David Hamilton | Crain's Houston

In this ongoing series, we ask executives, entrepreneurs and business leaders about mistakes that have shaped their business philosophy.

David Hamilton

Background:  

Hamilton Shirt Co. is the oldest business in Houston, founded by two brothers in 1883 to make custom dress shirts for men. It’s now run by two members of the fourth generation – David Hamilton, a onetime investment banking analyst at Lehman Brothers, and his sister Kelly – who together bought the company from their father in 2006. The two have more than doubled the company’s sales and boosted profitability by adding a more casual, ready-to-wear line and improving the company’s marketing and branding. The company's shirts are sold in its Houston storefront as well as in men’s specialty stores across the country, including Barneys New York, Stag in Texas and California, Pockets Menswear in Dallas, Satel’s in San Antonio and Johnstone in Austin. Customers include Texas icon Lyle Lovett, who collaborated with the company to create a Western line. Hamilton Shirt has sales of under $10 million and 50 employees, and continues to hand cut and sew its shirts in Houston, operating under the founders’ mantra, “Quality above all.”

The Mistake:

Saying yes to too many things.

You want to listen to the customer. You want to make the customer happy, so you chase ideas. Maybe we should be making knit shirts? Maybe we should open storefronts in other areas? Sometimes I would do it because I thought it’s what I should do, but sometimes it was because it was pleasing. But we weren’t fully aware of the opportunity cost or the economic cost. And it distracted us from our core business.

We sold our shirts to Neiman Marcus for a period of time. It seemed exciting because it was a big national retailer that had a lot of prestige. But we weren’t well-matched for each other. They became like a landlord. They had this beautiful store, but it was sort of a pay-to-play situation, where you had to educate their staff about the product and put a lot of marketing dollars behind it.

That went against our traditional model, which was to provide better quality materials and then rely on our retail partners to do the selling. They have relationships with their customers, their customers trust them, and in that way it works. After a couple of seasons, we decided it wasn’t working for either of us and we both walked away, no harm, no foul.

I feel more confident in saying no, and it’s not because I’m being lazy, as I thought it was in the past.

The Lesson:

You need to know what your core business is and where you make your money. Once you figure it out, you have to stick with it. You have to learn your business well enough that just because you know you can sell something, it doesn’t mean you should.

We get a lot of excited customers who have product ideas for us. Some have great ideas. But they take time away from other things you should focus on.

Sometimes a buyer will contact me from a major department store. In the past, I would get excited about that idea. Now, I feel more confident in saying no, and it’s not because I’m being lazy, as I thought it was in the past. Sometimes it’s the right thing to do to say no for your business.

Photo courtesy of David Hamilton

Follow Hamilton Shirts on Twitter at @HamiltonShirts.

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