Combat Flip Flops CEO Set to Keynote 2018 HARDI Annual Conference
Finding Peace By Walking in the Shoes of the War Torn
At the age of 25, Matt Griffin was one of the deadliest men on this planet.
As a member of the U.S. Army’s 75th Ranger Regiment, he had direct access to B1 bombers, AC-130s, A-10s, etc. The heaviest of heavy artillery was attainable at the snap of a finger.
The Army Rangers are recognized as the U.S.’s premier light infantry fighting force. When conducting direct-action raids deep within hostile or sensitive environments, the stakes are high: kill or be killed.
“If you found yourself surrounded by hell, you were likely on the business end of whatever we were doing,” said Griffin, who served as a rifle company fire support officer in the 75th Ranger Regiment.
Following five years of death and destruction that led him through four deployments — three to Afghanistan and one to Iraq — Griffin’s chaotic lifestyle flip-flopped. Literally.
Now, as the owner of Combat Flip Flips — an apparel company that specializes in creating footwear out of boot soles for those affected by conflict — Griffin has traded in his bulletproof vest for shemaghs and sarongs. He now adheres to the mantra, “Business, not bullets.” Even his email signatures are punctuated with #Peace.
“My military mission was simple: Find the bad guys and help my country,” Griffin said. “I eventually learned that in order to truly help, I needed to become a visitor and a welcome partner, not an invader.”
From the age of 5, Griffin was determined to be an Army Ranger — a prognostication he pursued with laser precision.
“I was good at math, and I liked blowing things up,” Griffin said.
After high school, Griffin pursued infantry at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. Every infantry officer is required to attend pre-Ranger training. While 72 individuals started in Griffin’s pre-Ranger course, only he and two others finished.
Griffin then entered Ranger school in March 2002 and graduated in May 2002. He was assigned to the Ranger battalion at Fort Lewis in Washington, yet remained steadfast on his desire to achieve his goal.
“From day one, I was very clear with Cpt. Brandon R. Tegtmeier [now Col. Tegtmeier] that at the end of my time, I’m going to put my packet in to the Ranger regiment,” Griffin said. “They said, ‘If that’s where you want to go, we’ll do everything we can to help get you there.’”
In the spring of 2003, after nine months in Washington, Griffin was accepted into the Ranger Orientation Program (ROP). In August 2003, after a two-week psychological, tactical, and physical evaluation, he was accepted into the 75th Ranger Regiment.
Seek And Destroy
Now a card-carrying member of the Army’s deadliest force, Griffin was quickly deployed to Afghanistan. Upon landing in Bagram, he was devastated by the natives’ living conditions.
“The first thing that hit me was the absolute poverty,” Griffin said. “I’d never seen anything like that in my entire life, and we were in a really nice area in Afghanistan. We were the first guys to enter the Korengal Valley, the most remote region of Afghanistan. We’re talking the poorest of the poor. There is no place poorer on the planet than here.”
During his second deployment to Afghanistan, fellow Ranger Pat Tillman was gunned down by friendly fire. On his third deployment, Griffin’s daughter was born.
Though the U.S. Army touted big guns and bigger personas, the natives were always welcoming, Griffin said.
“The whole time we were in Afghanistan, the people were great,” Griffin said. “They wanted to get rid of the bad guys as badly as we did. They were thankful we were there and fed us, provided us shelter, and kept us warm. This left a huge impression on me.”
Griffin’s next mission led him to Iraq, where he was met with native children touting machine guns or hand grenades as sub-work for extremists simply because they were the only employers offering work.
Four years and 200-plus combat missions into his Ranger journey, Griffin had very little passion to continue fighting a conflict he deemed “this generation’s Vietnam” and decided it was time to head home.
“My locomotive was running out of steam,” he said. “In Iraq, it was bad all the way around. Night after night, day after day, the fighting was never going to end. I was putting myself at risk every single night trying to catch something we can’t fix. I just wanted to go home to my family.”
Transitioning Into Civilian Life
After his five-year commitment was complete, Griffin returned home. Shortly thereafter, he landed a job as a construction manager for a national home builder. In two years, Griffin helped build about 200 homes, including his own. Then, he gained employment as the government and sales director for Remote Medical Intl., a company that provided training, equipment, medicine, and pharmaceuticals to the gas and energy sector. As a result, he found himself back in the conflict-stricken areas he knew so well, offering medicine, doctors, clinics, and gear.
“When I travel to these countries now, I’m traveling as Griff, not as an Army Ranger,” he said. “I’m in a business jacket, jeans, nice shoes, a briefcase, and some cash — no more body armor, guns, or heavy-hitting friends. I discovered that wherever there are small businesses, restaurants, or stores, that’s where it’s safe. The business owners are the leaders. I provided a revenue opportunity for them, so they kept me safe.”
Ironically enough, the only place Griffin felt unsafe was near a U.S. military compound.
It was at this time that the solutions to the problems he had previously been fighting became crystal clear.
“Why aren’t we just creating more business owners and entrepreneurs?” Griffin asked. “Why aren’t we sending trained people to help grow local leadership rather than beating people into submission? We’re not giving any carrots; we’re only giving sticks.”
While at a military conference in Afghanistan in 2009, Griffin, now donning long hair and a beard, found that those in attendance generally steered clear of him because of his appearance. Across the room, he noticed another long-haired, bearded man who also sat in isolation. Griffin approached him and the man introduced himself as a former Marine captain who was hired by the government to build a combat and uniform factory in Kabul.
The next morning, Griffin visited the factory — a moment he insists changed the entire direction of his life.
“This factory was full of advanced machinery,” he said. “Trainers from all over the world were teaching people how to read, sew, build products, and earn a living. Afghans were coming from miles around to work in this factory. The sense of community and empowerment inside that facility was the most amazing thing I’d seen come out of the war. This factory was supporting hundreds of people who now have work. Because of this facility, they have a roof over their heads and food in their bellies. They’re supporting their families, their kids are going to school, and they’re going to have a better life than they ever imagined. It was a beautiful thing.”
Eventually, the war ended, and the government moved its troops out of the area. As a result, the government abandoned the factory Griffin became so fond of, leaving hundreds of families out of work. This action infuriated Griffin.
“This facility was built on trillions of dollars in war expenses, hundreds of thousands of civilian lives, and tens of thousands of injured soldiers,” Griffin said. “And the government was prepared to walk away from it in an instant, like it has done so many times before.”
Combat Flip Flops
Standing in the factory, Griffin felt as though the entire weight of the community rested on his shoulders. In that moment of despair and frustration, he looked down at the table in front of him and picked up a combat boot sole that had been stitched together with a flip-flop thong.
A light bulb went off.
Combat Flip Flops first started manufacturing its products in Afghanistan. The company has since relocated its facilities to Columbia but remains active in Afghanistan philanthropically. For every product sold, the company donates funds to put an Afghan girl in school for one day.
“I immediately called up my Ranger buddy Donald Lee, a guy I’d served with for a number of years,” Griffin said. “It was 2 a.m. in L.A., and I’m calling him from some weird international number. He answers the phone and I say, ‘Hey, dude, we’re going to make flip flops in Afghanistan.’ He mumbled something and hung up on me.”
Very shortly thereafter, Griffin, Lee, and his brother-in-law Andy Sewrey began sketching renderings of what Combat Flip Flops could look like. In 2012, the team began manufacturing the “bad for running, worse for fighting” shoes in Afghanistan.
“The initial response was overwhelming,” Griffin said. “Everyone seemed to like the idea, so I sold all my guns, motorcycles, and my boat, and we went for it. People kept buying them, and we did everything we could to keep up with the demand. It continued to steam roll and hasn’t stopped since.”
In 2013, the company relocated its footwear manufacturing operations to Columbia, where a higher quality, full-grain leather product can be created in a shorter transit time.
“Afghanistan simply doesn’t have the materials necessary to run an operation of our size,” Griffin said. “They don’t have rubber trees or leather tanneries that can produce the quality that consumers demand. For us to import materials in, manufacture them, and export them out would be unreasonable. No one wants to buy a $140 flip flop.”
The company continues its philanthropic vision in Afghanistan. For every product sold, the company donates funds to put an Afghan girl in school for one day.
In 2015, Griffin received a casting call asking if his company was interested in pitching its products on ABC’s Shark Tank. The product was well received as it gained $100,000 investments each from sharks Lori Greiner, Daymond John, and Mark Cuban.
“The fallout was tremendous,” Griffin said. “Following the airing of the show, we did more business in 15 hours than we did in all of 2014.”
The company has since churned out hundreds of thousands of flip flops as well as numerous other products, including shirts, hats, bangles made from landmines, and more to the tune of more than $1.5 million in annual revenue.
“Success requires a lot of work,” Griffin said. “In the beginning, you start with a stack of raw materials, and in the end, you finish with a shiny toy. But that process doesn’t occur without sweat equity. That hard work is what defines your legacy.”
Matt Griffin will appear at the HARDI Annual Conference, Dec. 1-4 in Austin, Texas, as the keynote speaker. For more information, visit http://hardiconference.com.
Publication date: 11/5/18