Duck dynasty

 In 2015-04

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“I’m really a nobody,” says Tom Nolan matter-of-factly. “But, thanks to the game of golf, I’ve been able to do some amazing things.” The late-morning visitor to Nolan’s modest office — formerly the bottom of a grain silo in a flour mill on the southern fringe of downtown Greensboro — can’t resist a smile.

Even though he’s dressed in mud-stained cords, work boots and a flannel shirt, Nolan, 37, the president and CEO of Prospect Brands LLC, which owns of a trio of apparel brands, is anything but your basic nobody. Before the private-equity-backed company acquired the iconic Gerbing, Duck Head and Crittenden clothing lines over the last three years and set up a corporate office in the former factory on South Elm Street, Nolan ran Ralph Lauren Corp.’s Polo Golf and Tennis apparel division as senior vice president for four years, racking up impressive sales gains at the sports-clothing line. Before that, he worked four years as publisher of Condé Nast’s Golf World magazine — the youngest ever to do so — leading the venerable golf-industry weekly to new heights. Not bad for the son of a Long Island, N.Y., electrician who was first in his family to go to college. But more on that in a New York minute.

Nolan’s passion for golf seems like a good place to begin deciphering how he brought the brands together under one roof in a city that once dominated the textile industry. “So what exactly has golf allowed you to do?” his visitor asks. “Oh, my gosh. Where do I start? The game has taught me so incredibly much about so many things, especially about leadership — respect for rules and doing things the right way; how to conduct myself in any situation, pay attention to details and listen to others. It’s a game that constantly teaches you about yourself and others — civility, patience, personal honesty, how to treat people. I could go on and on. It’s about values and authenticity. Bottom line, I wouldn’t be here today without golf.”

For preppy Southern men in the 1980s, Duck Head khakis “were as indispensable as a pair of worn Topsiders and a pink Polo shirt.”

He gestures to his rustic office where he works from an old metal drafting table found in an antiques shop. Behind him rises a large chalkboard bearing spring and summer product-design and shipping schedules, projects underway and client delivery dates. Other adornments include a framed American flag, a print of Douglas MacArthur wading ashore at the liberation of the Philippines in 1944 and a photo of Secretariat running away with the 1973 Kentucky Derby. The iconic American images speak to Nolan’s passion for authenticity. It’s a reason he was drawn to acquiring a once-proud Duck Head brand that had faded into near oblivion and restoring it to its former glory.

Brothers and Civil War veterans George and Joe O’Bryan established the brand after returning from battle to their Nashville, Tenn., home in 1865, using canvas material called duck from army tents to make durable work pants and overalls that became the company’s signature for the next century. In 1892, the brothers attempted to register “Duck” as a trademark, which the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office rejected as too general. Later, “Duck Head” was accepted. During World War II, the company supplied more than 5 million pairs of cotton khaki pants to the military, setting the stage for a postwar chino revolution.

In 1949, Hank Williams Sr. became one of country music’s first celebrity spokesmen, endorsing the Duck Head brand and its “Made to be Worn” motto. Savvy marketing, kicked off by an initial sale of a batch of pants at the University of Mississippi’s bookstore in the 1970s, broadened the brand’s appeal to the well-heeled. “For a preppy Southern college guy in the 1980s, Duck Head Apparel khakis were as indispensable as a pair of worn Topsiders and a pink Polo shirt,” Forbes noted in 2000. Delta Woodside Industries Inc., a publicly traded textile company in Greenville, S.C., bought O’Bryan Brothers Inc. and the Duck Head brand for $14 million in 1989. Over the next four years, sales soared sixfold to more than $130 million, aided by an overseas expansion. But that proved to be Duck Head’s high-water mark as a new emphasis on selling through high-priced department stores and the addition of a women’s line didn’t work. Starting with a spinoff in 2000, Duck Head went through a dizzying array of unsuccessful owners over the next decade and a half, culminating in Nolan’s 2013 purchase of the brand from a Virginia-based group.

Nolan had formed Prospect Brands in 2012, acquiring Gerbing’s Heated Clothing Inc., a 40-year-old specialty-clothing company based in Stoneville that made outerwear that keeps motorcyclists, football fans and others warm in frigid climes. Last November, Nolan acquired majority interest in Crittenden and Co. of Midway, Ky., which designs fine men’s sport coats, shirts, ties and sweaters. A week later he opened the first of what he projects may be half a dozen Duck Head retail showrooms, mostly at high-end men’s clothing shops across the South.

“It’s amazing how everything came together and fell into place,” Nolan says, hopping up to lead his visitor through a pair of massive, hammered-steel fire doors that once hung in the Greensboro Coliseum. He steps into a retail space that looks and feels a bit like a museum of Southern Americana, including a room that details Duck Head’s long journey from Civil War times to revival in the Gate City, complete with the company’s early promotional materials featuring Hank Williams and 13 duck head symbols. Nolan considered signing a lease for a more conventional corporate space, until he met Eric Robert, a colorful Frenchman who restored the old North State Milling Co. building in a reviving part of downtown Greensboro.

“The minute I stepped into the building, I knew this was where we had to be,” says Nolan. “It’s a beautiful, old, historic building that’s been brought back to life by someone who loves it, with integrity and soul — exactly the message we mean to convey to our customers.” To this end, antique cases and rough-hewn tables display the re-launched Duck Head line of premium-priced, American-made clothing while Crittenden woolens and flannels anchor another corner of the room. Gerbing outerwear occupies its own space in the shop, with new lines that target outdoor enthusiasts. At the southern end of the room, Oriental rugs and leather reading chairs invite customers to linger, and a handsome zinc-topped bar is presided over by a large moose head Nolan found gathering dust in a Reidsville shop. The bar doubles as a checkout counter and staging area for receptions.

“I love old, well-made things and wanted to create a place where people would feel welcome and slow down a bit. It might sound corny, but that’s what Southern life says to me. There’s a natural grace about life down here that has always appealed to me. The South is such a personal place. Relationships matter. People dress up for church or going to visit others. Neighbors bring over food to welcome you to the neighborhood — ours certainly did,” he says. “I worked hard to get here. I’m just so grateful to be able to be part of it.”

Coming from anyone else, such romance might be dismissed as simple flattery from a carpetbagger’s handbook or a marketing gimmick. In this case, neither words nor appearances deceive. Consider how the boss is decked this morning (and nearly every other) for just another day in the office: in mud-freckled mufti from a morning deer hunt in Reidsville, still wearing a faded Duck Head ball cap on his head after a tromp through a wet field. Nolan’s informal management style permeates his working environment and company culture, visible in the relaxed way his dozen or so designing, marketing and R&D folks do their jobs. The story is the same a few miles away for his 30 information-technology and fulfillment employees who occupy a leased facility. “Every day here seems a little bit like casual Friday,” explains a young employee.

“Don’t mistake it, I can be the soul of a sharp dresser when the occasion calls for it,” Nolan says, following his brief walking tour of the new retail shop. “But here in the office, I try to create a casual atmosphere and don’t want to put anyone ill at ease. It’s important to me that everyone here feels comfortable here. This is a work place for all of us, but it’s also our home.”

Nolan hasn’t forgotten where he came from — or golf’s key role. Growing up on Long Island’s South Shore, baseball was his first love, and he had college-scholarship ambitions. When he was 16, his father, Tom, an electrician for the Long Island Rail Road, came home from a side job carrying a bag full of Wilson Staff golf clubs — payment in lieu of cash from a client. “He told me I ought to go out and use them, teach myself how to play golf, because it could do me some good someday.” Nolan didn’t know where a golf course was. But he found a driving range close enough for him and his best pal, Dan, to ride their bikes with the golf bag slung over a shoulder. “We had no idea what we were doing. We just beat balls like crazy — especially drivers. It was pure fun. We were baseball players. We loved ripping drivers, trying to knock balls over the fence. After a while, we both began to get pretty good at it. I began to hit the ball straighter and really love golf. But we’d still never set foot on a golf course.”

One winter day, they showed up at Bethpage State Park’s renowned Black Course. This was years before the famous municipal course in Farmingdale, N.Y., was redesigned by Rees Jones to host the U.S. Opens of 2002 and 2009. “I’d never hit anything but a three-wood and a driver. Neither of us knew the rules. We just paid our money and teed off, and the starter suddenly came after us, pointing out that there was no playing out of the same bag. He was pretty upset, probably wondering why we’d been allowed on the course. So I took clubs out of the bag and gave them to Dan, shouldered the bag and off we went.”

A baseball scholarship to Fordham University materialized. Without it, college would probably not have been an option. He had a blazing fastball, but he injured his back during his sophomore year and lost a lot of pop. His baseball career was over. “Golf, in a way, saved my life. I started playing again, and by the summer before I finished college, I was a scratch player.”

PC Magazine asked reps to make 25 cold calls a day. Nolan made 100. “I wasn’t as smart as the other kids, but I could outwork them.”

He was studying business communications but had no luck finding an internship, instead working summers as a roofer and helping his dad on electrical jobs. “My résumé was terrible after I got out. [He graduated in 1999.] I had no plans or even an idea where I should go. That’s what I meant about really being a real nobody.” He was embarrassed when a uniform company in the Bronx rejected him. “My friends were all getting jobs. I came home and hid out in my bedroom. I decided I would just get a job caddying and see where that took me.” A cousin who worked for Ziff Davis Publishing Inc. told him there might be a job opening selling classified ads for PC Magazine. “The tech world was booming, but I knew nothing about it. I went to interview with a man named Jason Sparks, who looked at me and asked, ‘So what are your personal goals?’ The question took me by surprise. I didn’t have any goals, I admitted. I’m a 22-year-old idiot, basically. He looks at me, shakes his head, and tells me: ‘Get out of here. I don’t want you on my team.’”

Halfway down the stairs, Nolan stopped in his tracks. “Something just hit me. I decided I couldn’t go home without a job. I went back and asked Jason Sparks to give me a day and I would come back and tell him my goals for the next 10 years. For some reason he agreed to let me do it. I came back and told him I wanted to get married, buy a house and join a golf club. Amazingly, he hired me.”

Nolan soon found himself in a bullpen with 25 others assigned to make 25 cold calls a day to potential customers. “I made up my mind to make at least 100 calls a day before I went home every night, however long it took. I wasn’t as smart as the other kids, but I knew I could outwork them. The more calls I made, the more meetings I got. I learned to stand and deliver. It was intense. But I learned a ton.”

His success landed him a sales territory in California. In 2001 he and his girlfriend Liisa moved back to New York, got married and bought a house — two checks off his list of goals. (He later joined Knickerbocker Country Club in Tenafly, N.J., to check off the third.) But he longed to work in his favorite pastime, so he pounced when he heard Golf World was looking for an ad director. He didn’t get the job, so he instead moved to New York-based AOL Time Warner Inc., selling ads for its This Old House home-renovation franchise. Then a job opened again at his favorite golf publication — and this time he got it. Six months later he was named Golf World’s associate publisher and in May 2005, publisher. He was 27, the youngest publisher in the history of Condé Nast Publishing, the Advance Publications Inc. subsidiary that owns Vogue, GQ and many other magazines. (Golf World is now an online-only newsletter.)

“This was an important time in my life,” he says. “Because I was the youngest guy in the room, I had to work doubly hard just to prove I deserved the job. I fixed problems and paid attention to the people who really seemed to care about what they did and the people who worked for them. I stayed seven years and loved my job, had some really great people to learn from at Condé Nast.” During his tenure, Golf World set sales records and earned numerous awards for excellence, Nolan says.

 

One of Golf World’s top clients was billionaire fashion designer Ralph Lauren, whose company would be Nolan’s next stop. Following the PGA Merchandise Show in 2009, Nolan was invited to play Seminole Golf Club, a top-ranked course in Juno Beach, Fla., with Lauren executives including then-Chief Operating Officer Roger Farah. “He’s the most impressive guy I ever met — so down-to-earth and yet incredibly smart and completely normal. He put me instantly at ease. Asked me what I thought of Polo Golf, and I told him I thought there was room for growth. He seemed to appreciate my honesty. When I got home, I wrote him a handwritten thank-you note — something I learned to do early on. Not long after this I got a call from [Ralph Lauren Corp. human resources executive] Mitch Kosh saying they were looking for someone to run Polo Golf and Tennis — was I interested?”

About this time, a book called The Way of the Shepherd found its way to Nolan. It’s a business parable by Kevin Leman and William Pentak that stresses seven ancient wisdoms that are crucial to enlightened corporate leadership. “It changed my life, brought everything I’d been learning into focus — in golf and business about how you treat the people you’re fortunate to lead.” The other gift, he says, was working with Lauren and Farah. “The most important conversations I ever had with them were not about business but about life, relationships, family. They love what they do for a living, and it shows in the quality of their products, the quality of the people who work for them, too. It was like going to Harvard Business School.”

After leading Polo’s golf-apparel business for four years, Nolan had a question that was nagging him. “I wasn’t looking to leave Polo. I had the perfect job, something I could never have envisioned a decade before. But I wondered whether I was successful because of golf or because I was really good at what I do. The only way to know for sure was to challenge myself and find out — to take what I’d learned, if you will, and do it on my own.”

Again, a golfing match changed Nolan’s life. He had kept up his game and regularly played in some of the most competitive U.S. amateur tournaments, including the Crump Cup amateur invitational at New Jersey’s exclusive Pine Valley Golf Club in 2009. He was paired with Patrick Duffy, president of McCarthy Capital, an Omaha, Neb.-based private-equity firm that manages more than $900 million. Three years later, the chance meeting led to Nolan’s request that McCarthy back his startup, Prospect Brands. The PE group invested an undisclosed amount in Nolan’s company, which is named after the Long Island street where he grew up. “We partnered with Tom because he has the passion, experience and vision to launch and grow these authentic brands,” Duffy says. He pointed Nolan to Gerbing, the Rockingham County company that makes apparel, including a $326 jacket with a battery-operated heating system popular with Harley- Davidson riders and sold through Cabela’s Inc. and other outlets. Nolan was dubious until he wore one of the jackets. In 2012, Prospect Brands bought the business, and Nolan moved his wife and three children — Grace, Luke and Cameron — to Greensboro, a city he had frequented on visits to Ralph Lauren’s distribution facility in High Point. “They loved being here almost instantly. Life was so much easier in North Carolina as opposed to Ridgewood [New Jersey]. Greensboro is the perfect size and had everything any of us could have wanted.”

His own orientation proved slightly more difficult — a parable straight from the pages of The Way of the Shepherd. “The first day I stepped into the Gerbing plant, I wondered what I’d gotten myself into. I was used to leading business teams. But here was a factory full of sewing machines, with guys who looked like my dad running them. They gave me an office, a closet by the bathroom. At Condé Nast, I had an office with a bathroom in it. I was terrified that I was finally in over my head.”

For the first time in his career, Nolan felt really uncomfortable. “I read The Way of the Shepherd every month and keep a shepherd’s staff and an Irish knobkerrie in my home office to remind me that success in business is really all about leading your people and making them wish to follow you.” He got to know the 30 Stoneville workers and took sewing lessons so he could understand their jobs. One of his first challenges came when he asked production manager Greg Ziglar to rank the company’s top performers. First on the list was a big fellow with a bad attitude. “The guy knocks on my tiny office door and comes in. He’s as big as the dude in The Green Mile. [A 1999 prison drama based on a Stephen King novel.] He sits down, and I think, ‘This guy could kill me with his bare hands in less than a minute.’ Being a leader means being able to do the really hard things, though. So I tell him his attitude just won’t work anymore. And guess what — he looks at me and breaks down and sobs like a baby. Nobody had every talked to him like this before. I’m as stunned as he is, but we keep talking, and by the time it’s over, he’s bro-hugging me and thanking me.” Green Mile man is now a floor supervisor. “And the best part,” Nolan says, “nobody will ever mess with me if he’s around.”

The conversation with his visitor ends out front of the new Duck Head retail store, where a restored 1966 Airstream trailer bearing the signature yellow emblem and a printed history of the company sits parked in the late winter dusk. It’s used for special events including retail openings across the region. Nolan expects Duck Head sales to increase by seven or eight times over the next year or two as it adds to the 50 stores that now sell the brand. Previous owners viewed the brand as a commodity, he says. “We’ll make sure we never sacrifice on product, on quality and on who we target. I think that’s different than in the past. We’re building a lifestyle here and a brand that will stand the test of time.

“I’ve always wanted one of these,” the CEO says of the Airstream. “It’s such a symbol of American values, isn’t it? Talk about authentic. The first place we took it was Pinehurst.” So it’s back to golf, after all is said and done. The game is near and dear to his heart. But now that heart is near and dear to where — and who — he wants to be. “When I think of how far I’ve come,” he says, “it sometimes feels like I’m just beginning.

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