With employees at the center of everything they do, TentCraft is redefining work-life balance. From childcare solutions to helping team members get outdoors, this Traverse City company is putting human connection and resources first— knowing company growth will follow.
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It only took a couple of years on Wall Street for Matt Bulloch to realize he wanted something more than absurdly long hours, low office morale and a mediocre apartment in New York City. The young Credit Suisse analyst longed for satisfying work in a place that would inspire him to grow.
Serendipitously, New York City is also where Bulloch met the stepson of Paul Britten in the early aughts. Britten, a Traverse City businessman, started a one-man shop in 1985 that has since grown into one of the country’s leading creators of grand-scale banners, signs, displays and creative services powered by more than 330 employees.
While visiting New York, Britten took his stepson, Bulloch and their friends out for drinks and asked Bulloch how he liked Wall Street.
“I said, ‘I hate it,’” Bulloch recalls. “‘I’m working my butt off. My apartment stinks. I don’t see myself in New York long term.’ And Paul said, ‘Well, what do you want to do?’ I told him, ‘I’d love to do something entrepreneurial.’
“I had some ideas that, in retrospect, were just terrible,” Bulloch says with a grin. “But Paul called me a few weeks later and said, ‘Listen, there’s a great product—it’s a tent system. It’s been a page in my catalog for three years, and I’ve tried two other people that didn’t work out. I think it’s a good idea. But at this point, my VP of sales says it’s a waste of time, and my VP of manufacturing says it’s a waste of time. So, if you want to do it, it’ll be your company. I’ll bankroll it, and let’s see what we can do.’”
And so, without knowing a soul in town, Bulloch moved to Traverse City in January 2007 to start TentCraft; manufacturing custom-branded tents for outdoor events and promotions (i.e. the large tents you see at music festivals, farmers markets and fundraisers).
It didn’t take long for the company to grow into a team of salespeople, production crew members and fellow visionaries like Rob Hanel, TentCraft’s Director of People and Space and “a great cultural ambassador,” Bulloch adds.
In 2015, Bulloch bought out Britten’s majority stake in the rapidly growing custom tent business. Tent printing was moved in-house from Britten, Inc. to accommodate a wider array of materials, and TentCraft expanded its line to include frame tents and different sizes of pop-up tents.
Photo by Allison Jarrell
“Michigan is a great place to manufacture,” Bulloch says. “There’s a lot of engineering talent and there’s a lot of the skilled trades. It’s really great for a company like ours, where there’s a creative element and you need savvy, worldly salespeople and marketers, but then you also need people who know how to run [machinery] or how to sew.” An experiential marketing manufacturer that produces and assembles everything in-house, TentCraft is a serious player in the industry. From custom tents and event structures to custom fabrication, they make it all, and Bulloch says they’re the only company manufacturing these types of products in the U.S.
But beyond manufacturing, Bulloch knew, as an entrepreneur, he wanted to cultivate a vibrant, forward-thinking company culture—to give people a workplace they could be proud of. He and Hanel set out to do just that, and today, TentCraft is renowned locally and nationally for progressive benefits like their “Infants in the Workplace” program and outdoor equipment rentals for employees.
“I just fundamentally don’t believe that work has to be soul- crushing and brutal,” Bulloch says. “I think one of my primary jobs as CEO is to focus on the company culture. And a big part of that is to establish, create and maintain a place where people actually want to work.”
Fun and a Little Weirdness at Traverse City’s TentCraft
So how exactly does a young entrepreneur who’s new to Northern Michigan do that?
By prioritizing communication and morning huddles, for starters. Bulloch says daily meetings are “the heartbeat” of the 77-person company, and the morning is a great time to take the pulse. Each morning consists of walk-in music chosen by that day’s presenter, followed by department updates, kudos to team members, “Make It Better” videos created by employees and TentCraft’s signature “Make It Better” clap to close out the huddle. (“Make It Better,” the company motto, is all about the continuous improvement of people, processes and products.)
On a recent morning at the Cass Street headquarters (home to TentCraft’s offices and manufacturing plant), some employees are missing as they work remotely due to Covid-19, but smiling faces still spread out into the main lobby area as Creedence Clearwater Revival’s “Fortunate Son” summons everyone together. The room is adorned with a large cityscape mural, a wall of snowshoes waiting to be rented out, a lounge (complete with books to peruse), a café area built by employees and a hard-to-miss open-top spiral slide that runs from the upper level to the lobby. Bulloch notes with a smile that while no one used it today, the slide is, in fact, a popular mode of transportation.
Photo by Allison Jarrell
Related Read: Searching for more news on business Up North? View our Work in Northern Michigan page.
Beyond the fact that they manufacture high-quality custom products in-house, Bulloch believes TentCraft has succeeded because the company is rooted in humility, fun … and a little weirdness. The weirdness, actually, is one of TentCraft’s guiding principles, along with respect, trust, excellence, communication and teamwork. All of it, Bulloch says, contributes to a “work hard, play hard” culture.
“My favorite definition of culture that I’ve heard is that culture is the sum of everyone’s actions—how people be- have, how people talk to each other, how people trust each other and respect each other,” Bulloch says. “Company culture is a dynamic, living, breathing, malleable thing, and it’s totally dependent on all of us participating and investing in it. People support a world that they help create.”
TentCraft’s Pandemic ‘Switcheroo’
Understandably, it’s hard to sustain that kind of work culture during a pandemic, but even more so when a major pivot is needed. Bulloch knew events—the company’s bread and butter—would take a hit and was scouring news, like all of us, to try to understand Covid and its implications.
“I remember as I was following it, I saw drive-thru testing centers in South Korea. And I thought that was so smart,” he recalls. “I was watching CNN, and instead of bringing someone into the doctor’s office that might be sick, they were keeping them in their car and doing the nasal swab testing. I had never seen anything like that.
“I saw videos of plain white tents in parking lots, and it looked pretty disorganized,” Bulloch continues. “Cars were all over the place. And I thought man, we can print tents that say ‘Enter here’ or a regional hospital name or ‘Covid testing’ or ‘Medical providers only.’ We could offer tents to these health care workers. Our wheels started turning.”
On March 14, 2020, Bulloch emailed his staff (an email they would later frame and give to him as a thank you for his leadership during the pandemic). He had watched event after event canceled—South by Southwest, the NCAA basketball tournament, a mountain biking show. All gone.
“I said, ‘This is going to affect all of us. It’s going to affect our company,’” Bulloch says. ‘“Fun events that use our pop-up tents are all going to stop, as people won’t want to mingle with strangers. The event business may never come back. We’re going to completely retool the company to focus on supporting health and medical applications. Our products are going to be in demand and will save lives.’
“The message was, we set priorities in December, but if what you’re doing doesn’t pertain to medical, I don’t want to hear about it,” Bulloch says. “We’re not developing a new dome for glamping applications. We have to do medical 100 percent.”
TentCraft immediately pivoted to offering hospital, vaccination and medical screening tents. “We had websites up and products made and ready to sell, I think, earlier than other people,” Bulloch says. “We were able to keep everyone on the team and avoid layoffs. That was really important.”
Success from the switch even resulted in their biggest sale on record last year—an almost $2 million order from the State of Kansas. After officials received their stimulus funding, they ordered one of TentCraft’s largest tents to distribute to each county health organization across the state.
Just … don’t call it a pivot.
“I’ve been calling it a ‘switcheroo,’ because I think pivot is one of those words that is getting so overused. Like ‘synergy,’” Bulloch laughs.
Photo by TentCraft
Photo by Allison Jarrell
Photo by Allison Jarrell
How TentCraft is Supporting Families
While the pandemic has certainly changed the face of office life at TentCraft, employees can still reap the benefits of the company’s progressive programs. During the peaks of Covid, the Infants in the Workplace program has been on and off, but that doesn’t lessen its popularity among employees.
Starting in 2017, new parents have had the option to return after maternity or paternity leave to a four-day workweek with the opportunity to bring their child in with them—a huge help for new moms and dads, especially with a significant lack of daycare available in the Traverse City area. The program also offers extra paid maternity/paternity leave for TentCraft’s production employees who aren’t able to bring their kids into a manufacturing environment. TentCraft’s Infants in the Workplace even inspired the City of Traverse City’s infants’ program, which was adopted two years later in 2019.
“The goal with the program was to create another component to our focus on people, and to be able to broadcast that so people know that we’re serious about our work-life balance,” says Rob Hanel. “And, of course, to offer more baby bonding time for mothers and fathers and a more flexible return to work plan.”
Hanel says more than 20 parents have utilized the program since its inception (including both him and Bulloch), and there are guidelines of course—no changing diapers at your desk (bathrooms are equipped with changing stations, with an additional room for mothers to breastfeed or pump) and no leaving your child at the office to run an errand. But new parents can enjoy having their babies at their desk and even taking them into meetings (or having a coworker watch an unruly or sleepy baby). The feedback? Overwhelmingly positive.
Photo by Allison Jarrell
Outside Salesman Steve Damman loved bringing his son Jackson to the office, finding it especially helpful on the days when his daycare was closed.
“It was awesome to be able to have him around and relieve that stress of finding reliable care for your kids,” Damman says. “It’s no secret that we’re a fairly young company. There are a lot of families with young kids. So, it’s cool to see the company evolve with its employees and do what it needs to do for us.”
Hanel is also excited about a new child care pilot program TentCraft is participating in as of December 2021: MI Tri-Share. Other companies joining the pilot include:
Cherry Republic, Traverse City Tourism, Munson Healthcare, Skilled Manufacturing Inc. and Interlochen Center for the Arts.
“Many working-class folks don’t have access to basic and essential early childhood services for reasons beyond their control, and cost is one of them,” Hanel says. “[This] pilot program is designed to offset the cost of childcare for certain income earners by 66 percent.”
The premise is that the employer and the State of Michigan split the cost of daycare with the employee (the state pays 33.3 percent, TentCraft pays 33.3 percent and the employee covers the remaining 33.3 percent). So far, two employees have signed on, and Hanel’s excited to see how the program plays out.
“Our company strategy has always revolved around people—if you don’t get the people side of the business right, you will never get your growth right,” Hanel says. “We know our people could go work anywhere else in Traverse City, but they choose to work at TentCraft, so we have an obligation to be on the forefront of issues that are important to them. Sometimes it’s what styles of beers they enjoy, and sometimes it’s child care.”
How TentCraft is Helping Team Members Get Outdoors
And while Hanel is excited about the company’s child care opportunities, his favorite program is one near and dear to his heart—gear rentals through TentCraft Outdoors.
Inspired by his previous work for Backcountry.com, where employees had access to a gear locker, Hanel saw an opportunity in 2016 to move beyond a run-of-the-mill health and wellness program and implement something similar at TentCraft. He applied for a grant, which covered almost all of the equipment—kayaks, stand-up paddleboards and snowshoes. Employees can reserve the gear for weekends, and weekdays are first-come, first-served. They also recently added weekly on-site yoga sessions led by a private instructor.
“In Northern Michigan, we have amazing natural resources around us: water, snow, sand. So, getting people outdoors and getting their families active was the goal,” Hanel says. “People use stuff all summer long, and in the winter, half of those snowshoes are gone every weekend. There are even little snowshoes for kids—I love to see when those are checked out.”
Bulloch was skeptical, at first. “I just didn’t think people would use it. That’s why you hire people who are smarter than you,” he laughs.
Now, he’s completely on board. If someone finishes their work early for the day, they don’t have to sit at a computer doing nothing at 4 p.m. TentCraft’s philosophy? Grab a kayak and explore a nearby river. It is Northern Michigan, after all.
Photo by Allison Jarrell
TentCraft Looking Ahead
For Bulloch, the future is uncertain—what will happen after the boom in medical demand dies down?
“I do worry a little bit about next year when medical tails off before events come back,” he says. “But I think the fact that we’ve had two pretty good years and can pay off some of our equipment enables us to be able to ride out what could be some stormy seas.”
There are some build initiatives—developing new markets or products—Bulloch is excited about, like a new company called Century Covers, producing swimming pool covers. TentCraft is also working on building its e-commerce capabilities, so clients have the option to buy directly online rather than talking to a salesperson.
And then there are the expand initiatives, centered around acquiring other companies.
“I do think in 10 years, we will have a little constellation of manufacturing companies,” Bulloch says. They may not tie in directly with TentCraft’s work, but he sees potential labor-sharing opportunities and other meaningful connections. “I think we can be a $100 million group of manufacturing companies.”
No matter the future, Bulloch plans to always prioritize work-life balance. “When we’re here, let’s work hard,” he says. “But when you’re not here, live your life.”
Photo by Allison Jarrell
Allison Jarrell is the managing editor of Traverse Magazine. You can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.