracket that gave them life. He was an unreformed hippie. He looked the part, too.
“I was young and looked young. Full beard, long hair, cowboy boots, outrageous clothes. Nobody thought people that young should own businesses,” he said. “The concept of entrepreneur wasn’t discovered yet. Nobody knew how to pronounce it, spell it. I was always the youngest one in meetings with lawyers and bankers and marketing guys. I was kind of an oddity.”
By the time the company took off in the early ‘70s, he was “the old guy” at 31. The average age of his 150 employees was 23. “A lot of college kids,” he said. “That’s when college kids used to work in factories for the summer. We had great parties…great picnics. Charlie Daniels played at one of our company picnics.”
Emboldened by youth, “we came in and just blew away” competitors-vendors, he said. “We were brash and kind of cocky, but we took care of our customers.” At trade shows the team “put on the dog. It was show time. Maybe that came from the carnival,” he said, where setting up your booth is “flashing your joint. A joint was a store then. It’s all different now.”
Holoubek Inc. didn’t have to look hard for new artists-designers. “We were a hot name in town, so people wanted to work there,” he said. “The talent came.”
A big break came when he cultivated the Harley account. He’d printed Harley decals and stickers but not apparel, where the real money lay. With Harley’s rebirth in the mid-’80s, he pushed the Skull and Cross Bones rebel image to new heights as the brand’s exclusive apparel licensee. The gig made him a multi-millionaire. His Harley sales went from $350,000 to $40 million. Along the way, he got hooked on the cycle subculture he still embraces today at 63.
The Harley mystique, he said, “does capture you. First, it starts with love of motorcycling. If you ride, there’s nothing like it. It is just a thrill and you want to ride all the time. You can’t get enough of it.” Then there’s the image, as much a product of apparel-accessory lines and marketing pitches as the bikes themselves.
“Harley was brilliant enough to offer this clothing line,” Holoubek said. “It’s very expensive stuff. Their leather jackets cost $200 more than any other jacket, but people want the logo. The T-shirts sort of augment that. You wear your Harley stuff when you’re not riding. For sure, you wear it when you are riding. People want that identity. The real phenomenon is when people travel to rallies. They buy a T-shirt wherever they go. Pretty soon they’ve got a closet with a couple hundred shirts. It just kind of caught fire and it became THE thing.”
His own immersion in all things Harley happened almost by osmosis. “It was pretty easy to get into the Harley mystique because I was already around them,” he said. Before his indoctrination into that world he was “into bikes” as far back as college. “I actually rode to my graduation from college on my bike,” he said. “So, I’ve always had a bike,” but he admits, “I didn’t ride Harleys and I was not a biker. I was a college biker. My first bike was a Honda.”
He makes a point to differentiate between “real bikers” and motorcycle enthusiasts. He feels the real bikers comprise “about 1 percent” of the riding population. “I think bikers come in degrees,” he said, “I’m in the 99 percent group. Its hard to peg, but there is some biker in everybody.”
Ever the rebel, he once “took up motocross. Not racing, but riding for fun,” he said. “After work a bunch of guys would sneak into the Evinrude Proving grounds. The company tested snowmobiles there in the winter. We trespassed all summer.”
He’s an active member of a Harley biker club called the Ugly M/C. He wears a belt buckle with the name-insignia stamped on it. The Uglies possess a rich lore. “Uglies were able to go to Hells Angels parties and they came to ours,” he said of the respect they carried in hardcore biker circles. The Uglies also did security details for concerts-festivals, but enforced things less violently than their Angels brethren.
His Uglies II chapter includes celebrity brothers Peter Fonda and Larry Hagman. It’s for riders. No dilettantes allowed in this Wild Angels-Easy Rider crowd, even if members are senior, tax-sheltered rebels-without-a-cause now.
“Yeah, it’s a riding club. We ride hard. They’re just great guys and a lot of fun,” said Holoubek, who prints the club’s various shirts.
Aficionados will tell you Holoubek printed the best of the Harley collection. “They’re classics,” Fonda said. “There’s some great art there,” Hagman said.
As proud as Holoubek is that his work stands the test of time, he’s really jacked by his Uglyhood. “You have to ask” to join, he said. He did, and a Harley dealer sponsored him. Verne paid his dues for a year. “Here the rubber meets the road,” he said of this trial period. “You cook, clean, wash bikes, and do other duties as assigned. No rough initiation. It’s all in good fun. Ugly members are for life and we are careful to pick guys that will fit in for the long term. More do not make it in than do. One ‘no’ vote keeps you out of the club. Sometimes it takes three votes before you make it.” He won’t say how many it took him, but “they made me Ugly.”
Fellow Ugly Peter Fonda, now a close friend, met Holoubek when he rode out to Milwaukee for Harley’s 90th anniversary. He said they hit it right off despite their “very different backgrounds.” Then again, he said, they share a connection to Nebraska and its virtues. “He’s worked very hard to get where he is in life and he deserves every penny of it in my mind. The first thing I noticed is he has a very genuine heart. He’s a very generous person,” Fonda said. “When my wife had back surgery and it got botched, all my friends were concerned about me because I was really down. Verne flew out, for no other reason than to see me — to see I was alright and taking care of myself. Now that’s a true friend.”
Holoubek’s Wisconsin home is a kind of base camp for Uglies attending Sturgis rallies and Harley events. His “second home,” a beach front property in Akumal, Mexico, is always open to friends. “It’s beautiful down there,” Fonda said. “He likes to share his good fortune with friends. I think it only means something to him when he’s able to share it.” Fonda returns the favor by having Holoubek and company to his Montana ranch. Verne stays in Brigit’s room.
Nebraska author Roger Welsch tells an anecdote about how he and Holoubek met in a neo-nouvelle rich way. “I get a call one day from Akumal, Mexico on the Yucatan (Peninsula),” Welsch said. “The voice on the other end” is Holoubek’s. He wants to talk to Welsch about a book he has in mind. Welsch tells him, “‘Well, it’s really stupid to be talking about writing a book on the telephone. Shouldn’t we be sitting on a nice wide beach sucking on tequilas?’” To Welsch’s surprise, Verne says, “‘Good idea. There’ll be a ticket waiting for you…’” And there was. “It’s guys like this who know how to spend their money right you want to have as friends,” Welsch said. “He’s just a super guy. Easy going. A sweetheart.”
Fonda confirms Holoubek knows how to relax. It’s easier now that he’s retired and not wired to his business. “We enjoy doing the same things and we enjoy doing those things together,” said Fonda. Similarly, Larry Hagman and his wife enjoy travel with the Holoubeks, including a recent Costa Rica trip the couples made.
Terri Holoubek often joins Verne on rides. He describes his wife, an Omaha native, as “an equal partner in my life” and “in the business. She was there from nearly the beginning and we have worked together on every aspect of the venture. She did take the time to raise four great kids while keeping me in food and clothes and lots of advice on major decisions. She’s very intuitive.”
They’ve made some epic rides together. “We did 3,600 miles on the Glacier National Park ride — the Ride to the Sun. On the way back we rendezvoused at Peter’s (Fonda’s) ranch. From there we took off for the ride to Sturgis. On the ride into Sturgis from Devil’s Tower we road two-abreast at 80-miles an hour in formation, not the kind of thing you normally do. That was a great ride.”
He said the Sturgis experience, “which has been a regular stop for me over the last 20 years, is the REAL DEAL for bikers. Originally a race and hill climb, bikers camped in the city park in town. Over the years it has grown into the mainstream much like Harley Davidson has became an acceptable” brand. “The biggest change is that the riding public became more middle class just in time for the boomers to take part. It’s a lot of fun.”
The couple have ridden to the Four Corners and Daytona Beach They do charity events, including the famous Love Ride in Glendale, Calif. They would normally be up in Sturgis this week for the big rally. But a double-vision problem has idled Verne’s riding for now. That doesn’t stop them from having a good time. Between scuba diving at their ocean-front get-away in Akumal, touring old Europe, cruising in their classic ‘56 Packard or making Lake Michigan waves in their speed boat, this couple has fun. Earlier this year the couple celebrated their 40th wedding anniversary in Paris and Amsterdam.
Over the years Holoubek sold off most parts of the business, keeping only the prized Harley licensee segment. In 2004 he sold it too — to clothing manufacturer giant VF. Some hard feelings soured the Holoubek-Harley romance, but he doesn’t talk about them except to say, “It’s a big company now. It ain’t like it used to be when the family ran everything.” One Harley legend he remains close to is chief designer Willie G. Davidson, a grandson of the founder.
Holoubek tried retiring “once before.” He put “a management team in place and it just didn’t work out,” he said. “Either I didn’t run the team right or I didn’t have the right guidelines or I didn’t know how to be a chairman of the board and let somebody else run your company. I take the business very, very personally. I think about it 24 hours a day.” When sales went flat and good people left, he “came back to work.” He dealt with irate customers and vendors who felt his absence. That first day back he and Terri vowed, “‘Next time, we sell.’” That’s what they did.
The sale and retirement leave ample money and time. He could live anywhere, but still resides in Wisconsin and keeps close ties to Nebraska. While he never came back home to live again once he reinvented himself in college, he’s remained close to his family, most of whom still live in state. He keeps busy with vintage automobile and tractor collections, amateur photography and 400 acres of land he and Terri farm at their Wisconsin retreat. They also run a charitable foundation.
Fonda worries that without the action of a business to run, Holoubek might have problems. “I remind him, ‘Don’t retire, because that’s when people die,’” Fonda said. Holoubek says Fonda needn’t worry. First, he stays busy. “Life in retirement is very full,” he said. Second, he’s having too much fun. “I don’t believe you have to work your whole life,” he said. “I’ve watched people work to the grave in their business. There’s so many other things to do in the world I think I can do than just run that business.”
Passion drives Holoubek. It’s what gave him “a passport” and “a way out” of the farm in the first place. Finding “that avenue where you can create your own” destiny, he said, is a gift. “You’ve got to want to do something from the heart, and I feel very fortunate I’ve been able to do that.”