Odds are you’ve seen a Salt Life logo on a vehicle or an item of apparel. But what drives the company behind the symbol? Jeff Stillwell, a 1988 marketing graduate, is president of Salt Life. He sat down with Harbert Magazine to discuss how he helped turn a small, fishing-oriented company into a much larger and more diverse lifestyle company, how a strong code of ethics has influenced his leadership, the challenges of building a brand, and other aspects of managing a growing company.
Harbert Magazine: You come from a family of businessmen. Your grandfather owned a barbecue restaurant in Phenix City, Alabama, and your father, Neil, owned a sporting goods store and eventually started a highly successful college sports apparel company, The Game. Are there any specific traits you inherited from them?
Jeff Stillwell: To be successful, you have to work hard every day and work smart. You have to put in the effort. My dad and grandfather would do whatever it took. You don’t necessarily have to be the smartest person, but you have to outwork others and hustle and put in the effort. That’s the key. I tell people I’m never the smartest person in the room, but I like to get in there and work hard. I’ve found that showing up, you’re three-quarters of the way there.
HM: Before college athletic programs took control of licensing apparel, your father started selling branded Auburn hats and shirts at home games. His company [The Game] eventually grew to include other SEC schools and really seemed to take off in the mid-1980s, when you were studying business at Auburn. Pat Dye was the first head coach to wear one of the company’s hats on the sideline. How involved were you in the business at that point?
JS: I grew up and my dad had the sporting goods stores. When I was 7 years old, if I wasn’t playing sports or at school, I was at work. On Saturdays, I would be selling things in the retail store or sweeping or doing something. It’s the only way I knew to be.
Fast forward—when we started selling things over at the university, selling concessions, and, really, we were the first people to do [novelty sales], I was 13 or 14 years old. Me and some of my buddies would come over [to Auburn] and work. We had six locations and, the first day, at the end of the game, we had sold about $8,000 worth of stuff. After my dad paid for everything, he realized he made a profit of about $2,500. He says, “I’ve got to do more of this.” A handful of years later, we were with Auburn, Alabama, Georgia, Mississippi State, Florida State, Florida—we were at all of these stadiums and every weekend I was working in a stadium.
Fast forward—I go to Auburn and Bo Jackson was here, and I never saw a game. I was 18 years old, I had a key to the stadium. I would be there at 6 a.m. on Saturday, they would come up with a 22-foot Ryder truck, and we would unload everything. We had about 15 or 16 locations at that time at Auburn and we might do $100,000 [in sales] a game. I had an office in the stadium and then, after me, I had about 90 people [working]. Here I am in business school and I’ve got 90 people I’m in charge of, I’ve got all this cash, and after I would lock up everything, a police officer would go with me and I’d make a giant deposit at the bank.
HM: Did you know from the outset that you would be involved in trying to advance the family business, or was that a decision that came later? Was there a particular point when it all clicked?
JS: What I’d intended to do, and how I started my career, was in sales. My dad kept telling me—and he had a fairly sizable operation at the time—that I needed to get in sales. They made a lot of money and it was hard work, but I was used to hard work. I graduated on a Friday and started on a Monday. I worked for a sales agency and had several brands—Asics footwear was one of them, I had The Game, and several brands. I did that from ’88 to ’94 and lived in Baton Rouge and then moved up to the Carolinas. I remember taking over a territory in the Carolinas that was doing $800,000 of revenue a year and when I left in ’93 it was doing $7 million. I had a great career, but my dad calls and says “I want to start a new business and I need you to come home. It’ll be a lot of fun and you’ll get to travel the world.” It wasn’t intended for me. We always talked about doing something together at some point. I was 27, and I hadn’t thought about that. I got a phone call and I came home.
HM: Is that where the story of Salt Life more or less begins?
JS: No, we started a little company called Kudzu in 1994. We were making private-label stuff for NASCAR. For the next 10 to 15 years, if you bought a hat with a NASCAR driver on it, there was a 60 to 70 percent chance we made it. Plus we made a lot of stuff for Cabela’s, Bass Pro Shops, and other people. We sold blank headwear to screen printers. In 1998, we bought The Game back from Russell. It went from $86 million in sales [when we sold it to Russell] to $8 million in five years [with Russell owning it]. I’m no rocket scientist, but that’s the wrong direction. They had two or three bookstore accounts left, and it used to be the premier bookstore brand. We built it back up and continued our product label.
We were making baseball caps for Callaway Golf and Ashworth. I had gone out to a sales meeting for Ashworth and the CEO asked if I had a few minutes. He asked, “You guys ever thought of selling?” I said, “Everything I own is for sale except my wife and my dog.” He ended up making us an offer that was too good to be true. Ashworth sold us to adidas/TaylorMade. I managed to trick everyone along the way and convince them to let me run the company. Delta Apparel (NYSE American: DLA) acquired us in ’09 and I began following Salt Life in late 2010. They were looking for someone to step in. It was a little bitty fishing brand with a name that was so good. I thought it could be a lifestyle brand.
HM: How did you start following it?
JS: With The Game, I was down in Ponte Vedra Beach a lot working with the PGA Tour at some of their properties. We had a licensing deal and did a lot of events. I kept seeing the Salt Life sticker all over and some people I knew from the Tour said, “Have you seen this brand? It’s kind of cool.” When they started looking, they went to people I knew for advice and they called me. One thing led to another and we took over the brand in 2011. We did it the first couple of years as a licensee. After a couple years of test drive, we made the investment to buy it outright.
HM: It seems like your father had those aha moments, and you did as well. You’ve both shown the ability to think about where an opportunity might take you in 5-10 years. How much of your decision-making in those types of matters is data-driven and how much would you say is instinctive?
JS: I tell people that what little success I’ve had in life, I attribute to being observant. Sometimes I’ll just sit back and watch things. All I have to do is figure out something before somebody else does. It’s somewhat instinctive to realize this could be something, that [Salt Life] is not just a fishing brand. Soccer moms are just as attached to it as hardcore fishermen.
HM: What’s a typical day like as president of Salt Life? You’ve mentioned you’re very hands-on in some respects. Do you sweat the small things across all areas?
JS: For me to be successful and for our brand to be successful, I feel like I have to be involved to a degree. We task someone with a goal and let them run with it, but I’m around 24-7 for anything they need. But I tell them that I reserve the right to check under the hood. I realize now, later in my career, that I can only be real good at a couple things. The most value I will bring to Salt Life will be spending time on product and marketing. If we get any one of those two things wrong, the brand will suffer. I have people a lot smarter than me who handle distribution, accounting, and finance, and all of those things that make the engine run. But there are a handful of things I like to look at that tell me if we’re on the right track or the wrong track.
When we get to financials, I go to the balance sheet first. If I see something off, I can go start asking questions. I will challenge. The worst thing you can say to me is that we’ve always done it this way. I’ve seen a lot of businesses go broke for always doing it that way. Every couple of years, and our entire staff knows it’s coming and I think they cringe, we say clean sheet of paper. Given software changes and the way our business has evolved—we’re still making hats, shirts, and boardshorts, but our customers change and your shipping changes and logistics change—if we were starting from scratch today, would every process be the same? Let’s go out and detail every single process and challenge ourselves. Are we making the best use of the system? If not, we need to change things. We do it every two or three years. It’s mind-numbingly boring, but it’s amazing how much you realize that we were doing things less efficiently because we weren’t challenging ourselves enough.
HM: When you came to Salt Life, it was four guys from Jacksonville, Florida. What did you bring to Salt Life that had not been there before?
JS: To me, it was the challenge to make it more than it was. In the beginning, when we got involved, 95 percent of the products sold were hardcore fishing-related. I said we’re going to be a lifestyle brand. We’ll push out some surfing stuff, paddleboarding stuff, relaxing on the beach stuff, more diving things. And people kept saying, why are you doing this? All you need to do is keep printing these fishing shirts and making fishing shorts and we’re going to be good forever. I said, no, we’ll never be as good as we could be.
Fast forward to 2018, less than 20 percent of our revenue will come from hardcore fishing items. It’s more lifestyle. I realized we were becoming a lifestyle brand when we started selling logos and items that weren’t in the original font. Now we sell about 50-50. That tells you it’s not logo-driven, that people are embracing
HM: You’re continuing to grow and have stated the intention to open two to four new retail stores per year. People find your brand at Belk and retailers in coastal communities. How do you decide the sweet spot for growth?
JS: A lot of people have the thought that it’s about opening up as many doors as possible. You can over-merchandise the market. I look at dollars per door. We’re in about 2,200 doors now. There are certain brands that can support 7,000 and certain ones that can support 3,000. It’s really about how much you’re getting per door. We have to give our consumer more things to wear. We started with a T-shirt and a hat. Now it’s a T-shirt, a hat, boardshorts, a fishing shirt, or a performance shirt, bags to carry it in, and then long-sleeve shirts or button-down shirts to wear to dinner. Or a combination boardshort and walking short. The balance is finding the right customers that will support the entire line.
HM: You had mentioned the importance of observation in your career. Is that something you believe many executives struggle to do—slow themselves down enough to simply observe from time to time?
JS: Probably that’s one way to look at it. You do have to slow down and be aware of what’s going on. The other thing, and I’ve seen it happen a lot of times, a corporation will rule by committee. I’ve been in meetings where they have their entire ideas for the year and start working down the line. If you have your vision and you know where you want to be and you know your demographic, you don’t need a group of people. All you’re going to do is take a great idea and make it mediocre. Or you’ll make it so complicated you can’t effectively build it.
HM: It sounds like you’re familiar with every aspect of your business, but you will say, “I don’t know how to do that. I’m going to get somebody who knows how to do that.” Was there an event when you realized you could be bigger by doing a bit less?
JS: I don’t know if it was a single instance. I may have just touched the hot stove too many times. I think a lot of it is, and again, I’m blessed to have a group of people who’ve been with me for a long time, I realized maybe I was back there meddling a bit too much. Give someone a direction, but let them go with it. I’m there if I think they’re about to fall off the cliff. My job is to pull the rope in. But I realized I needed to let them run to the cliff. I don’t like a micromanager, and I can’t imagine anyone does.
My philosophy is I just ask questions. If I go to my distribution center tomorrow, there’s a good chance I will pull a box off the shipping line and see how that product is going out of the warehouse. I can’t let go. I don’t like to micromanage, but I have to know enough about what else is going on to ask the right questions or I’m doing our shareholders and everyone else a disservice.
HM: The theme of this magazine is leadership, ethics, values, and social responsibility. People are looking at a multiple bottom line—what are you doing that promotes betterment of the community and what values does your company have that promote a level of social responsibility? Over time, that bumps into your code of ethics. Do you have a code of ethics for your business, and how did you come about forming it?
JS: Absolutely. We’ve had to adapt ours. There are several apparel industry standards everybody follows, so it’s pretty easy to adapt. The list can get quite long, but it’s necessary. When I go to factories in Asia, even though we visit every single factory two or three times a year, I go personally. I walk the floor and I want to make sure it’s something I would be proud to take somebody into. I won’t do business with a factory unless I’ve been there. I want to make sure it’s right. You have to do these things, you should want to do these things. The bigger thing to me is that we’re making a product, a living, off of a community that’s based around water. We have to make sure that if we’re going to make money from that, we have to do right.
HM: Where does that come from?
JS: My internal philosophy as an individual is to give back. If it’s right for your personal life, it’s right for your business life. It’s a fine line for us at times at Salt Life. I could easily have surfers opposing fishermen. We have chosen to support the Roatan Marine Park, the second largest barrier reef in the world and the largest living. I want to make sure it stays living. I dive at so many places and it’s horrible to see [a reef] bleached out. I want to make sure we give back. That group tries to educate the islanders on how to take care of the reef and not poach the fish. They’re training people to raise honey bees and sell honey and beeswax candles to help offset them not killing and poaching the lobster. It’s a very pristine, beautiful place. I want to make sure that, generations from now, people can see that.
Another group we sponsor is Artificial Reefs International. They go into areas where coral is gone and will sink an artificial reef. The life is there. Coral will grow on something super fast.
HM: Larry Fink, the head of BlackRock, comes out with a letter saying we’re going to invest in companies that are really looking to the long-term because people who invest in us look to the long-term. He suggests we need to worry about the environment and the companies that do this are the companies that are profitable in the long run. Can you react to that?
JS: I think he’s 100 percent accurate. I want Salt Life to be around 100 years from now. But for us to have it and for it to be thriving, we better make sure we take care of these oceans. I remember growing up, there was a period of time in the Gulf there was an area where you couldn’t catch redfish. They were almost decimated. Now they’re thriving. Who wants to be the person who says they caught the last redfish? I want to leave things better than I
found them. HM