Sometimes a pair of khakis is just a pair of khakis. Sometimes a pair of khakis is "the last great American brand" rendered in cotton. At least, that's what Bill Thomas says. The founder and CEO of Bills Khakis (#448), in Reading, Pa., truly believes that his $4.5-million company makes more than pants. Somewhere along the way, the pants "took on for me a much greater philosophical significance," says Thomas (pictured below).

It all started in 1985 when Thomas, then a senior at Ohio's Dennison University, bought a pair of genuine World War II army-issue khakis at a surplus store. Cut wider in the hips like jodhpurs and fashioned from industrial-strength twill, the khakis were unlike any Thomas had ever owned. But that spring the 40-year surplus apparently finally dried up. Determined not to let the perfect khakis go extinct on his watch, Thomas pulled his only pair apart at the seams and found a factory that would duplicate the design. A cottage industry was born.

Upon graduating from college, Thomas took a job with Chicago ad agency Leo Burnett. Working with classic brands like Marlboro and Oldsmobile helped him crystallize what he wanted to do with the khakis he was selling on the side. After three and a half years he left Burnett and moved back to his hometown, business plan in hand.

Thomas's marketing decisions reflected the exclusive positioning he desired. For the first seven years, Bills advertised only in The Wall Street Journal and The New Yorker and limited distribution to specialty-apparel shops. At $95 a pair, the khakis are not the kind you stock your closet with -- unless you're Netscape cofounder Marc Andreesen, who once bought 26 pairs, plus 15 pairs of Bills Bermuda shorts, at a San Francisco boutique. "I wanted to make a product that was the best of its kind -- nothing more, nothing less," Thomas says.

Indeed, Thomas's khakis became an ideal. Thomas claims an insider told him that a Bills brochure was "on the boardroom table" when Gap Inc. launched its dead-celebrities-wore-khakis campaign, in the early 1990s. More recently, GQ dubbed Bills khakis the "Pants of the Gods."

Having saturated the men's specialty-shop market with his product, Thomas is looking for growth options that match his elite positioning. Possibilities include a calculated expansion into golf pro shops, and perhaps a discreet marketing campaign to women, who already buy Bills designs because they are cut amply through the hips. Says the cachet-conscious CEO: "We want to promote that in a very discreet way, without diluting the brand."

A Pantload of Sales

Company Revenues Five-year growth Number of employees
Bills Khakis (#448) $4.5 million 655% 24
Timberland (#495 in 1983) $60 million 400% 1,000
Timberland (2000) $1.1 billion 59% 5,400

Hurry Up and Wait

The Swartz family of the Timberland Co., in Stratham, N.H., has been living its version of the great American brand for three generations. Its waterproof work boots, seen on grease monkeys, ladies who shop at Saks, and fashion-fickle inner-city kids, seem to have bent the rules of branding.

Sidney Swartz led the company to the Inc 500 in 1983 (#495) and took it public four years later; he's Timberland's chairman today. "The constant tension between 'go fast and realize on the opportunity before it's closed off' and 'do it right, carefully, the way the brand deserves' was, and still is, a central challenge at Timberland," says Swartz. He admonishes Bill Thomas to stick with his slow-growth instincts: "Broaden your distribution only at the rate that does not lower standards. If you have to, build your own distribution, either as shops-in-shops, or as freestanding stores," Swartz says. "Once the quality standard has been altered, it is not easily repaired."


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