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Posted Date: 12/5/2008

Vineyard Vines

By Masha Zager
"It's all about living the good life," says Shep Murray, describing the philosophy he and his brother Ian bring to their company, Vineyard Vines.

Ten years ago both Shep and Ian found themselves frustrated with corporate jobs in Manhattan. They would have much preferred to be out in a boat on Nantucket Sound, fishing. But given that they couldn't spend all of their time on the boat, they began to wonder if there wasn't a way to carry that relaxed state of mind into the workplace.

The solution they hit upon was to produce work-friendly clothes that evoked life's more pleasurable activities. "We realize that sometimes you'll have to wear a tie," Shep explains. "If you do, wear ours -- they're fun."

The brothers moved to Martha's Vineyard and started Vineyard Vines. From their own experience, they felt there was an unmet need for ties with print designs, and their first collection consisted of four ties with nautical-themed prints. The first batch was sold one tie at a time -- in bars, in boats and on the beach.

Entrepreneurial spirit is built into company culture

Shep and Ian, now co-CEOs, have come a long way. Vineyard Vines has grown exponentially every year, and in addition to ties it now produces a full range of clothing and accessories for men, women and children -- mostly business casual wear and "preppy" golf and resort wear, along with some outerwear and dressy evening clothes. The cheerful print designs appear on bags, sashes, scarves, belts and even underwear. "All of the products have an element that makes them distinctively Vineyard Vines," Ian says, and Shep adds: "They're classic yet fun."

The range of marketing channels has expanded well beyond the beach. More than 500 retailers carry the Vineyard Vines brand, and the company also has nine stores of its own. In addition, it runs a catalog and web site business, makes custom products for colleges and sports organizations, and sells clothing in golf pro shops.

From a two-person company, Vineyard Vines expanded rapidly. The main office in Stamford, CT, which is responsible for design and marketing, now has more than 100 employees, and fulfillment and manufacturing are outsourced. "We've had exciting times," Ian says. "We're now a mid-sized business rather than a really small business ... it's definitely a different business than when Shep and I quit our jobs."

But some things about Vineyard Vines have stayed constant throughout all the growth and change. The brothers, who had no prior experience in the apparel industry when they started out, made a point of hiring employees based on their belief in the entrepreneurial spirit, in camaraderie and teamwork, and in doing what they loved. (A desire to come to work in shorts and flip-flops was also a plus.) The original team, which Shep describes as "long on passion and short on industry experience," was later supplemented with industry experts, but the brothers were careful to recruit only experts who would fit into the company culture.

"What we look for is not only the skill set but the people skills that match with our organization," Shep says. As a result, the company has avoided the culture clash that occurs so often when a business moves beyond its startup phase. Recent hires are every bit as committed to the Vineyard Vines spirit as the original team, so they have been able to operate as mentors as well as leaders.

Listening to the customer
The company's unusual marketing approach is another constant. "We're bigger on selling the lifestyle than the product," Shep explains. "The product speaks for itself. We'd rather have people buy from us than sell to them." Instead of advertising, Vineyard Vines goes to places where potential customers might gather -- regattas, horse races, college campuses -- and sets up tents to display clothes and to distribute catalogs and Frisbees.

The close bond between Vineyard Vines and its customers that was forged by this one-on-one marketing approach has helped drive the direction of the business. The Murray brothers started out with print ties because they saw a need for them; they expanded to other product lines because their customers asked for them. Customers requested women's clothes, tote bags, boxer shorts -- and Vineyard Vines obliged.

Today, customers feel free to approach Ian and Shep at their public appearances, to call or e-mail with ideas, and to send pictures of products they'd like to see Vineyard Vines make. "We try and make what people want," Shep says. "It's a simple concept."

It helps, too, that the brothers are familiar with the way customers use their products. If customers ask for shorts to wear while sailing, Ian and Shep have a good idea of how the shorts have to fit and move.

One of the most rewarding aspects of the business for the Murray brothers is the opportunity to give back to the community. Vineyard Vines supports organizations that help send students to college and also contributes generously to cancer-related causes (the brothers lost both parents to cancer). The company supports Martha's Vineyard, the community where it was founded, and each retail store participates in locally based charities such as toy drives.

The company also has responded to emergencies such as the September 11 attacks, by designing American-flag products and donating the proceeds, and Hurricane Katrina, by bringing clothes to people who had lost their homes and possessions. Shep and Ian often speak at schools and colleges about their experiences, "promoting the idea that the American dream is still alive, that you can do what you want to do, and sending a message of hope that is very positive."

Modernizing technology to meet growth
A few things have changed over the years, and one of them is the use of technology. Vineyard Vines started out doing its bookkeeping in three-ring binders and progressed in short order to Quickbooks. But as the business grew and became established, it needed to upgrade and modernize its procedures and technology in order to keep pushing forward.

The company is in the process of implementing Computer Generated Solutions' Blue Cherry, an enterprise apparel software solution that includes product lifecycle management, warehouse management, business intelligence and more. The software seems to mesh well with Vineyard Vines' culture, because it "takes stuff that was complicated and streamlines it," in Ian's words. Managers are looking forward to having more visibility, better communications, more functionality and more efficiency. "It will put everyone in the organization on the same page," Ian says.

Masha Zager is a New York City-based free-lance writer who specializes in business and technology.



QUICK TAKES

More examples of Shep and Ian Murrays' philosophy:

On customer service: "If we send a customer a package that's incorrect, we see it as an opportunity to win them over with customer service. ...It's always about the customer, not about ego."

On the company's unique apparel niche: "We view ourselves and our company as an organization that has breathed new life into something that was overlooked before -- like Jet Blue with air travel, or Starbucks with coffee, or the Pike Place Market with fish. We took a boring product and created a lifestyle around it that's fun."

On pursuing your dreams: "This industry can be fun, and we're proof positive of that."

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