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The Tommy Bahama Boys

Tommy Bahama's three creators rhapsodize about making their fantasy a successful reality
Betsy Model
From the Print Edition:
Cuba, May/June 2007

(continued from page 2)

If the three men earned a reputation for staying true to a very specific market niche—affluent, male, age 35-55—that's due in part, they've explained, to constantly asking themselves a question that sounds like the punch line to an inside joke, but which nevertheless has become practically a mantra for any serious business decision that the company makes involving product or style: What would Tommy want?

Apparently, clothes shopping makes Tommy hungry, and what Tommy wanted was a laid-back café offering fried plantains, crab cakes and maybe a Caribbean-inspired pulled pork quesadilla. A cold brew would be good, too, along with plenty of open-air seating, palm trees, rattan and an expansive wooden bar that Jimmy Buffet would be proud of.

Tiki, yes. Tacky, no.

Deciding that building brand identity and loyalty was more important than building additional clothing lines, the men launched their first retail/restaurant compound in Naples, Florida, in 1995. It was, says Margolis, "a huge gamble. Huge! Any accountant or savvy investor will tell you that the last thing you want to do if you want to make money or keep money is to open a restaurant. What shocked a lot of people was that it was also an immediate hit [and] bigger than we ever imagined it could be. In many ways it opened our eyes to additional retail opportunities that were out there for Tommy."

The executives outfitted that first retail store the way they envisioned Tommy would: with warm wood tones, rattan and bamboo fixtures, soft colors, island music, and old crates and travel trunks used for props. And suddenly, the clothes were in a setting that complemented the whole ensemble.

"I think it became easier for people to see Tommy Bahama as an attitude, a lifestyle, as opposed to just a collection of clothing," muses Margolis. "It became easier for people to drop into the experience when they were surrounded by an ambience that fit the clothing."

This seemed especially true for women shoppers who, it was discovered, had been frequenting the store and buying extra-small sizes for themselves. The lesson told by the cash register wasn't lost on the men, and a complementary—and highly successful—Tommy Bahama women's line was added.

Also highly successful was the company's target-specific print ad campaign. Following a national search for a model, the three men compared notes and agreed on a face and demeanor that personified Tommy: tanned, fit, of indeterminate age but prematurely gray. Virile and playful but a one-woman man, Tommy was also, they determined, sensitive and romantic but definitely confident in his masculinity. The model had to exude confidence and a certain élan without appearing too...wimpy?

"We wanted a consistency in our ads and our look, and [model] Andy [Lucchesi] was exactly what we had in mind," explains Margolis. "Tommy's very clear on who he is and, while his activities and locale might change—and customers can watch those changes take place in the ads—Tommy's still Tommy, and we want to stay true to that."

Actually, Margolis might just as well be referring to the changes the three founders have experienced together in the last few years. In 2003, Oxford Industries purchased Viewpoint International's Tommy Bahama Group—including the clothing lines Indigo Palms and Island Soft—for a mix of cash, stock and shareholder payouts totaling $325 million. What Oxford got in return was a company whose successful licensing agreements include Tommy Bahama-branded products as diverse as furniture, rugs, ceiling fans, fashion accessories and, most recently, rum. Want some mood music to accompany that Piña Colada? Heck, there are even CD compilations with music that, you guessed it, Tommy chose.

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