Meet Bill Thomas - As Featured in Canvas Rebel

Meet Bill Thomas - As Featured in Canvas Rebel

An Interview with Canvas Rebel, an online magazine featuring unique small business owners and entrepreneurs who are focused on creative spaces.
Interview & Article by Camila Sanchez.

Alright, Bill thanks for taking the time to share your stories and insights with us today. Coming up with the idea is so exciting, but then comes the hard part – executing. Too often the media ignores the execution part and goes from idea to success, skipping over the nitty, gritty details of executing in the early days. We think that’s a disservice both to the entrepreneurs who built something amazing as well as the public who isn’t getting a realistic picture of what it takes to succeed. So, we’d really appreciate if you could open up about your execution story – how did you go from idea to execution?

When I was in college, I found a pair of World War II khakis at an Army surplus store. They were the best khakis I ever found. At the time, the chino pant category was price driven, not quality. No brand took a craft approach to what was considered a commodity category. No brand had established itself as the best and few consumers had a favorite brand of khakis. I started Bills Khakis from the trunk of my car. Over 25 years, Bills became a beacon for American-made manufacturing and pioneered “premium” in a category that was considered by most a work pant. In 2017, I had the opportunity to relaunch Duck Head, one of the oldest brands in America. Duck Head was a leading commodity brand that peaked in the 1990’s before multiple ownership changes traded the brand down and eventually out of business.

Relaunching Duck Head to premium markets was the greatest single challenge of my career. To retailers, the brand was a pariah, to consumers it meant many things to many people, especially in the southeastern U.S.

Today, I am launching a new brand called PennBilt. The product line has been designed to address a small white space within men’s premium sportswear and speak to several consumer groups. So far, the merchandising strategy appears to be working.

Bill, before we move on to more of these sorts of questions, can you take some time to bring our readers up to speed on you and what you do?

I’ve given some background in the previous question. Through this experience, I believe I have been able to connect with the true meaning of brand. It’s not just about a logo or tag line. It’s aligning your core values with your product and/or service and delivering that in a relevant way. The relevance of any brand is the divine spark between your customers heart and mind. As a brand owner, if you can connect rational needs with emotional wants, you have succeeded. It is rewarding working with other companies and entrepreneurs helping them find that.

We’d love to hear a story of resilience from your journey.

In 2015, a business I founded in 1990 was forced into a sale during a period of rapid growth and moved from Pennsylvania to Connecticut under new ownership. As a result of the move, nearly 30 jobs being lost and long standing customer and supplier relationships ended. While working with the new ownership group in 2016, I accepted an offer to work for Levi Strauss. It was the first position outside the business I founded in 25 years. Within 9 months, the new position was eliminated for strategic reasons.

In 2017, I was hired by Oxford Industries, owners of Tommy Bahama, Lilly Pulitzer and Southern Tide to relaunch a newly acquired brand called Duck Head. Duck Head was one of the oldest brands in America but had suffered significant damage over the past 20 years. The brand had not been successfully traded for 20 years. Understanding how to tap Duck Head’s intrinsic equity and align the story with the correct product for today’s target customer was the single greatest challenge I have undertaken outside of owning my own business. After a successful relaunch that took over 2 years, my role was eliminated at the onset of the pandemic.

The past 7 years have presented significant setbacks and challenges to overcome. All you can do is keep moving forward. This fall, I have started again from scratch with a new premium sportswear brand called PennBilt.

What do you think helped you build your reputation within your market?

Reputations take time to develop. It comes down to integrity in everything you do. Integrity means quality, it means servicing your customers like you would want to be serviced, doing the right thing for your employees, suppliers, and environment when you can make a difference. Developing win/win relationships for all key stakeholders builds enduring businesses. The fundamental tenant of business is trust.

Photo Credit Jim Graham

Back to blog