Neil and Luke Markey grew up watching their father cut, weld and shape steel into everything from ornate chandeliers and bed frames to intricate railings and gates — including the iron gates at the entrance to the Statue of Liberty.
“My family has a long history of metal workers and craftsmen, going back hundreds of years,” Neil said. “So my brother and I always had an appreciation for art and sculpture.”
It looked as though an appreciation — not a career — is all it would amount to when the brothers left for college to pursue what Neil, older by five years, described as “more socially acceptable, corporate-type jobs.”Not long after, Luke found himself working as a consultant for Deloitte, while Neil was an officer in the Army’s 75th Ranger regiment.
Not content with his career, Luke called his older brother a couple years ago to say he was quitting his job and moving home to “learn from dad,” Neil recalls, adding that “that was the entire extent of the plan.” But by the time Neil left the Army to enroll in Columbia University’s MBA program last year, Luke was starting to tinker with new software-driven shield and logo designs. Intrigued, Neil got involved.
Now, the Markey brothers are carrying on their family tradition by blending the artistry and craftsmanship they learned from their father with modern software design and laser-cutting technology. In December, after cobbling together about $60,000 of bootstrapped funding, they founded ShieldCo, which designs and manufactures three-dimensional metal art to show off corporate logos, college mascots, military insignia and more.
Based in an old shop in their hometown of Frederick, Luke and Neil create their designs using a computer program, outlining a separate layer for each color in a college team’s logo. Next, they send the design to a local supplier that has sophisticated, multimillion-dollar laser-cutting tools.
“It’s been great, because a lot of the suppliers with this expensive equipment have it sitting idle while they work on other parts of a big project,” Neil said. “For them, our contracts are just fill-in work, so we get great pricing. I don’t have to buy the machine or even know how to use it, I just have to send them the designs.”
Once the metal is cut, the layers are assembled at ShieldCo’s shop, where Luke spends most of his time. Neil is in New York City, where he works out of the entrepreneurship lab at Columbia, but he travels home twice a month.
“We joke that if it wasn’t for Megabus, this company probably wouldn’t exist,” he said.
While still producing military-themed shields and taking orders for custom products, the Markeys have shifted their immediate focus to breaking into the college merchandise market — starting with their design for Neil’s alma mater, the University of Maryland (also where the Markeys’ great grandfather was one of the school’s first head football coaches).
The NCAA licensing process was no walk in the park for the Markeys, who have built prototypes for the U.S. Naval Academy, Georgetown University and Luke’s alma mater, the University of North Carolina at Wilmington.
“It’s hard, because most of the schools don’t want to be involved with new guys,” Neil said. “So we knew the schools we wanted to request licensing from, and we went and met with the person who makes the yes-or-no decision. We got on their calendar, brought them a piece, and talked it through with them face to face.”
ShieldCo received NCAA licensing approval this summer, just in time for the start of football season. The company has started selling its products on its Web site, and is closing in on a deal to sell inside Maryland’s campus bookstore and through an independent retailer near campus. Meanwhile, the brothers are working on a trial-run agreement to partner with college merchandise distributor Fanatics.
“This fall is our big test,” Neil said. “If we can prove that people like the product, we will likely try to raise some money and do a full collegiate launch next year.”
Meanwhile, with the company starting to find its niche, their father, who owns Creative Metal Design in Frederick, has started to get more involved, too.
“Our dad was partially retired when we started, but now that my brother and I have brought some new energy to it, he’s jumped back in,” Neil said, noting that the family has started blending the brothers’ high-tech design with some of their father’s vintage handiwork to build one-of-a-kind products.
“Our companies are separate, but we’re collaborating a lot more now than we first expected, and that’s been fun,” Neil said.