Tommy Bahama was conceived, born, and raised by Minnesotan Bob Emfield, co-founder of the company

Branching out: Apparel from the Tommy Bahama fall 2013 collection

Character study

How Minnesotan Bob Emfield and friends created the Tommy Bahama vibe, business — and empire

By Steven Schussler

When you think of the Tommy Bahama clothing brand, which is all about beaches, sunshine, and the island lifestyle, you probably don't think of Minnesota. But Tommy Bahama was conceived, born, and raised by Minnesotan Bob Emfield, co-founder of the company, along with his partners Tony Margolis and Lucio Dalla Gasperina.

Back in the ‘70s, Emfield and Margolis were both in the apparel business and ended up working for the same denim company, Brittania. Emfield ran the Midwest operations and Margolis was the Northeast regional sales manager. In the ‘80s, Margolis became an owner and executive VP at the apparel company Generra and asked Emfield to become the Midwest director of sales and marketing. After 10 years or so, Generra had run its course, and the two men looked for their next venture. "We were telling stories to one another about a fictional character who came to the islands years ago and stayed for good," says Emfield. "He had a lawn chair in one hand, a Mohito in the other, and a cigar in the pocket of his linen shirt. That fictional character became Tommy Bahama."

The early days of the company, in 1990, were spent discussing where Tommy came from, where his money came from, was he married or not, what did he drive, what was his favorite wine, and, since he lived in the Bahamas on a private island that was left to him by his parents, where did he go on vacation? This discussion went on for nearly two years, and the business partners kept adding on to the story. In the meantime, they also attended to the nuts and bolts of starting the business. The first Tommy Bahama collection appeared in 1993, and the rest is history.

Emfield and Margolis had a lot of visionary ideas, but as Emfield puts it, "Neither of us could draw a third-grade stick man and get any better than a C+ on it. We were not artists, we were not designers, and we were not craftsmen."

Margolis suggested they interview Lucio Dalla Gasperina, who was head of design for a company in Seattle. After meeting, the trio agreed they could do great things together, and Dalla Gasperina joined the team.

In some respects, Tommy Bahama began as a virtual company, despite having stores and offices. Emfield (head of sales and marketing) lived in Minneapolis, Margolis (president) in New York, and Dalla Gasperina (head of design) in Seattle. They held meetings when they traveled to trade shows, they met in Hong Kong to develop fabric or talk about color or patterns. From time to time, they also met in New York. As they started opening restaurants and retail stores, Emfield did all of the site visits, along with Margolis, and all three helped handpick the locations. Although Tommy Bahama was a fictional character, he was very real to the team. They knew exactly how Tommy would act, what he would wear, and what his stores would look like.

"Passionate" is how others describe Emfield. Scott Winterbottom, the general merchandising manager at The Foursome (an apparel store that carries the full Tommy Bahama line) says, "Bob is a visionary. He is passionate about life, and he is passionate about retail. He has an amazing eye for fashion, and he keeps a pulse on the business. When he talks about the Tommy Bahama brand and lifestyle, his enthusiasm and excitement is evident. He's one of the most positive guys I've ever had the pleasure of knowing."

The brand and the styles were not an instant success. Shoppers weren't used to camp shirts, much less floral camp shirts, silk pants, and silk shorts. The first few years were a struggle, but they hung in and started gaining traction. Emfield and his partners analyzed how they were marketing the product and who they were going after, but they never wavered on who their initial core customer was: men between the ages 45 to 60.

Why that demographic? Emfield explains, "We were 45 to 60 years old. We knew that Tommy Bahama would have more than one home, and his second home was a vacation property in either Southern California, Arizona, or Florida. We wanted to be the opposite of Ralph Lauren. We were about sand, sailboats, fine straw hats, silk shirts and flip flopseverything you wore on the weekends."

The team didn't have the funds to advertise in a big way, so they decided on the strategy of building restaurants with a retail component. They figured that if the restaurant was busy, people would be waiting and they would spend time shopping. It turns out their strategy worked and word of mouth was their best form of advertising. Today the company has 15 restaurant/retail locations.

As the business matured, the company saw opportunities on the horizon, including international distribution and e-commerce. It moved more into the "bottoms" part of the business. As Emfield explains, "When you own the pant business or bottom business, you stay in business a long timeask Dockers or Levis."

Emfield and his partners eventually sold the business to Oxford Industries. He remains involved, and his son Gregg, who also lives in Minnesota, works for Tommy Bahama as one of the top reps.

What advice does Emfield have for entrepreneurs? "Be sure of your concept and keep your darts very close to the center of the bull's-eye," he says. "Without focus, you are destined for ruin. The other thing you have to do is enjoy the journey. It all goes together a brick at a time. Nothing happens overnight, and none of it's easy."


STEVEN SCHUSSLER is CEO of Schussler Creative, the founder of the Rainforest Café, and the author of It's a Jungle in There: Inspiring Lessons, Hard-Won Insights, and Other Acts of Entrepreneurial Daring