by Karen Alberg Grossman

8.22--Tom-JamesTom JamesIt all started with a frustration. Spencer Hays, the menswear industry’s iconic entrepreneur who began his career as a door-to-door Bible salesman, would go into a store looking for a suit and inevitably, the sales associate didn’t remember him from a previous visit and offered no expert guidance. Recognizing that professional men buying suits need the same kind of personalized attention they offer their clients in their practice, Hays ultimately founded a clothing business based on fine product, exceptional service and a very unique corporate culture: Tom James.

Todd Browne, Tom James’ CEO and president, (“It’s been 26 years for both my job and my marriage and I’m not quitting either,” he quips), explains the Tom James concept. “The business started out in 1966 with four sellers measuring guys for custom suits with these photometric tape measures. Today, we have about 600 sales associates measuring 150,000 clients for the finest custom suits, sport coats, pants and other menswear items. 2015 was a record year for us with nearly $500 million in sales. Our growth has notably accelerated these past five years; we expect to reach $1 billion within the next five.”

Tom James also has 104 brick-and-mortar locations. As Browne explains it, “Some clients come to us, but mostly we go to them, sometimes in their homes but more often in their offices. We also have corporate accounts that reward their top sellers with a Tom James custom suit, but most of our business is still one-on-one.”

As for the suits themselves, there are different levels, opening at $695 (promoted a couple of times a year at $595). The next level starts at $1,100 and the top level (made in the renowned Oxxford factory, a company also owned by Hays that’s now celebrating 100 years in business) typically starts at $4,000, going up to $25,000 for the finest super 240s fabrics from Holland & Sherry (another Hays’ company, in business for 180 years).

Todd Browne
Todd Browne

Sourcing at Tom James is decidedly international, and Browne is incredibly proud of the craftsmanship that goes into even their opening pricepoints. “These are made in Santiago, Chile. I’ve been there a half dozen times and I’m always impressed with the beautiful garments our conscientious skilled workers produce. The pride that goes into their craftsmanship is certainly exceptional.” Mid-tier suits are produced in Maryland and Canada and top tier ones are handmade in the famed Oxxford facility (about to relocate within Chicago). Says Browne, “Over the years, we bought these facilities not to grow our bottom line but to serve our growing customer base.”

One big Tom James success secret is the caliber of their sellers. As Browne explains it, “We have relationships with many universities and we recruit young individuals (male and female) right out of school. We look for character, integrity and ambition; after 50 years, we know how to determine who’s got these traits. Of course our candidates need to be teachable: we provide extensive training to instruct them about quality, customer service and the nuances of the clothing business.”

Yet even with this great recruiting program, the majority of Tom James’ sellers come to them through word of mouth. “Our associates ultimately do so well here that they encourage their friends and family to join them. We have second and third generations working for Tom James. And the beauty is that most of our sellers become close friends with their customers so the company really does feel like family.”

Just as new sellers appear by word of mouth, so too do new customers. “We never buy lists but people spread the word,” Browne explains. “Bottom line: we consider it an honor to serve our customers and that positive energy attracts new customers.”

Tom JamesAnd new customers come from all over. At about 12 percent of current business (up from 2 percent five years ago), international offers tremendous growth potential. At present, Tom James has three offices in Australia, three in the UK, two in Canada, one in the Netherlands and one in Dubai.

Speaking about Spencer Hays, the guy who started it all (and who turns 80 this year), Browne describes him as “a brilliant businessman and strong negotiator with the biggest heart I know. This business was not started as an investment. There were no hedge funds or money managers involved; that’s not who we are. Instead, Spencer’s goal was to create an employee-owned company in which profits go to the associates.”

Adds Browne, “He wanted to provide a place for young people to build careers based on selling the finest product with the highest level of service. Because of the core values Spencer put in place 50 years ago, the concept works. Our first year employees earn an average of $40-$50,000; our top sellers can make six figures in their first year. Over time, all do quite well: Spencer’s core objective has always been that his workers retire with dignity.”


Spencer Hays
Spencer Hays

On mistakes: “I’ve made many: the trick is to learn from them, put them behind you and move on. If you can fix them, do so; if not, don’t worry about them. And don’t ever fault someone for making a mistake, only for not admitting to it.”

On work: “There’s nothing like the special kind of joy you get when you’re inspired and totally involved with the task at hand.”

Business tip: “Tie yourself to principles, not people. Set high goals; hold yourself accountable. I want my people to correct me on anything I do that doesn’t correspond to our core values.”

Favorite quote: “If you want to be really miserable, think about the respect you deserve that you’re not getting.”

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