Oxford Pennant co-founders Dave Horesh and Brett Mikoll set out to change the industry—and the Western New York Community.
Spend a minute with Dave Horesh, BA ’08, and Brett Mikoll, BA ’10, and it’s clear that neither of these grads have ever taken themselves too seriously.
“He was the worst salesperson I ever saw,” says Horesh, recalling the first time he met Mikoll.
“Luckily, I’m handsome,” Mikoll replies.
They’re both joking. Maybe. Or maybe not.
While both of them went to UB, they didn’t cross paths until after graduation, when Horesh was training Mikoll for a sales job. The two became fast friends at work, and quickly realized they wanted to do something together outside of the office, too.
“Some people start bands. We decided to start a tchotchke business,” says Mikoll. They both loved nostalgia, especially decorative wool felt pennants. But they hated that these once-iconic keepsakes were now mostly viewed as cheap souvenirs. And so, on Christmas Eve 2013, Horesh registered a business name and website, and Oxford Pennant became a reality.
For the first few years, there wasn’t much of a business to be had. It was more of an excuse to “hang out together, make stuff and put it on Instagram,” explains Mikoll. But they were committed. They wrote a business plan, agreed on a $2,000 budget (pulled from their personal credit cards) and stuck with it.
Mikoll started working on Oxford full time in 2017, and Horesh followed the next year. Something about felt pennants just felt right.
Betting on themselves paid off. The company pulled in $5 million in sales last year, and has partnered with some of the world’s most well-known brands, including Nike, Harley-Davidson and Sesame Street—as well as hometown favorites the Buffalo Bills and Goo Goo Dolls.
If you live in Buffalo, you’ve likely seen their products hanging from the rafters at KeyBank Center, affixed to the top of Seneca One tower, or in countless people’s homes and offices. Shoppers visit their downtown Buffalo retail store where they’ll find dozens of colorful products on display, along with a mini-fridge full of ice-cold seltzers for thirsty customers. The company employs around 50 people (it fluctuates a bit based on seasonal demand) with “no a—holes allowed,” per one of their core values.
While their standard product line includes roughly 300 pennants, camp flags and other products, the bulk of their business is custom manufacturing and design that they wholesale to retail shops and other customers, primarily outside of Western New York. “We make things that say things,” says Mikoll, who, after a decade of putting words onto pennants, has a knack for talking in tidy little phrases. “That’s all I speak in anymore.”
There have been dozens of pennant companies in American history. In fact, a historian from the Smithsonian Institution recently visited Oxford to learn about pennant history and manufacturing. But Oxford is “the first pennant company to really go after having a brand,” says Horesh. “I always tell people, we’re giving birth here.”
“This is a place that made us, and we feel that we want to make it better and ultimately have some form of a ripple effect between what goes on at this company and what happens in this community.”
- Dave Horesh
The company is named after Horesh’s dog—a rescued dachshund with a penchant for naps. The suggestion came from Horesh’s wife during a family Christmas gathering, and immediately stuck. “Oxford sounds sophisticated, like an Ivy League thing,” says Horesh. “And the dog is so sweet, everybody loves him. We were like, well, that’s gotta be a good omen.”
Today, Oxford the dog is 12 and Oxford the company is celebrating its 10th year in business. The guys still love showing each other treasures they picked up at an antique store, or a decades-old catalog they found on eBay. They’re quick to make a friendly joke at the other one’s expense, or offer a pep talk when it’s needed. “Sometimes, Brett picks me up from the mud and he’s like, ‘Hey, we’re going to be OK,’ ” says Horesh. Communication is key, especially when, as Horesh says, “I talk to Brett more than I talk to anybody else in my life.”
Over the years, they’ve divided their responsibilities along clear lines. “If we need to make money, Dave talks,” explains Mikoll. Indeed, Horesh handles the finances and human resources, while Mikoll manages the creative side.
How do they decide what slogans and sayings are pennant-worthy?
Many of them tap into emotions such as nostalgia, pride and loyalty. “It’s similar to maybe writing lyrics or writing a story,” says Mikoll. “It’s like, what is a creative way to say this thing that isn’t literal.” He mentions the slogan "Keep Buffalo a Secret," which started as an Oxford T-shirt, and is now a hand-painted billboard on the side of a four-story brick building, just a block from their office.
But sometimes, there’s a simpler test for whether something gets made or not. “If it makes us laugh, then we do it,” says Mikoll. In fact, a key part of Mikoll’s training (although he didn’t know it at the time) came during a freelance gig designing for a comedy network, when he was surrounded by young comedians and soaking in how they work. “Distilling it down to, what is the cadence, what is the joke? When does the punch line come in? It was instrumental in how I consider type or messaging, because there’s an art form to it.” That said, one thing you won’t see on their products is anything with a racist, sexist or political message.
Regardless of what’s on the product, quality is paramount. Horesh is quick to point out that the company is named Oxford Pennant, not Oxford Pennants. “It’s a type of pennant,” he says, “not a company that manufactures pennants.” He goes on to explain that, “for us, an Oxford pennant is an indication of high-quality materials, cutting, sewing and design. Only then does it clear the bar to be an Oxford pennant.”
One of Oxford Pennant’s bestsellers is an 18" x 24" camp flag that simply says, “Give a Damn.” But Horesh and Mikoll don’t need a flag to show how much they care. The signs are all around them.
A few years ago, Oxford Pennant instituted a minimum wage of $15 per hour. When inflation jacked up the price of eggs and gas and pretty much everything else in 2022, the company raised salaries by 7% across the board. They also give employees a paid half-day off to vote. “It should be a national holiday,” states Horesh. “But this is the best that we can do.”
Then there’s the Oxford Pennant Touchdown Plow, which they use to help people throughout the community when it snows. “There’s no reason why a pennant company has a truck with a plow,” says Mikoll. Yet, there it is—two and a half tons of proof that these guys are making a difference. And in the City of Good Neighbors, it’s a welcome sight.
“When three feet of snow falls and I’m out in the truck, if I see someone digging out, I turn the blade, drop it and drive past. I can save this person an hour and a half of work. Can I use this stupid 2016 Toyota Tundra to dig out the entire city? No, but I can make the day better for 20 people.”
“The most fulfilled I’ve felt in my professional career have been days where we’ve done something selfless.”
So, how did Horesh and Mikoll end up at UB?
Horesh came into UB as a geology major, realized he was “absolutely horrible” at it, then switched to psychology. “I really liked the idea that, for somebody who was a little bit rudderless, I had an opportunity to figure it out.” Horesh studied abroad in the United Kingdom (“I don’t remember much of it,” he shares with a wink), then graduated from UB early.
Mikoll’s UB story has a few more twists and turns. “UB was the fifth college I attended,” he says, mostly because he was focused on playing music, and just “fishing around, seeing what stuck.”
He wanted to get an art degree. Fortunately, UB took all of his transfer credits, so he got “right into the guts” of classes that let him be creative. Even a dozen years later, he quickly recalls two influential professors—Loss Pequeño Glazier and Reinhard Reitzenstein—who helped expand his horizons. “The common thread,” notes Mikoll, with no pun intended, “is that UB allowed both of us to find a path, but also stray away as much as we wanted to.”
They’re proud to be UB graduates, and to have such a diverse school in their community. As Horesh states, “I can’t imagine Buffalo without UB,” although both he and Mikoll would love to see even more integration between the city and the university.
They also appreciate what UB does beyond the region. “I think that UB ultimately punches above its weight,” states Horesh, “and certainly does more that impacts the entire world from its campus than you would expect out of a [typical] state school.”
Nearly everything at Oxford Pennant carries a “Made in Buffalo” tag. The slogan applies to the co-founders, too.
As Horesh explains it, “this is a place that made us, and we feel that we want to make it better and ultimately have some form of a ripple effect between what goes on at this company and what happens in this community.”
Oxford Pennant likely wouldn’t exist if it had started in a city like Boston, Chicago or Los Angeles, he explains. Buffalo offered low overhead, easy access to people who work in manufacturing, and mentors who could tell them where to get the right sewing machines and source the best thread.
But they’re not just talking proud. “I try to put my money where my mouth is,” says Horesh, “and I even give extra consideration to Buffalo vendors when there’s an opportunity to do so.”
While they are fully committed to Buffalo and New York State, they know it’s not the easiest place to do business. “You stand up and you get knocked down. It’s part of the Buffalo experience,” says Horesh, although he quickly adds that Buffalo is “a way better town” now than it was when he graduated, and still offers plenty of opportunity.
“I think we’re proof of it.”
And so, Horesh and Mikoll keep getting after it. Because at the end of the day, they’re not just making pennants and flags. They’re making a better company. They’re making a better model for treating employees. And they’re making a better community. “We really believe that the world is giving us signs that it wants us to be in it—in a big way,” explains Horesh.
Whether they’re making signs or receiving them, it’s obvious that Oxford is on the right path—and that these guys have something worth saying.
Story by Mike Gluck
Photographs by Jackson Zimmerman
Published March 15, 2023