As told to Jess McCuan
Bill Thomas bought his first pair of khaki pants at an army surplus store near Denison University, in Ohio, in 1984. When that pair--deep-pocketed World War II uniform pants--wore out and he couldn't find another like it, he sensed a business opportunity. He also came to believe, after a few years working in the advertising world, that durable, high-quality products were the relics of a bygone era, and that a modern company selling anything intended to last a lifetime was increasingly rare. In 1990, with a small loan from his mother, Marge, he founded Bills Khakis in his hometown of Reading, Pennsylvania. Now his $9.5 million, 26-employee company distributes 200,000 pairs of pants and shorts annually to more than 500 retailers around the country. Marge, who is 84, keeps an office in the company's headquarters, a late-1800s brick building in downtown Reading.
My senior year at Denison, some buddies of mine and I were driving down to an army surplus store to buy these old World War II khakis. It was the best pair of khakis I've ever had, bar none. The fabric was incredibly thick and the pockets were this heavy drill cloth, voluminous and deep. When you watch the History Channel and see those guys standing on the decks of aircraft carriers with their pants pulled up to their rib cages, they were made like that--big and baggy. The more I wore them, the better I realized they were.
I thought most men had probably never experienced a great pair of khakis like that. Not only that, but in the mid-'80s the category of khakis was a brand-less category. It was a commodity category. This was before the Dockers era, and no one had taken a stand to make the best pair of khakis and be known for it. I also knew khakis were an enduring product, something you buy throughout your life. When they wear out, you buy them again. I thought, there's something here. And the more I thought about the idea, the more the other side of it, the religious side of it for me, started to crystallize.
I found religion in what it all represented. It's a lot of things, but mainly, it's Americana. It's the values and ideals that we like to point to and say, "That's what we're really all about." This product represented all that to me. It was something worth saving, and something worth resurrecting. Even better, no one else was doing it.
I felt like I had such a great opportunity to start a business, and it was thanks in part to the generation I was trying to celebrate--my father's generation. Just to have the right to start this--the freedom--and to live in a country where I could have this opportunity was something I did not take for granted. I was not as concerned about making a living in the beginning, but just to see the idea live and breathe.
My father died when I was 11, so I never got to know him well, but I was always surrounded by his relics. He went to college in Maine, and I have these great old photos of him on the hockey team, the tennis team. He was in World War II, and I have some of his military stuff--old photos, mainly. There was a whole generation there that I was trying to connect to. There was so much tangled up in all this for me. I couldn't walk away from the idea.
The company didn't start officially until 1990. But I had this idea in college in 1984 or 1985, and in the six to eight months I had between college and starting in advertising at Leo Burnett in Chicago, I started the business. It was a different label, and it didn't achieve the level of quality I wanted. But I sold a few hundred pairs, anywhere I could--mainly in Pennsylvania, at horse shows, country fairs, and golf tournaments. Then I took them to Chicago with me. I did sell a few stores, and I had a couple more batches made. But at some point, I stopped doing it. I didn't abandon it, but it wasn't a real business. So I just put it to the side.
When I got into advertising, I was on the client services side, doing business with Procter & Gamble, Philip Morris, and Oldsmobile. After a while I realized client services wasn't really the creative side of advertising. It was not about ideas, and the ideas were what really turned me on. I ended up in the creative department. After working with these huge companies for a while, I started to get a better sense of what branding was. And the more I thought about it, the more the khaki business became the itch I had to scratch. At some point I said, I've just got to go do this.
"What the brand attempts to capture belongs to a generation--to an era--but not to me. We're like a custodian of a piece of Americana."
I quit my job in Chicago in 1989, moved home to Bernville, Pennsylvania, and wrote a basic business plan. It was true, in a sense. I laid all the values out, and not that much has changed. But the plan was so sophomoric. I tried to raise money. I did venture fairs and basically went around the community trying to pitch the idea, but I was not successful.
I got to a point where my mother said, "If you want to give this a shot, you can either do this and start from scratch, or you can have some help." She basically put up $10,000. My No. 1 goal was to not lose that money. No. 2 was to make sure I felt like I was making progress. I was living at home and single, so I didn't have the typical pressures.
I had a lot of patience with it in the beginning. I think the first full year was $18,000 in sales. The next year was $36,000. I was putting everything back in, so what I made in part-time jobs is what I paid my expenses with. I worked on a greens crew and as a ski-lift operator. I painted a covered bridge by hand for four months. I was a rock 'n' roll band manager. I sold ski equipment. I was a freelance writer.
It was 1994 before I hired my first employee, a quality inspector. Before that, I was inspecting every pair myself, packing and shipping every pair, and doing pretty much everything.
We've certainly hit milestones, and they've been important. But for the most part it's been a slow burn. Sort of like khakis themselves. There's nothing about khakis that jumps out and screams at you. They get the job done.
It's an honor to have my name on that label. It would probably look pretty bad on the label to have "Bill's, Mary Jo's, John's, Annette's, and Stacy's Khakis." But any company is the result of a lot of people working really hard.
The apostrophe in "Bills" was purposefully left out. I just didn't feel like it should be possessive. What the brand attempts to capture or celebrate belongs to a generation--to an era--but not to us, or to me. In many ways, we're like a custodian of this little piece of Americana.
How long should a pair of Bills Khakis last? If they've made it to the point where the wearer of the pants is mowing the grass in them or painting a fence in them, they've done their job. They've stayed in the starting rotation long enough to be worn out. That's when someone is realizing the value in our product.
We are very, very proud to be made in the USA. We don't go out there with a flag leading our charge, and we're not against global economies or people making things in China for less money. But we are makers of authentic American khakis. It's part of our story and part of what we believe.
We want to grow our brand and grow our business, sure, but we also want to show people that things like Bills Khakis still exist today. Bills is a basic product that's driven by ideals. We believe it's okay to produce something simply, and we think that's a comforting thing for people. Consumers are starving for things that are true and for real.