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September 13, 2023 29 mins

Mike is joined by Tommy Hilfiger to answer listener questions on navigating a company’s early struggles, creating a famous brand through celebrity and the arts, and dressing for the career you want.  

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Episode Transcript

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Speaker 1 (00:03):
Welcome Ovis Hours, where we sit down with the chief
executives shaping the world and answer your most pressing questions
about leadership, career, and life. I'm Mike Steibe and I'm
delighted to share the mic today with an icon, the
creator of a generationally defining brand, builder of a multi
billion dollar empire, and a dedicated philanthropist, Tommy hill Figure,

Welcome to the show.

Speaker 2 (00:31):
Thank you, Mike, Thank you very much.

Speaker 1 (00:33):
I'm really thrilled that you are here. We had an
overwhelming number of questions from the audience for you today,
and I'm going to focus us on a few especially
relevant to our listeners who are building their capabilities as
brand builders and as business builders. We also have one
really fun one that was on a lot of people's mind.
I'm going to save for the end. Number one from

Ashwyn in New Jersey.

Speaker 2 (00:56):
How did you know there was an audience for your product? Tommy?

Speaker 3 (00:59):
Your brand wasn't the to go after the preppy customer,
but you won really big.

Speaker 2 (01:03):
What did you see that the rest of the market
was missing?

Speaker 1 (01:07):
And Tom mean, maybe there's someone on who doesn't know
your story from the beginning, and you want to I'll
invite you to start there if you'd like.

Speaker 2 (01:14):
Okay, Well, I started my business when I was eighteen
years old. I opened a shop in my hometown at Elmira,
New York, with one hundred and fifty dollars and twenty
pairs of bill Bottom jeans. Eventually I morphed it into
my own brand, which is now nearing fortieth year anniversary. Wow.

And when I created my own brand, I was designing
clothes for myself because I wanted to wear because I
thought preppy clothes were very boring and very mundane, I
guess you could say. So I wanted to make mine
more exciting, cool, fun, relaxed, and to really appeal to

the youth. So I became successful right out of the gate.
And I did have some starts and stops because of
not having enough finance and all sorts of things, but
eventually it really took hold with musicians, skaters, surfers, hip hop, musicians,

all sorts of different people.

Speaker 1 (02:24):
And early on were you market testing, were you running
the product by a lot of different people, or did
you just know what was what you loved?

Speaker 2 (02:31):
Well, I wanted to dress musicians because I thought that
their fan base would also be attracted to my brand,
and I was also thinking that like minded people who
like fashion and music would be my customers.

Speaker 1 (02:48):
I love it we have. It runs right into the
next question. Regina in the Bay Area asked, So, I'm.

Speaker 4 (02:53):
An entrepreneur and a creative person by nature, but the
finance and business aspects of running a company are actually
really hard for me, and frankly, not a lot of fun.
Did each of you have similar struggles in business, and
if so, how did you deal well.

Speaker 2 (03:09):
I had a bankruptcy when I was very young, and
it taught me to pay attention to the business part
of the business. But as time went on, I was
fortunate enough to find a couple of business partners who
really understood the business part of the business better than
I did. So I think my advice would be to

find a great partner who understands business.

Speaker 1 (03:34):
And your first business was The People's Place, which was
a hit with customers when you look back on it,
What about that was when it struggled financially. Maybe what
did you learn from that and how did that play
into your future endeavors.

Speaker 2 (03:46):
I overexpanded. I opened too many stores because I thought, okay, well,
every college campus in New York State would need a
people's place. But what I didn't realize was that now
colleges in upstate New York are in session from September

until maybe May, so then you have a dead period,
and that is June through September. And I think that
if you're going to go into business, you should be
in business with your business running twenty four to seven

twelve months a year.

Speaker 1 (04:31):
My first business failed as well, Tommy, And you know,
what's a regeni's question. I've certainly found that having the
right team around you is as you've noted, it's so critical,
whether it's the financial partners you've brought in, or the
executive team that you've built, or the leadership team down
throughout the organization. You know, we always knowed all of
us are much smarter than any one of us, and

I've found it that you've found the team makes a
big difference.

Speaker 2 (04:56):
Makes all the difference in the world, night and day.

Speaker 1 (05:00):
That's on the point you were making earlier as well.
Kate in New York says, Hi.

Speaker 4 (05:03):
I'm going to associate with a firm that invests in
earlier stage consumer companies.

Speaker 2 (05:08):
A lot of our portfolio is struggling.

Speaker 4 (05:10):
Right now, what did you have from early struggles that
might help other entrepreneurs who are seeing tough times for
the first time.

Speaker 2 (05:18):
Inventory control is really important. If you buy too much inventory,
you have to pay for it anyway, whether it sales
or not. At the same time, a lot of people
think that they can just go out and hire a
huge staff before the business takes off, and overhead will

kill you. So if you're renting an expensive location, if
you have way too many people, if you're spending on
marketing before you have the money to market, it's putting
the cart before the horse sometimes is damaging.

Speaker 1 (06:01):
Now that I come from the tech industry and what
you just said is an awfully original idea. So in
our industry it was, you know, spend all you need
to spend, raise money as fast and as much as
you can. Winner takes all acquire customers at all costs.
There's been a reckoning recently, and your approach, sort of

starting with what you learned at People's Place, and the
way that you've carefully and smartly expanded your brand over time,
is now being embraced by more and more companies I think.

Speaker 2 (06:32):
So, I mean it's really business one on one and
a lot of people fail to look at the basics
as building of the foundation. I think that if more
people would look at it in relationship to building a home,
you have to build a foundation and then step by

step you'll eventually get to the rooftop. But you have
to go steptep by step, and a lot of people
like to maybe leapfrog, and it doesn't work when you're
starting a business.

Speaker 1 (07:08):
I worked with an entrepreneur once who didn't raise money
until the business was already successful, and he always thought
of every dollar spent like it was his money. And
I find that it's easy to lose that focus in
an organization. And I found that employees once a company scales,
they don't only think about the money as precious. They

think about the money as an opportunity to grow their career.
So I know, every person who manages three people wants
to manage ten. All ten of them want to manage
someone else, and they find lots of reasons to hire
and expand if you allow them.

Speaker 2 (07:42):
To totally agree. I mean, I think that expansion is
a great thing when you absolutely need to do it
and you have the money to do it. But to
expand your expense base before you have the cash flow
coming in. Cash Flow is the key you need cash flow.

Speaker 1 (08:03):
I agreed, i'd i'd mentioned Nikita practice I adopted years ago.
Is I personally my company is of good size, but
I still personally review the check run every Friday. I
know every check that's going out the door, so that
way I know new software products people have picked up.
I know whether or not the paid marketing has been
ticking up. And you often find out those things a

quarter or two quarters later when it's already impacting the
P and L and it starts to become part of
the infrastructure. I try to stay ahead of the costs,
and I know it's helped my company and certainly your
discipline at at the time of health figure brand has
made it possible for you to expand in the way
that you have. We've next Maggie and Brooklyn. It is
so hard to get consumers attentions and earn their business.

Speaker 2 (08:48):
Each love brands that dominate their space.

Speaker 1 (08:50):
What makes a brand breakthrough?

Speaker 2 (08:52):
How do you keep it relevant? The acceptance of the
consumer ultimately will allow a brand to break through, because
if the consumer, who is the ultimate judge, embraces the brand,
then you have a business.

Speaker 1 (09:12):
Would you spend a minute on the Hangman campaign, because
that was one of the first moments when I like,
I remember, all of a sudden, everyone's talking about Tommy Hilfiguer.

Speaker 2 (09:20):
George Lewis was an advertising genius. I hired George Lois
to help me come up with an advertising campaign, and
I thought we could do something simple, like a great
looking model on a beach wind blowing, and he said, no, no, no,
you shouldn't do that at all. You should do something

disrupted and thinking disruptive, what are you talking about? And
he showed me a campaign that he created. They kept
compared me an unknown with the giants yep, and that
immediately propelled my name into the stratosphere because people then

were familiar with the name and they had to go
to check out the product because they had no idea
what to expect and they'd never heard of Tommy He'll
Figure before. So it really triggered business in an immediate way.

Speaker 1 (10:25):
It was so interesting the way the campaign made people think.
I remember that. I remember the image it was. It
listed three iconic brands with blanks in the name and
a Hangman next to it, like you had to think
of the brand and fill it in, and then it
had I don't know if it was the T in
the H, but it was Tommy, He'll figure with the
blanks and you had to do the same. And people
were saying, OHO's that fourth one? Who's that fourth one?

Speaker 2 (10:45):
That's right? It really triggered people's interests and a lot
of conversation. A lot of people said, who's he think
he is comparing himself to the great and there was
a lot of animal city. But it was disruptive, and
I've always looked at disruptive advertising as being genius in

a way, especially if you do it with a sense
of humor and you're not hurting anyone.

Speaker 1 (11:15):
Well, you were pioneer of this in your brand has
always been so popular in hip hop. I don't know
if they took the idea from you, but it's not
uncommon for a newer artist to call out big name
artists in their art to try to make that comparison
between themselves and whoever it was that came before them.

Speaker 2 (11:33):
I think that's part of the culture. But you know,
the culture is based upon branding, brand names and conspicuous consumption.
I guess you could say.

Speaker 1 (11:47):
We're taking a quick break we'll be right back Timmy
and Charlotte asks, I.

Speaker 2 (12:02):
Work in digital design and I've always admired the design
and aesthetic of your company.

Speaker 1 (12:07):
What's your advice for up and coming designers looking to
make their own mark?

Speaker 2 (12:10):
They should pick a lane and stay in that lane
until they perfect it and then add additional products at
the same time. It's important to create a trademark, a logo,
and a purpose, a real reason to be in a

certain business, whether it's handbag, shoes, jewelry, whatever it is.
And I think you have to find a solution to
a problem. So if there's something missing in your wardrobe
or one's wardrobe, and you can create something that fills

that void, then you have an opportunity to build a business.

Speaker 1 (12:58):
And you started in Genes and then Tommy, and then
from when you launched the Tommy Hill for your brand,
what was the first extension of that brand or the
new product and maybe could you start for audience with
the purpose you had in mind for that and how
you developed that second lane.

Speaker 2 (13:13):
Well, at the beginning, we did shirts, pants and jackets,
and then we added shoes, watches, fragrance, jewelry, socks, underwear,
and a lot of other items. So my goal was

to build a lifestyle brand, and at that time I
thought it would be a lifestyle brand in America, But
when we went to Europe, we found that there were
a lot of consumers in Europe who loved the brand.
So as we began to expand worldwide, I then saw

the light and decided that I should be a global
lifestyle brand, and that's what I continue to work towards today,
building it into a global lifestyle brand.

Speaker 1 (14:07):
When you picked a lane that maybe at the time
appeared saturated, like fragrances, you saw still an opportunity for
Timmy to serve someone unmet need of the consumer. Maybe
in that example, what was it and did you learn
anything after the launch that changed the way you looked
at it?

Speaker 2 (14:25):
Well, there were men's fragrances and women's perfumes. I wanted
to do something that was genderless. So my first fragrance
was called Tommy, the All American Fragrance, and both men
and women bought it, and it really boosted the business.

It was incredibly successful. But then later on I had
Tommy Girl, and later on I added another one called Freedom,
and then I added another one down the road called
he'll figure athletics was more supporting, so I then developed
a whole range of fragrances as time went on.

Speaker 1 (15:10):
Sammy, who submitted the question, noted she works in digital design,
and one of the things I've noticed in my career
in technologies that every web page looks like whoever was
successful before them until someone changes it. It was like
every website looked like Yahoo, and then Google came along
and it was clean and white, and then everything was
clean and white, and then Facebook had a feed, and

then everyone wanted a feed, and you know, now everyone's
falling all over themselves to look like TikTok. It seems
that the ones who come up with a new angle first,
the people who are willing to break out of the mold,
are they often end up being the companies that win
the audience and define that next phase, whether it's in
digital or as you've experienced in fashion.

Speaker 2 (15:54):
Well, I think you have to be brave, and if
you're doing what everybody else does, there's not a place
for There's no reason why you should exist. You have
to build a better mouse trap, as they say. And
those who developed something that the audience has never seen
before but needs and wants are the successful people.

Speaker 1 (16:17):
We touched on music before, but Rice and Santa Monica,
And the next question says.

Speaker 5 (16:21):
Music has played a big part in the Hill Figure story,
and of course it's core.

Speaker 2 (16:25):
Arty business and brands.

Speaker 3 (16:26):
Can you talk about how.

Speaker 5 (16:27):
The arts can be part of a company's brand and
culture and maybe the pros and cons are going in
that direction.

Speaker 2 (16:33):
Well, I believe in what I call fame, fashion, art, music, entertainment,
and now sports so fames, and I really believe that
it's all about pop culture. And I've connected my brand
to pop culture all of these years, and it has
really allowed me to break into audiences worldwide who were

like minded people who really appreciate and love fashion, art, music,
entertainment and sports.

Speaker 1 (17:10):
I remember when Snoop Dogg came out and performed on
Saturday Night Live in Tommy Gear, and I feel like
it was the first time that I had recognized it
as a part of the hip hop community, not just
a not only the sort of preppy brand that I
had known it as before. I'm curious, was that moment
of surprise? Was that planned?

Speaker 2 (17:31):
Was that?

Speaker 1 (17:31):
Was that a sponsorship? How did you break into that
or was it just that the community the hip hop
community embraced and adopted your brand for themselves.

Speaker 2 (17:40):
We found a lot of hip hop kids wearing the clothes,
and we thought that was really cool because if they
would choose our brand to wear. Yeah, it was a
big compliment because it actually was tapping into street culture.
And you know, street culture is not something that is

brand new. A lot of people are talking about streetwear now,
but streetwear has been around for well at least forty years,
maybe prior to when I was in business. But you
never saw logos on the streets, and you never saw
branding and brand names on the street. I believe that.

You know, that was sort of a milestone for us.
It was like, Wow, this is really cool. We've got
all these people who want to wear our clothes, who
want to wear our logos on the streets.

Speaker 1 (18:37):
I've also found, Tommy, I wonder if you have as well,
like the kinds of people who want to work in
my company because it's a company that serves the art world.
They are more creative, they're more connected to the mission.
They seem to bring more passion and excitement for the thing.

Speaker 2 (18:52):
That we do.

Speaker 1 (18:52):
There are companies out there whose mission is to increase
the likelihood that you click on a banner ad by
zero point two percent. People who sort of love the
arts are drawn to a company that is adjacent to
the arts, and they really bring a level of passion
that I've not seen in an organization before. I what
if you've seen the same thing in yours.

Speaker 2 (19:14):
I see the same thing, and it's all about creativity,
and it's about people who want to express themselves in
a creative way, and it resonates with the consumer We've got.

Speaker 1 (19:27):
Our next question is from Stanley and Boston.

Speaker 2 (19:29):
He says, Hi, I'm a second year MBA and I've
spent a lot of time studying pricing strategies. Can you
talk about how you ensure you're capturing the most value
under the pricing curve while maintaining a broad reach. Well,
it was always by instinct to create wearable, affordable clothes,

and I wanted to give the consumer the best possible
quality at the very best price. Looked at all of
the expensive brands and tried to figure out how to
create my products the same way, using the same kind
of materials and sewing techniques and finishing accessories, but at

a price that was affordable, so that in and of itself,
in my mind, was the most creative thing that I've done,
because you could say that, you know, certain kind of
styles could be creative, but you know, we're talking about
apparel that has never really changed in I would say,

hundreds of years, pants, shirts, jackets, dresses, blouses, and so
on and so on and so on. So there have
always been these categories. But I wanted to tap into
affordable and wearable, and I wanted it to be fresh

and new looking, but not so new and not so
avant garde that it would frighten people. But all along
it was continuing to think about how to build a
product that was better than the competition at a better
pricing way.

Speaker 1 (21:28):
And it was And was that more about your picking
the right partners in the supply chain you're innovating in materials,
or was it that you just found that your competitor
charging more than was necessary for the for a certain
level of quality of product.

Speaker 2 (21:42):
Both in all of the above.

Speaker 1 (21:43):
Yeah, you also have very very clever distribution strategies too.
You found the right big retailers to spore you at
critical moments and the arc of the company's growth.

Speaker 2 (21:52):
As I recall, that's true, absolutely true, will.

Speaker 1 (21:55):
Be right back. The next question is from Reggie in Nashville.

Speaker 3 (22:10):
You've each run startups, public companies, and so the private equity,
which stage, in which form of capital did you find
was best for the business, and which did you enjoy
the most?

Speaker 2 (22:20):
Any kind of capital I could get my hands on,
that's right? Was it for the business? Because I started
with nothing and I needed investment all along. And I
would say that that was the biggest challenge in building
the business was getting the right amount of capital. And
then I found obviously great partners, But prior to that,

it was always chasing for money.

Speaker 1 (22:46):
And early on you didn't raise venture capital or no,
no, no in to run of us. It was all bootstrapped.
And in fact your first business just with your own,
your own cash savings, you started launching stores.

Speaker 2 (22:58):
That's correct.

Speaker 1 (22:59):
Do I remember correctly? You were the first fashion IPO
on the New York Stock Exchange.

Speaker 2 (23:03):
That's correct.

Speaker 1 (23:03):
How did that change your life? There are a lot
of entrepreneurs listen to the show who dream of an
IPO someday. Maybe you can disabuse them of how how
wonderful it is.

Speaker 2 (23:12):
Well, it gave us the expansion capital to open stores
and build shops in department stores, advertise hire people. I mean,
it was also a milestone.

Speaker 1 (23:25):
Did you find it was harder to make the right
long term decisions with the pressure then of quarterly earnings
and doing them publicly and having all of these new investors.

Speaker 2 (23:34):
Being a public company is not the easiest because of
the fact that you have so many opinions and so
many people trying to push you into making those earnings,
those quarterly earnings, and you make decisions you wouldn't normally
make in building a brand.

Speaker 1 (23:52):
Can you think of any off the top of your
head that you would have taken back if under private ownership.

Speaker 2 (23:57):
Private ownership is also so I mean, also has its
challenges because you need cash flow to expand. So, look,
we're a public company now and we have investors that
are very happy with us, because I mean, it's public

knowledge that the company continues to do well, but managed
very well well by professionals, And it's never easy. But
I think that if you have incredibly smart people in
the executive positions, as you said before, having a great team,

that makes all the difference.

Speaker 3 (24:42):
In the world.

Speaker 1 (24:43):
I personally found as a public company, one of the
antellary benefits is you're performing on a big stage, and
top talent wants to be a part of that. And
when you beat your number, it's nice for to show up,
and it's nice for it to show up in the
Wall Street Journal. It's nice that people found out, and
that part I kind of enjoyed. The next one is
from John and Tulsa.

Speaker 5 (25:04):
Hey, Tommy, I recently retired from running my own small
business for several fulfilling years, and now I'm thinking about
the next goals. I'm curious, with all the accomplishments you've had,
how do you set new goals? How do you find
new ways to plug into your community and make a
difference outside of business.

Speaker 2 (25:23):
Well, let's just say that I want to continue to
build a global lifestyle brand, be as generous as possible
to the organizations we support, and I would also like
to think that our teams are happy with the management

and will continue to be loyal and dedicated to us.

Speaker 1 (25:54):
It's wonderful. I know we've got to get you out
of here. So I've got the last one here, and
I think this one's more fun. So Todd from Granted says.

Speaker 3 (26:03):
Hey, guys, I'm thirty, I'm newly married and I have
been told by my wife that I needed a wardrobe.
My company culture and dress code is pretty casual. I
live in Granwich. Tommy, can you just tell me what
I have to do to dress well for work.

Speaker 2 (26:16):
And for life? Go to Tommy dot com immediately.

Speaker 1 (26:22):
I love it that Tommy. Anything else for todd like
the clothes should fit well is or something you find
consistently works well for a young professional.

Speaker 2 (26:30):
You buy the classics and they will not go out
of stone.

Speaker 1 (26:33):
Wonderful. We're gonna We're gonna leave it there, Tommy. Such
an admirer of yours and everything you've built, and really
grateful that you you shared your wisdom today with our listeners.

Speaker 2 (26:43):
We say thanks all the best.

Speaker 1 (26:51):
You know. Friends. As I reflect on that conversation we
just had with Tommy, He'll figure I think of all
the people I've interacted with professionally who believe that the
path to success is one safe step after another on
a corporate ladder of sorts. And today we heard from
someone who dropped out of college, started a business with

a few hundred dollars in his pocket, bankrupted, the business,
tried again, built a support network of people who understood
branding in business better than he admittedly did at the time,
and grew into a global empire. I think a theme
of a lot of the conversations we've had on these
podcasts is that success is not a straight line and
it is not a ladder. It's having the courage to

follow your passion and take some calculated risks and fail
and try again. And sure, I'm glad Tommy Hilfiger did
what an incredible brand and company and impact on the
community and legacy he's had as a result. So my
friends says, you're out there this week, I hope you're
asking yourself. Are you following the safe path and is

that going to get you where you want to be?
Or are you thinking about the bigger swings, the bigger risks,
the opportunities for you to really step out of your
comfort zone and try to do the thing that you
may have been put on this earth to do. I
don't know if you come to any conclusions, give me
hollor you know where to find me. I'm at Mike
Steive on Twitter and Instagram and LinkedIn, and I love

hearing from folks who enjoy the podcast and don't forget
this podcast is powered by your questions. Please leave a
question for me and our upcoming guest at two one
three four one nine, five nine six. Again, just dial
and leave a voicemail at two one three four one
nine five nine six. Don't worry, nobody's going to pick

up and talk to you. You just leave the voicemail
and you might hear yourself on the next pod. Thanks everybody,
have a great weekend, stay on your grind. I want
to thank Tommy Hilfiger and his team, and of course Jen, Meg, Jada,
Matt and the whole crew of Blue Duck Media for
pulling this all together, Dylan and Christopher at iHeart, and

Ben and the team at William Morrison Devor for all
their sport office hours. Is a production of Blue Duck
Media and it is distributed by iHeartRadio

Speaker 3 (29:10):
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