Photography by © 2023 Mark Skalny Photography

Tony Ehrbar, owner and CEO of American Tent LLC, in Green Bay, Wis., didn’t realize he wanted to be an entrepreneur until he was 32. Burned out from years of consulting work and dissatisfied with corporate life, he was inspired to take on a new professional challenge after watching an episode of Shark Tank one night. While browsing businesses for sale on Craigslist, an ad for a tent rental company in his hometown of Green Bay felt like the right fit—a sentiment that persists more than a decade later.

Ehrbar bought the business but was living in Chicago at the time, so his brother-in-law handled operations on-site while he managed sales, marketing, customer calls and back-office tasks remotely. “After a while, I noticed all of my time, focus, energy and joy were being derived from running that business,” Ehrbar recalls. 

Passion sparks growth

In 2014, he bought a second business from the tent rental seller—NEW Tent Manufacturing—and moved home to run both businesses. Since then, Ehrbar has grown what is now American Tent from three employees in a 5,000-square-foot warehouse to 40 employees in a 110,000-square-foot facility, manufacturing tents for rental companies as well as end users, such as bars, restaurants, schools and golf courses. Products include frame, pole, keder, clear-top and high-peak tents in standard and custom sizes in addition to sidewalls, a tent ballasting system, tent accessories and in-house printing services.

The company is located in a former shopping mall, which allows for expansive office space, a quality-inspection area strategically situated beneath a giant skylight, and abundant accommodations for product development and assembly. The space also houses a large break room with plenty of food options and an empty movie theater that’s being transformed into an auditorium for team meetings and community events.

“It’s been an incredible journey,” Ehrbar says. “We’ve grown revenues 50 times over in the last 10 years—with what felt like 10 years of growth in just the three years of the COVID pandemic. We were not prepared for both the costs and amount of business we accumulated during that time; it was painful. But we came out a lot stronger as a company and as a team.”

Values to thrive by

The culture Ehrbar has helped his team cultivate directly contributes to employees’ ability to work through challenges together. “People are my focus. What I love most about my work is leading and growing our team—empowering them to be the best version of themselves,” Ehrbar says. “We are committed to putting the right person in the right seat, trusting them to do their job and giving them the tools, resources and confidence to grow and develop as they choose. It’s important that our employees think of their job as a career and know they are supported and taken care of.”

Four core values aligned to this approach guide company decision-making at all levels:

1. Find your joy. With American Tent’s website proclaiming that “happy people make happy tents,” it’s no surprise this is at the top of the list. Ehrbar considers joy to be a “step above happiness,” which he has found as an entrepreneur and aims to help
all employees achieve as well.

2. Be the buffalo. “A buffalo will turn and face a storm head-on as it approaches. For us, this is a reminder to boldly take on challenges as they come up.”

3. Do more, better. “This has two meanings: Do more and do better. Team members are empowered and encouraged to improve processes and operations as they see fit—to take risks and try new things. That’s the only
way to grow.”

4. Family first. “No matter how well you treat each other at work, nothing replaces your family at home.” American Tent has a four-day workweek to help employees be more present with their families on weekends.

American Tent also provides mental health services for employees—a benefit Ehrbar advocates for often. “As someone who has struggled with mental health, I want to normalize that for people and ensure they have the support and courage to address any mental health challenges keeping
them from reaching their goals.”

Success with tech

Centering people is a practice that extends beyond company walls. “It can be easy to fall into being product-centric or manufacturing- or engineering-centric, but being customer-centric is what matters most—especially when it comes to sales and marketing,” Ehrbar says. “We focus on listening to and understanding customers and then educating them on what will best fit their needs, whether or not we have the right solution for them.”

Because many customers first meet American Tent on its company website, Ehrbar has invested heavily in ensuring the site captures who the team is and provides a best-in-class user experience. “With a focus on customer education, we’ve worked with many talented vendors who are experts in web design, and Google AdWords to get our site visitor experience as close as possible to talking to an actual salesperson.”

Ehrbar built these website goals into the company marketing strategy after implementing the Entrepreneurial Operating System® (EOS) last year. “This simple approach to business has been one of the greatest things we’ve done for the organization,” Ehrbar says. “It helps you establish your mission, vision and values in a clear and concise manner.”

Weekly leadership meetings, as recommended by the EOS meeting structure, have been most impactful. “The real meat of these discussions is to address issues—ones we previously would sometimes put our head in the sand to ignore. But now we bring them to the surface, debate them and develop solutions together.”

Paying it forward

With the company’s 10-year anniversary in April, Ehrbar is quick to point to Advanced Textiles Association as the foundation for its success. “I fell into the industry by accident and was an outsider at first—but not for long, thanks to members who have taught me along the way. Our industry is full of amazing, brilliant people who are always innovating—and everyone is so collaborative.”

Ehrbar is currently serving his second term on the ATA board of directors as a way to support others in the same way he was—and continues to be—supported. “I’m excited to keep meeting and learning about other members, develop ways we can all grow together and ultimately share my passion with those who find joy in the work we do every day.” 

Holly Eamon is a business writer and editor based in Minneapolis, Minn.

Project Snapshot: Committed to community

After earthquakes hit Puerto Rico in December 2019 and January 2020, American Tent CEO Tony Ehrbar, director of sales Jake Legois and COO Bill Story traveled there to train volunteer installers and deliver relief supplies. Image: American Tent

Soon after the earthquake swarm in Puerto Rico that occurred in late December 2019 and early January 2020, American Tent partnered with the American Federation of Teachers to provide protective relief tents for students and families in the area. The damage caused most of the territory’s 856 public schools to close, so these tents functioned as temporary outdoor classrooms to allow students’ education to continue. American Tent also launched a GoFundMe drive to raise money for school supplies and other items, such as soccer balls.

The team manufactured nearly 100 tents, which were then transported by members of the Seafarers International Union. A few team members also traveled to Puerto Rico to assist the National Guard and other volunteers with the tent installation process—not an easy feat, due to the wet grounds. 

Events like this are an important aspect of American Tent’s people-first culture. The team often participates in community events, such as:

  • Partnering with Leadership Green Bay in various community improvement efforts, such as establishing a transformative local garden space
  • Supporting the annual Big Brothers Big Sisters “Golf for Kids’ Sake” event
  • Organizing local school supply drives
  • Sponsoring “Power of the Purse” by the Women’s Fund to help create a lasting impact for women and girls in the community

Sidebar: Q&A

You’re also the CEO and cofounder of Renegade Plastics Corp. Whatinspired this business?

My grandpa’s motto was to leave things better than you found them, and I’ve always tried to live by that. Sustainability is an important issue, and we as an industry can do better. Tents are rarely upcycled or recycled, and they typically use PVC-coated fabrics, which contain plasticizers that release harmful chemicals, are carbon intensive and are almost impossible to recycle.

Our Renegade Series of tents is the industry’s first recyclable tent. It’s made with our Renegade Plastics product—polypropylene-based fabrics that are a direct replacement for, or alternative to, the PVC-coated fabrics. Renegade Plastics fabrics are not only used in tents but also in our Renegade Series tarps and a vast array of applications across our industry. … These fabrics are lighter weight, higher performing and more UV-stable—and most importantly, they can be recycled and don’t contain forever chemicals. This is my way of leaving things better than I found them, and I’m excited to grow Renegade Plastics as a way to create a more sustainable industry and world.

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