Twenty years ago, alumni Tom Merritt and Mike Pereyo took a chance on their desire to create.
When you look good, you feel good, and you tour good. At least according to Clemson tour guide and senior management major Taylor Allen.
And thanks to the generosity of alumni Mike Pereyo and Tom Merritt, the Clemson Tour Guides now have gear to wear that makes them look (and feel) professional.
For Pereyo and Merritt, Clemson University was where they found a family that supported them long after they had left. They credit the University with playing an integral part in helping them grow a niche outdoor clothing company into the hugely successful apparel enterprise their corporation, OOBE, is today.
They felt it was their time to give back. As unique as the way they craft a story, Pereyo and Merritt gave the University a one-of-a-kind, fully sponsored, uniform-related re-branding of its tour guide association.
“Clemson is creating attractive equity not just for Clemson graduates, but everybody who wants to be a part of something bigger than themselves — and something successful,” Pereyo said.
Merritt agrees; an affinity with the University isn’t limited to the years spent in class.
“Clemson remains strong because of its strong alumni,” Merritt said. “The University places such an emphasis on taking care of its alumni, therefore the alumni feel it’s part of their responsibility to take care of the University even if it’s in a small way. When we first graduated, we gave back because we thought that if you couldn’t be entrusted when you had very little, you couldn’t be entrusted when you had a lot. We realize that adds up. If everybody participates, those can create a large movement.”
Merritt speaks from the experience of one who has watched his own dream grow out of a small Easley auto body shop and a few samples into a company about to celebrate its 20th anniversary from a newly renovated, gorgeously modern warehouse office overlooking downtown Greenville.
The run-down Easley shop rented for only $50 a month. Everything — every surface, every nook, corner and cranny — was oily and smelled of gasoline. But it was undeniably a step upward and forward for a pair of newly minted entrepreneurs like Pereyo and Merritt.
Before, the “office” had been a regular booth in a ramshackle Waffle House halfway between Charlotte, N.C., and Easley, S.C. At least once a week, Pereyo and Merritt would make the two-hour drive to meet over business plans and country ham.
After a year of this, the pair finally made the biggest leap of all. The time had come to transition that blueprint of an idea into a reality. In a long-distance pact, both of them walked into work on the same day to hand in their resignation letters.
Shortly thereafter, Pereyo — along with his wife and their new baby — picked up and moved to Easley, S.C., to start building OOBE in that little auto-body shop.
Looking around at the clutter of baby cribs where their then-newborn infants slept and the loosely organized chaos of paperwork over which their wives were often lending a hand, Merritt and Pereyo saw their opportunity. They’d wanted different; they’d wanted to do more. The friends wanted an out-of-Bible experience, for every day to be an “OOBE” day. It was quickly coined among their group of friends; they used it every chance they got.
What started as an expression later grew into Merritt and Pereyo’s company mission.
“We recognized that we were entrepreneurs at heart having grown up watching our dads go from the bottom to the top like [Pereyo’s] dad in a real boot-strap-type story, and my dad had a dairy farm before getting into the landscaping business and figuring it out,” Merritt said. “So we both had this itch that we had to create and do something.
Merritt can’t help but laugh when he recalls the one particular phone call that served as their future-company’s first springboard.
Pereyo had called to say, “We’re incorporated.”
“Awesome. What’s our corporate name?”
“I just put OOBE.”
Merritt was thinking, “Brilliant!”
“Are you in or are you out?”
“What do we do?”
“I have no idea. That’s why I called you.”
Eventually the idea for OOBE did take shape, and Clemson was there every step of the way, continuing to weave itself throughout the company’s story. It was one of their old friends from Clemson’s FCA Chapter (Fellowship of Christian Athletes) who created the company’s first t-shirt designs, and it was the Clemson Small Business Development Center that helped give the pair their first big fighting chance.
Merritt credits OOBE’s first loan to the nomination for Entrepreneurs of the Year they received from the Clemson Small Business Development Center.
After that, OOBE — and Pereyo and Merritt along with it — continued to grow, filling more and more orders, upgrading the quality of their offerings. It was hard for them to look at their success and not see Clemson’s hand it in. This grew a desire to give back to the University.
“We’re always trying to find ways to engage and give back to Clemson,” Pereyo said. “This donation (to the tour guides) was just an easy way because of what we can do with gifting apparel and merchandise. We saw real value in the tour guide program and jumped head-on.”
Clemson Visitors Center leaders find that a student who visits campus is more likely to apply and come to Clemson than those who never visit. A 2013 study done by Hanover Research for Clemson University on high school student’s perceptions of universities concluded that 90 percent of those who visited campus said that the visit increased their desire to attend.
There is pressure then on both the University and its tour guides to create the best first impression possible.
Merritt and Pereyo — while they felt their blood has run orange since childhood — wanted everyone who came to Clemson to experience that feeling of solidarity, of “Solid Orange,” that could be so inspirational.
The connections tour guides make with visitors can be the best example of the combination of spirit, pride and family that is at the core of the Clemson experience.
In fact, senior tour guide Erin Mayor recalls how her own campus tour was the pivotal factor in eventually persuading her to come to Clemson. She understands first-hand the power of a first impression and credits OOBE’s gift-in-kind with helping strengthen the Clemson image.
“We look really professional,” she said. “Also, to be able to tell people that someone loved Clemson enough to give back to our school and thinks highly of us shows them that our alumni still feel these ties to the school and that they care.”
The idea that they are able to put their very best foot forward better than ever with their new uniforms is a real, tangible boost for the tour guides.
With their gift, the two OOBE entrepreneurs found an answer to the question of how they could help extend the mission of Clemson to future generations of students, to give other people a chance to have an OOBE day.