Tailor Made

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Hil Davis and the art of the perfect dress shirt

Hil Davis is on a high. Five years after he and his business partner, Veeral Rathod, founded luxury men’s clothing brand J. Hilburn, sales have ballooned to $17 million a year. Using company sales representatives known as style consultants, they engineered an innovative approach to reaching customers that bypasses brick-and-mortar stores but maintains the personal touch of a tailor. In a few short years, the 40-year-old CEO has become the face of the 21st-century entrepreneur, an individual who is as vocal about social gains as financial ones.

Despite his recent success, Davis is surprisingly low-key. When I visited him at his Dallas showroom, I was struck by his unassuming demeanor and wide, easy smile. In college his nickname was “the walking anomaly,” which seemed apt for a man who went from failed Hollywood screenwriter to Wall Street banker to renowned haberdasher. Like any good outfitter, his own threads looked the part. He wore a gray, checkered suit that exposed a flash of violet when he reached into the jacket pocket, revealing the kind of sumptuous detail that has earned his company a devoted following.

“I’m getting to a point where I’m having more fun, maybe a little more lighthearted and less intense,” he said.

Surprising for a man who has been known to clock fifteen-hour days, sometimes for a week straight. For the first two years after he started J. Hilburn, Davis refused to take home a salary.

He comes from a family of entrepreneurs and claims it’s one of the reasons he’s “risk-intolerant.” His inspiration for the company came from Robert G. Hagstrom’s book, The Warren Buffett Way, where he learned that the iconic investor called the direct-sales company Pampered Chef one of his top three investments despite its questionable reputation. This admission piqued Davis’ curiosity and he started doing research.

“I knew if I built a direct-sales force and decided to do apparel, I could deliver product at a third of the price, and it could be custom instead of ready-to-wear,” he said.

Today the company has 62 employees and a direct- sales force that includes almost 2,000 style advisors across the country. Advisors provide customers with a personal consultation at their home, office or in the company’s Dallas showroom. Clothing is custom-made, usually with fabric from Italian mills, and designed by an acclaimed team formerly of Ralph Lauren.

Davis’ support of his team has paid off. The company will rank among Inc. magazine’s 500 fastest-growing privately held companies in 2012 with 1,637 percent growth over the last three years. Members of his style team speak highly of their boss. There is a feeling among many in his inner circle that he is a visionary who is rewriting the rules of apparel.

The feeling, it seems, is mutual.

“Here, we are successful if our style advisors are successful,” Davis said. “It changes the decision- making process.”

Davis also credits his customers—specifically those in the loyal LGBT community—with shaping the company’s evolution. He said they are among his most knowledgeable clients, requiring less direction when making purchases. They are also one of the few groups that buy clothing for special occasions and events instead of purely for utility. Davis said the combination of select lesbian and gay style advisors and consumers has steered the company toward a more diverse product line.

“Our customers who understand fashion and apparel— they are pushing us to be more inventive,” Davis said. “When we started, we had four collars and now we have 25. We used to have two or three fits, and now we have ten.”

Members of the LGBT community who work for J. Hilburn tout the company’s inclusive atmosphere, emphasis on collaboration and extensive training. They represent a small community within the company, but one that they expect to grow as the company expands.

“It’s a company that you can go to and totally be yourself,” said M.J. Roark, a Dallas based sales partner who has been with the company three years. “You can come in and you’re fully accepted whether you’re LGBT, a single mom or a single dad. They’re all about the people. They want you to grow.”

As Davis knows, the future of J. Hilburn is promising. The company plans to move into lifestyle branding with potential partnerships in travel, wine and the development of an app that organizes wardrobes. Davis’ days as a corporate banker are long gone and he seems to have evolved as well, discovering a new sense of meaning along the way.

“Success can be defined by a thousand different things,” he said. “With the old Hil Davis, it would have been money. The new Hil Davis, it’s putting a ton of value back into our style advisors’ lives and building a company culture that matters.”

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