2004: Tommy Bahama courts the laid-back golfer

By Sandra O’Loughlin

Tommy Bahama, a fictional persona, has become synonymous with a luxurious island lifestyle yet has attracted more than its share of golfers.

Through savvy marketing and licensing deals, the company’s brand encompasses an array of products, from clothing and accessories to home decor and leisure items. Seven Tommy Bahama establishments in Florida, California, Arizona and Hawaii showcase its wares and serve island-influenced food and “Bungalow Brew” beer. Another 39 retail emporiums stretch across the country, and the

company’s goods are sold at major department stores such as Neiman Marcus, Saks Fifth Avenue and Nordstrom.

But for all its acts of premeditated expansion, Tommy Bahama “made a conscious decision not to pander to golf,” says Tony Margolis, the company’s president and chief executive officer.

So, why the connection with golfers?

Aside from the natural fit with golf resorts and its stylish look, Tommy Bahama proffers a cosmic

philosophy that all golfers, regardless of ability, recognize in their souls. Golf is important, but it’s still a game and should be enjoyed, Margolis says.

“(Tommy Bahama) loves the game and the game treats him well, but he comes to the game with a spirit and a smile,” he says. “It’s not always about how serious you can be.”

But now that the brand has resonated with golfers, Tommy Bahama officials are quite serious about keeping them in the fold.

In May, the company announced the Tommy Bahama Challenge, an unofficial money event on the PGA Tour that will pit four U.S. players in stroke-play matches against a team of international competitors. It is scheduled for Nov. 9 at Grayhawk Golf Club in Scottsdale, Ariz.

Besides apparel, Tommy Bahama is adding the following this year to its golf offering: men’s shoes made of smooth and tumbled leathers with custom detailed soles and accent stitching for $185 retail. There’s also a golf bag ($475), a hardwood custom putter ($249) and smaller items such as head covers, towels, tee bags, balls and a divot tool box set.

“The men’s (products are) a slam-dunk. Customers ask for it. It’s almost become a generic term,” says Gerry Roman, a buyer for Kapalua Golf Club in Maui.

Says Dave Casto, senior merchandise manager for The Plantation Club at Amelia Island Plantation, Fla.: “No one does it like they do in terms of print and texture.” Tommy Bahama is the shop’s most profitable line, he adds.

New golf initiatives should continue to help provide dividends for Tommy Bahama’s owners, Oxford Industries, which acquired the company a year ago for $325 million. Atlanta-based Oxford is a major producer of branded and private-label apparel for retailers such as J.C. Penney, Kohl’s and Wal-Mart.

For its third quarter, which ended in February, Oxford reported record sales and earnings

attributable, in part, to the acquisition. The Tommy Bahama group contributed $103 million in sales in the quarter, an increase of 15 percent compared with the same period a year ago when it operated independently. Oxford’s net sales for the period were $281 million, up 35 percent from a year earlier.

As much as it has grown, Tommy Bahama remains singularly focused on its identity and imparts its distinctive personality on each of its product extensions. That sense of brand perhaps more than anything helps explain the company’s success, experts say.

“Often brands get themselves successfully positioned then start expanding into areas that cannibalize or dilute the brand,” says Carole Francesca, president of Broadstreet Licensing Group in Montclair, N.J. “Here, there’s no confusion as to the Tommy Bahama image. The quality standards are maintained, and they have a visual game plan.”

That plan is the brainchild of three friends, all in the apparel industry: Margolis, Bob Emfield and Lucio Dalla Gasperina. Margolis and Emfield, who had neighboring vacation homes on Florida’s Gulf Coast, would fantasize as they walked the beach about a character named Tommy Bahama, his life, apparel and leisure activities. They asked Dalla Gasperina to join them, secured financial and manufacturing support in Hong Kong, and in 1992 launched the company.

Despite the sale, little has changed at Tommy Bahama. Margolis still runs the company’s New York headquarters. Emfield, based in Minneapolis, heads marketing and Dalla Gasperina oversees design from Seattle. And though it may be an unusual arrangement, by staying in constant communication and sticking to their vision, it works.

Most important, says Gail Vasquez, Tommy Bahama’s director of licensing, is the company’s input with licensees.

“We lead the licensees so that we grow cohesively as a brand,” she says. “We continually try to move everybody in the same direction.”

Though all companies strive to stay ahead of market trends, Tommy Bahama has proven that it actually does, paying astute attention to the most subtle of details that often determine the success or failure of a product.

“As furniture and home products become more modern, we reorganize the way our prints are designed, we change the proportion in our furniture,” Vasquez says. “We still have an old-world sense about us, which is part of our identity, but we may change the back of a chair or make some pieces longer and leaner.”

But Tommy Bahama has had its share of stumbles, too.

The company’s first foray into licensing, beer, was a flop. The partners signed a deal with a friend instead of an experienced beer marketer. Though the beer venture fell flat, the company rebounded with a series of hits, including a license for neckwear and women’s scarves, footwear, accessories and furniture.

And Margolis has every intention of keeping Tommy Bahama ahead of the field.

“Consumers respond to newness and fresh thinking,” he says. “They’re willing to spend a significant amount of money as long as you fulfill their expectations.”

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