As many other garment companies have gone out of business or sent most of their jobs overseas, Bills Khakis seems to have found a niche and been a national success through the recession and recovery.
It’s a modern day triumph for a business based in a renovated warehouse in Reading.
“We’re a 23-year-old company – 1990 was our first year,” owner Bill Thomas said. “I personally started on my own from scratch. I didn’t start in a family business that had a factory.”
Thomas did it the old-fashioned way – hard work, quality products and a dream – a vision for his brand that includes a slice of Americana with staying power and lasting value that is relevant. He still answers the phone himself and takes the time to approve the final fabric for all of his apparel.
But it isn’t always easy.
“Managing any business is a challenge. Managing growth is a challenge,” Thomas said. “We have a really great team here – an amazing staff – people whose skills compliment each other.”
Having grown up in Berks County, Thomas quit his job in advertising in Chicago and ran his new business in a building on Court Street in Downtown Reading from 1990-97. It then moved to its present location on Canal Street in South Reading, recently expanding there in anticipation of growth as the economy strengthens.
“He was selling khaki slacks from the trunk of his vehicle to get started,” said Jon C. Scott, president and CEO of the Greater Reading Economic Partnership. “Not only did he have a great vision, but there was a lot of hard work to get started.”
To that, Thomas adds an efficient organization ready to grow by placing people where their natural abilities can blossom.
“The idea was to create a company that was based around a very sort of basic, but premium pair of khakis,” Thomas said. “That product, as I saw it, was sort of metaphorically representative of a small and unforgotten piece of Americana – a simple product that has great roots to it.
“It’s really a sort of American ideal – an American sensibility,” Thomas said. “So if you’re going to go out and try to make that, where else would you make it?”
By establishing a brand of quality rather than quantity and focusing on generations that settled and built the nation, Thomas has found a niche that seems to transcend financial class distinctions.
“Bill and his team with John Dever as president and John Dever Jr., who oversees marketing, have done a masterful job,” Scott said. “They have expanded well beyond just khakis, but that is what they are most known for. By sheer coincidence, I’m wearing Bill’s [khakis] right now.”
The privately held company now sells hundreds of casual wear items that include pants, jeans, shirts, shorts, sweaters, knits, sport coats, outerwear and accessories. Some items are modern and some very traditional, with production methods ranging from state-of-the-art manufacturing to a single, Amish belt-maker.
According to www.salesgenie.com, the company had $4.2 million in revenue in 2012.
“The idea was never to compete on price. The idea was never to say we’ve got to make them cheaper than the next guy,” Thomas said. “We’ve got to make them better than the next guy, and beyond that you’re competing on quality.
“I mean, everyone competes on quality to some extent and the uniqueness of the product if you’re able to capture that,” he added. “The brand story is compelling. Price is always important, but it doesn’t lead the way. It’s the right thing to do.”
Thomas is not against the concept of some companies manufacturing overseas, but he is particularly proud that his company is able to make his products in the United States, keeping jobs and services at home.
It all goes back to his vision to design, manufacture and market the best authentic American sportswear in the U.S., using khakis as a platform to realize that mission.
“I originally grew up in Wyomissing, and moved to Bernville, northwest of Reading,” Thomas said. “We have a lot of room to grow – we’re a small company.”
His company has about 30 employees at its Reading facility that houses its warehouse, sales, marketing, accounting and administrative teams, with most of the staff from Berks County.
“Many of our employees have been working here for a good portion of their professional life, and they’ve known each other for a long time,” Thomas said.
Thomas has high hopes for the future.
“It’s our hope and goal to see our brand reach its full potential,” he said. “We see ample room for growth in the future, and we hope to realize that growth in a manner that is consistent with our mission, vision and values.”
Following the Golden Rule helps, he said, by “running and operating the business in the manner that employees in the company are treated in the same manner that you would want to be treated.
“It’s akin to a football team,” Thomas said. “In any team, there are individuals with natural abilities and they want to be positioned to be the best that they can be … to be successful both from a career and personal standpoint.”
Thomas said that he is more of a brand manager with a focus on the creative execution of the vision of the brand.
“I felt like it was an idea that had staying power, would always be relevant, and we build something of lasting value, both in our product and as a company,” Thomas said. “The themes of the company are somewhat similar to the theme of the city.
“Reading is a working place that continues to work and survive. We choose to be in … Reading – we choose to make a product in the United States – because we think it’s the right thing to do.”