Doug Wood, who will move up to CEO of Tommy Bahama in January, aims to make the man-centric brand more appealing to women. But it might not be easy.
Tommy Bahama, a company that evokes piña coladas and surf, will soon have a new CEO. And he doesn’t want to be known as just the Hawaiian shirt guy: He seeks to jostle the man-centric brand into appealing more to America’s premier clothing shoppers — women.
Doug Wood, the longtime executive who’ll move up when current CEO Terry Pillow retires in January, represents continuity. After all, he was hired as chief operating officer by the brand’s original founders in 2001, and became president in 2008.
He will oversee a continued push for evolution at a time when traditional retail is being challenged from all sides by e-commerce, fierce competition, and a big drop in foot traffic at malls. Meanwhile, sales growth at Tommy Bahama, which rose in brisk double-digit percentages in the wake of the recession, has cooled somewhat.
About Tommy Bahama
Acquired by: Oxford Industries in 2003
Number of stores: More than 150, including 15 that have restaurants
Net sales, first half of 2015: $338.5 million
Local employees: More than 500
Sources: Tommy Bahama, Oxford Industries, The Seattle Times
But Wood sees in women a clear avenue for growth. Women buy 70 to 80 percent of the apparel in America, yet 70 percent of what Tommy Bahama sells is geared to men.
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“As long as I’m CEO, we’re going to have phenomenal printed menswear. I never want to back away from that,” Wood said in an interview in his office at the company’s spiffy, new headquarters in South Lake Union.
But he’s bent on changing the product mix and the company’s voice so it doesn’t “sound so masculine.”
“If I can get women to be 50 percent of our clients, I’ll get all the growth I can handle,” he said.
That doesn’t sound like an easy task for a brand that started out with three guys asking themselves what a fictional fellow named Tommy Bahama would wear if he never had to step out of a life of leisure.
But Wood said there are promising foundations on which to build, such as the company’s successful women’s swimwear business, and a licensing deal that puts its name on furniture.
Developing Tommy Bahama’s feminine side also means bringing a new sensibility to its core portfolio of “resort” wear.
In order to do that, he made a key appointment a year and a half ago. Bradley O’Brien, previously in charge of women’s design at Sperry Top-Sider, was put at the helm of all product development for Tommy Bahama.
Earlier this year, the company moved its entire women’s division up here from Pasadena, Calif., said Wood.
It sounds like a good idea, but executing it might be difficult, said Dick Outcalt, a Seattle-based retail strategist with Outcalt & Johnson. Women are more frequent shoppers, but they also expect more frequent markdowns than men do. “It’s tricky,” Outcalt said.
Pat Johnson, also with Outcalt & Johnson, said the company needs to be careful not to scare men away from their traditional turf by pandering too much to the opposite gender: There’s a reason, after all, that men’s departments are tucked away in big department stores, she said.
It might seem puzzling that a brand that’s all about tropical relaxation is headquartered in Rain City. But its founders lived here in the 1990s, and the main operations remained here even after Atlanta-based Oxford Industries bought the brand in 2003.
The Port of Seattle is key to its operations, as all the merchandise it imports from Asia is brought in there, then distributed from a center in Auburn, Wood said. The company employs more than 500 people in the Puget Sound area, he added.
Now the company is further doubling down on Seattle, with four floors of well-lit offices in the new Skanska building on Fairview Avenue North, just a few blocks away from its old digs on Westlake Avenue. It’s a much larger space, with a showroom, a deck with Space Needle views and a prominent nameplate outside.
Wood, a veteran of McCaw Cellular and Boeing, said that when he joined in 2001 he didn’t know much about fashion. But he knew about keeping the trains running, something the founders were grappling with during a period of explosive growth.
His retail career has coincided with seismic upheaval in the industry, reflected in Tommy Bahama’s changing operations.
When Wood helped launched the company’s first e-commerce website in 2007, nearly three-quarters of sales were done through retailers such as Nordstrom and other department stores.
Now technology and a big investment in its own retail locations mean that Tommy Bahama sells 75 percent of its own stuff directly to consumers, he says.
Wood said the current environment requires a tight rein on how consumers interact with the brand: That’s why the company bought out its Canadian licensee in 2013 and its Australian partner in 2012. Both are promising markets, according to Wood.
Tommy Bahama also operates retail stores in Hong Kong, Tokyo, Macau and Singapore, but those markets are harder to grow from across the Pacific — so the company is looking for either a licensee or a partner, Wood said.
To prepare for his role as CEO, Wood not only had to learn about fashion: He also had to become somewhat of a restaurateur, an unusual role for an apparel executive.
The company has 15 restaurants, mostly in Sun Belt resort cities like Scottsdale, Ariz., and Naples, Fla. In Tommy Bahama-speak, these hybrids pairing a tropic-themed restaurant with a retail store are called “islands.” A sixteenth is opening in Waikiki soon.
According to Wood, the retail stores next to the restaurants are much more profitable than stores in malls. That said, locating and running these places is difficult — they need to be in or near upscale shopping locations, preferably in vacation destinations, so Tommy Bahama is not going to take on Chipotle.
“I don’t want to show up at the airport with a restaurant,” Wood said.