Project Erie Entrepreneur: Iron Empire
Leaving a Legacy | The Iron Empire
It’s true you can’t judge a book by its cover, or rather its skin. If you live in Erie, PA you’ve seen R.J. Messenger, you may own one of his shirts (you probably know someone who does) or have even seen his TEDxErie talk. But you definitely know who he is “the guy with the tattoos” the co-owner of Iron Empire (click here to connect on facebook).
“...the business has helped my image and look almost become acceptable especially when it comes to being successful in life with whatever it is.”
Beneath that beautifully inked surface there’s so much more. Let me introduce you.
R.J. Messenger is the co-owner of Iron Empire, a clothing brand that supports building your own life on your own terms with the skills you were born with. He’s a firm believer on relying on yourself to get things done right and overcoming your obstacles. Because if he can “work his ass off” on the back of a garbage truck and turn his hobby into his dream – so can you.
In fact, Iron Empire isn’t just a clothing brand – it’s a following. Strangers wearing the clothing line give each other the “Iron Empire nod”, or wave hello the way bikers signal each other on the highway - a sign of comradery. I met with R.J. and asked him why he believed people were so supportive. His answer was simple.
“I think it’s the personable feeling that people like, the realness behind it. We really do what we do because we want to make a difference in people’s lives.”
For R.J. it’s a job of passion and dedication. He didn’t go into it for the fame or money, he does it because he likes to. To date he hasn’t turned down a donation yet; he knows the values of giving small now can lead to being able to do more as the company grows. Erie is home, and he doesn’t take that lightly.
“If it wasn’t for Erie I wouldn’t be able to do what I do.”
Why build your business in Erie, PA?
R.J. could’ve started this business in another city, but he doesn’t believe it would’ve been as successful. 90% of the reason is because of the story.
“It’s a pride thing…Erie is so homegrown and tightknit. If you get one person behind you, you’re gonna have the whole city behind you.”
Erie has clearly gotten behind Iron Empire. The brand has sold to forty-seven states and dropped off their fourth order to Field and Stream, making their Erie branch the most successful because of the Iron Empire Brand. “They can’t keep it in stock.” R.J. said.
If you’re not part of the solution you’re part of the problem.
“If you think Erie’s dying you clearly aren’t getting involved. Everyone thinks that Erie is dying and on the verge of failure but all those people that think that aren’t involved in what’s going on.”
It’s a good thing R.J. is got involved. He’s had opportunities in Hollywood appearing not only in a Jay-Z music video but also the movie Warrior. What started as a small part as an extra lead to a red-carpet appearance in Hollywood and his own section in The Men of Warrior. But R.J. is a hometown boy at heart. He gets homesick if he’s away for more than a few days, preferring familiar faces and places where people don’t look at him strangely.
Appearances can be deceiving.
Before his Iron Empire Days, R.J. was in the orchestra at Mercyhurst Prep, they had received the rites to perform Les Miserable and he played the drums - his response?
“I don’t know if I’m gonna like this.” (BTW He now owns every single DVD of the musical)
It opened his eyes to musicals and Broadway and he spent a few years touring the country in a van with his straightedge band.
“I don’t like getting tattooed anymore. I think I did way too much too quick.”
A small Iron Empire Tattoo is probably one of his most recent and last tattoos. He says he’s not trying to erase his past, but rather they represent where’s he’s been and where he’s going.
His ink - phrases, images, and the memories – represent a large part of his life that he credits with turning him into the man he is today. Some represent R.J.’s previous straight edge life style – no alcohol, drugs, tobacco – (he didn’t have his first drink until he was 25 years old.)
It wasn’t a subject he wanted to go into at length, and I didn’t pry. If you’ve ever had any ink, you know how personal they can be.
“It’s almost kinda like a therapy,” R.J. said. Most were completed by personal friends he’s known from his travels.
He acquired the majority of his visible ink between 19-24 years old, starting when he was sixteen and becoming quickly addicted, covered his legs, shins, and a half sleeve by the time he graduated high-school. After realizing a “normal lifestyle” wasn’t in the plan he went on to cover his face.
R.J.’s father, a supervisor with the city, got him a part-time job with the city opening doors to pension, benefits and an income. He knew it was a good opportunity, and while he accepted those offers from Hollywood he always came home. After getting in trouble with the law in Cleveland and Canada he was fortunate to keep his job with the city. But it was a wake-up call. He realized he didn’t want that lifestyle. R.J. quit the band, stopped hanging out with his friends and acquired his CDL license and “worked his ass off on the back of a garbage truck” for three years before being awarded a full-time position with the city. But still he knew he wanted more.
Not Your 9 - 5, the Struggles of Owning a Small Business
R.J. admits it hasn’t always been easy. As an entrepreneur he still faces obstacles.
It’s not your nine to five job. It’s a balance between your business and personal life. R.J., who started the business with co-owner and ex-wife Jamie Messenger, says there’s a lot of stress to owning and operating your own company.
“Whether you work with your significant other or not it’s really hard to own your own business and cut off. Hey I’m done at 5 o’clock today. I’m going home. That doesn’t happen. If you think you’re gonna have a small business and its gonna be ‘I’m going into my store today at 9 and leaving at 5’ you’re not, and if you are, you’re not working hard enough - you’re not busy enough.”
There are still times where he has to decide whether to pay the mortgage or his employees.
“What if we have two bad weeks in a row or not enough custom jobs coming in?”
As the business expands R.J. has had to start delegating responsibility as his time is pulled in different directions. Meetings, phone calls… he realizes one person just can’t do it all.
R.J. is a visible presence in the day to day operations, more than likely if you visit the store you’ll be dealing with him, and while he has a support system and staff, he doesn’t believe on complete reliance on others.
“… the more you start relying on other people for yourself or your business the more chances you have of getting let down… (other people) don’t have that same drive as you…When you start relying on other people you almost get used to it, it’s just a mindset I never agreed with.”
Thinking about starting a business?
R.J.’s advice? Just do it! “You’re really not going to know if it’s going to work until you just do it. From there adapting and overcoming.”
Co-Owners R.J. and Jamie Messenger have publically and cordially announced they are going in different directions, this year’s Roar on the Shore event will be Jamie’s last event with Iron Empire.
R.J. will be taking over the business by himself. He admits this will be new to him but is relying on those around him to “keep doing what they’re doing.”
Can we expect to see more from the Iron Empire? R.J. thinks so, he’s planning on more online sales and an increase in custom screen printing as more companies outside of Erie discover their services. This year Iron Empire will be the FIRST local screen printing company to get the Roar on The Shore bid. Looking for something fresh and new, ROTS approached Iron Empire and asked them to put in a bid, “we like what your brand stands for, we’ve seen what you’ve done.”
We’re thankful R.J. and Jamie got involved, we got behind them and turned their hobby into a business that gives back. Iron Empire makes you feel good about yourself, about where we live. A wave of hometown pride built on hard work and dedication and the proof that any obstacle can be overcome if you want it bad enough. So, the next time you see another Iron Empire subject wearing a tee, tank or hoodie – give a nod. You’re part of the Empire.
Erica Whiting is a Pennsylvania based portrait photographer specializing in creative portraits celebrating individuals, couples and special moments. Whether you’re celebrating a major milestone, life event or just want to celebrate yourself Erica Whiting illustrates your individuality. We are all unique! #whatsyourstory #everystorymatters | Instagram: ericawhitingphoto