It is with great sadness that we report the death of Stephen Ross, founder of the Falk & Ross Group, owners of BTC activewear, who passed away on 5 January 2021, aged 62

Falk&Ross has issued the following tribute:

“Stephen G. Ross was born in Michigan, USA, on 30 March 1958. In 1975, after graduating from high school, he joined the army and was posted to Germany, where he decided to settle at the end of his service. He started his first textile screen printing business in Kaiserslautern.

“In 1981, Stephen joined forces with Max Falk to set-up Falk&Ross, buying his partner out in 1984 to become the sole owner of what 35 years later was to become Europe’s leading distributor of promotional textiles.

“Whilst still actively engaged with the company as a shareholder and board member, Stephen retired in January 2019, settling with his wife in the United States, where sadly he left us unexpectedly on 5 January, aged 62.

“Stephen was passionate about the business, which he built through trust, loyalty and respect. He will be sorely missed within our industry.”

David Sanders-Smith, managing director of Result Clothing, said Stephen’s passing was a very sad event for many in the trade who enjoyed his casual, warm manner.

“Steve was one of the main pioneers of this business and his support was instrumental to many businesses, including the start of Result. I first met Steve at PSI in 1991 when my IS Leisurewear company, which I had started 20 years earlier, was starting to make stock line jackets. Steve immediately could see the opportunity, as no one else at that time was offering stock jackets, and encouraged me to expand the business and said if we could have an independent brand name it would be a success – Result was born, and Falk & Ross Germany with Imbretex France were the first customers. From that day on Steve and I became close business friends.

“Steve Ross helped so many people he was immediately likable and trustworthy — but grew his company beyond Germany and was the first international distributor of brands in the whole of Europe.

Steve Ross [centre] with David Sanders-Smith of Result [left] and John Lynch of Lynka [right]

“Since then, of course many have followed his initiative — Steve set some challenging standards, but he did see the coming of age of a huge established market that will forever be grateful to his enterprise and foresight.”

It would be challenging to identify a person who had a greater impact on the European promotional apparel market than Steve, added John Lynch, CEO and founder of Lynka. 

“Steve and I first met at a Jerzees conference in Tenerife in 1994, and we immediately hit it off. Maybe that was because we were both 30-something entrepreneurs, striving to grow our respective businesses; maybe it was because we had remarkably similar backgrounds – a couple of working-class American kids, who made their way to Europe in our 20s to make our fortunes. Or maybe it was simply because we both enjoyed a good laugh, and solving the world’s problems over a beer. Regardless, we became good friends and spoke often  – and always on the birthday that we shared.

“Steve was a pioneer. The industry we competed in was highly fragmented, and almost exclusively regional. With the onset of a nine-nation EU expansion in 2004, Steve saw an opportunity. He decided this would be the perfect time to launch a pan-European business model; no one had ever attempted such an audacious move.

“Over the next ten years, Steve ambitiously expanded across Europe via greenfield start-ups, strategic partnerships and roll-up acquisitions. By the time this campaign was complete, the cushy arrangements of distributors politely remaining within their borders was over – the entire market was now a free-for-all, and it’s no exaggeration to place Steve Ross at ground-zero of the pan-Europeanisation of our industry.   

“Most pioneers make waves, and Steve made plenty of them.

As his business expanded across borders, he stepped on his fair share of toes. I myself had a prolonged falling out, and we didn’t speak for more than five years; but the adage ‘time heals all wounds’ proved true, and by 2013 we had made up – he even invited me to his wedding at his home on Hilton Head Island in South Carolina.

“Steve’s professional legacy is that his bold, business vision changed our industry profoundly and has impacted virtually every player in it, whether they know it or not.”

“Steve was a family-man extraordinaire, and it was a great pleasure to see him after so many years with his grown-up children at the wedding – he was in his element, and I never saw him happier.

“I believe Steve’s professional legacy is that his bold, business vision changed our industry profoundly and has impacted virtually every player in it, whether they know it or not.”

Roger McHugh, managing director of Beechfield Brands, said Steve was an incredibly impressive individual. 

“He was unbelievably sharp, and you knew that you had to bring your ‘A game’ whenever you saw him. He took no prisoners, but he was also very fair.

“Falk&Ross played a significant part in helping to get Beechfield, and all the other UK brands, established in Germany and all over Europe for that we all have a debt of gratitude.

“The first time that I visited his offices in 1996, Steve showed me a map of Europe on the wall where his premises in Kaiserslautern represented the central hub, and then each of the major European countries had a pin in them, as his target markets for local offices and sometimes further warehousing this was his, some might say audacious, vision, and he compared the countries in Europe to the states of his native America.

“It wasn’t that long before he made his plans a reality, and Falk&Ross became the first pan-European distributor with offices and warehouses across Europe. To have the vision, courage and aptitude to pull off that level of undertaking says it all. Steve was a giant of the industry.”

“We have lost one of the great ones,” added Peter Høfler, CEO of Tee Jays.  

“Steve was a titan of this industry — a pioneer, seeking his dream being the largest cross country, multi-branded distributor in Europe.

“With Steve’s engagement, leadership and tireless passion for this industry, he achieved his goals, built a remarkable company and inspired lots of people. But more than that, Steve was a good friend, whom I have known for over 30 years when I met him for the first time at the Cologne Fashion fair. 

“I have always admired and respected Steve for his achievements, and his outgoing, honest and warm-hearted personality. Steve loved life and engaging with people — he had a deep understanding and interest in his friends, and their successes and problems. 

“Steve you will be missed, and I’m sorry you will not be able to live the retirement you sought, and deserved with your family and friends.”

Marc Fraimund, European vice president for sales at Gildan, said it was a shock to learn about Steve passing away so unexpectedly when he was enjoying a well-earned retirement.

“Steve was a visionary and one of the great minds in our industry, who went from printing tees for the US army to building the largest promotional distribution company in Europe.

“He was a professional, and a man of his words whom I had full respect for. I will definitely miss him, and all my thoughts go to his family and his many friends.”

“Steve didn’t play by the rules”

“I met Steve Ross at the end of the 90s and as a young woman in my twenties — I was surprised, but grateful when he took me into his confidence, gave me advice and became something of a mentor.  When I asked him about how he started in the industry, he told me the now familiar story of his military service in Germany leading to a T-shirt business with a shrug, saying “I’m just a poor boy from Detroit”. 

“Over the years we would have regular calls, catching up on industry gossip, but what I remember clearly is that in spite of his position he always wanted to hear my opinion.  He was ready to listen.  Of course, he would always make up his own mind in the end regardless of what anyone else thought.  Steve was resolute in his actions that whatever was for the benefit for Falk & Ross came first.

“Steve had set up his business in Kaiserslautern, well-known as a US military base, and had settled there with his children — this boy from Detroit had found his home somehow in the middle of Germany, and spoke the language fluently.

“Steve didn’t play by the rules.  He spent time with industry leaders, listening and understanding the supposed rules and then he did his own thing.  What Steve did was transform the European promowear industry, realising early on that rather than several separate countries, Europe presented its best potential as a unified market.  He started a trans-European strategy with a partnership with Rock Dreams in Holland, and learning many lessons he expanded that across the continent. Even his closest confidants didn’t know what he was going to do next. 

“He loved the element of surprise – whether it was announcing his latest acquisition of a distributor in a new country. or the unveiling of SG as the house brand – he did so with an impish smile and loved the look of surprise on people’s faces. I remember when I first visited the modern state of the art warehouse in Sembach – the road sign was Ross Str (or Ross Street).  He never boasted about it, but his face shone like a small child hoping that his audience understood the significance. The poor boy from Detroit was determined to make a mark.

“Steve was incredibly generous – apart from making sure me and my team were always looked after, he would go the extra mile.  On hearing I was going to hire a car in Germany to see a client, he simply offered to lend me his. Steve also inspired his team, and it’s testament to both them and him that so many people remain at Falk & Ross passionate, and driven to keep the company growing and continue Steve’s vision. 

“An overwhelming desire for Steve was to build his business so he could retire and live the good life.  He bought a Sunseeker yacht and christened her ‘Someday’ as he saw his dream come true. In recent years Steve spent more time at his home in South Carolina with his wife. He talked about the cycling and wine trips they were doing together, and he sounded happy, fulfilled by another quest.  

“The world feels a bit empty without the larger than life personality of Steve Ross. I miss his smile, his bear hugs and his insight.  

“Steve did things his way. He left his mark. He changed the way the industry operates, and that is his legacy. Not bad for the poor boy from Detroit.”  

Prama Bhardwaj, CEO and founder of Mantis World

Stephen Ross
30 March 1958 – 5 January 2021