by Karen Alberg Grossman

Chris-Heyn.jpgAs Southern Tide opens three new shop-in-shops at Gentleman’s Outfitters in St. Simons Island, GA., Country Club Prep in Charlottesville, VA., and Byron in Kansas City, MO., MR catches up with CEO Chris Heyn, a well-rounded apparel exec whose background includes Chairman and CEO of Summit Golf Brands, President of Nautica, COO and Managing Director of David Chu’s DC management group and key executive positions at the National Basketball Association, Kellwood, Salant and Warnaco.

Q. Southern Tide has been credited with starting the widespread fashion movement to Southern Prep. Can you give us a little background?

A. The brand was founded in 2006 by Allen Stephenson and his mom, Dianne, based on a single item: the Skipjack polo (made from an exclusive fabric with breathability and a bit of stretch). The brand inspired a cult-like following and is now in 750 retailers in 45 States. Although the Stephensons sold the company, they’re still shareholders. I was brought on about three years ago.

What we’ve done is taken the strong menswear foundation they established and added the organization and systems to further grow the business. This involves a new sourcing matrix, new teams for product design and development, updated CAD systems and more. For the past year and a half, we’ve been working on the infrastructure to support future growth, building a strong foundation in product, marketing, operations and finance, all of which has energized point of sale.

Q. Southern Tide once had a notable program that credited nearby stores when a customer bought something on Southern Tide’s direct website. What happened to that?

A. We got out of it because it was too complicated. It took me weeks to figure it out and then stores would call and say we sent them a check for $76 when it should have been $92… We’ve rolled that support into coop, but we’re still tremendously sensitive to how we work with our wholesale accounts.

For example, we offer different tiers of support, according to how much space and volume a store does. An “Admirals” account involves hard shops and fixtures and exclusive product, an “Ambassador” or “Captains” account gets various levels of social media support, special events, fixturing and signage. It’s a good program.

Q. How much of your business is direct to consumer?

A. About 15 percent; we don’t see it going above 20 percent.

Q. What is your distribution/pricing strategy going forward?

A. We believe that energizing our base begins with shops, fixtures and signage in better specialty stores. We’re getting out of those stores that want to buy only T-shirts or flipflops. We’re growing in premium outdoor stores and, in the last two years, in fine department stores like Von Maur and Nordstrom. We’re also growing in golf pro shops and premium resort stores.

Our knit tops are in the $80-$100 zone; we’re building at $100 and over but we’ll max out (for now) at $125

Q. Any other changes we should know about?

A. Before the sale, three items did 80 percent of our business and the design of the basic polo hadn’t changed in years. Based on a strong new design team, Southern Tide is more of a full collection (and we’ve updated the fit of the polo). We’ve broadened our sportswear offerings and added neckwear, accessories, underwear and footwear. And we’re doing these categories ourselves. Doing it right requires a lot of energy and expertise so even if our future is licensed categories, we need to understand each business before we license it.

Q. Is the culture of the company still the same?

A. Allen was all about “classic southern coastal” and “built with a purpose.” He was an architect building product: function was first and foremost. We’ve moved a bit to something more experiential: fun, beach, trail; we like to say “dreaming it and living it…” We get so many great ideas from our customers, who perceive the collection as more authentic, less touristy; our guy actually knows how to drive a stick shift…

Q. Will you do a separate women’s collection?

A. I’m sure we will; we have lots of requests for it. But we want to finetune the menswear first. Bottom line, we’ve had strong growth these past two years by proceeding cautiously. We’re said to be one of the fastest growing sportswear brands in the U.S.