Changing along with the industry
David Perry -- Casual Living, May 1, 2008
When representatives from Tommy Bahama contacted Bill Echols in 2005, both Echols and the lifestyle brand were at a critical juncture. Echols had just left Brown Jordan International to launch his sales management company, Outdoor Experience.
Tommy Bahama also had just ended its relationship with BJI, a process negotiated by Echols as one of his last responsibilities there. The company now wanted his help in finding a new partner to launch its outdoor furniture line.
“They say everything happens for a reason, and I guess in my case this happened for a reason,” Echols said.
Echols hadn’t been sure what direction he wanted for Outdoor Experience when Tommy Bahama contacted him. He believed there was a need in the industry for a sales management company that could help small companies enter the marketplace, and that perhaps he could take on four or five of them and handle all of the work himself. His work with Tommy Bahama soon changed his business model.
After spending a couple of months exploring potential partners for the brand, he kept coming back to the same conclusion: A license agreement with a brand manufacturer was settling for second place as any manufacturer would naturally put its own brand first.
“That’s when Tommy Bahama asked me if they could go to market themselves and control their own destiny,” Echols said.
Tommy Bahama became Outdoor Experience’s principle client and, at least initially, Echols’ primary focus. He guided everything from product development and quality assurance to marketing and sales.
Over time, as the Tommy Bahama brand became established and Echols hired a staff of three, Outdoor Experience’s business model shifted again.
“Originally, I really didn’t want to get back into having more to manage than what I could personally put my hands on, but the demand and the opportunity has been so great that the company keeps evolving. I now have a much more strategic role and don’t manage sales on a day-to-day basis,” he said, adding he doesn’t expect the company to grow much bigger. “Now, we may grow with our current clientele, but we are not aggressively seeking new partners.”
An entrepreneurial passion
Echols started in the outdoor industry in the early 1990s with Samsonite. After serving as its president, he went on to become president of Kettler North America, and from there to WinsLoew Furniture. After WinsLoew purchased BJI in 2001, Echols served in several positions including BJI’s corporate vice president of sales and marketing, and president of the specialty retail and outdoor contract division.
After leaving BJI, Echols was ready for a big change. “I had worked for large companies all of my life, and at that point, I just had a desire to do something else,” Echols said. “I love outdoor furniture, but I don’t necessarily enjoy the corporate structure.”
His work with Outdoor Experience has been everything he hoped for. “No one I’m working with today has 'me too’ products,” Echols said. “They are all distinctive and the vision of their creator.
“Many of the people we work with are entrepreneurs who have an idea but don’t know how to get it to market,” he said. “Their ideas and furniture designs are like their children — they are fiercely passionate about them.”
Echols is as passionate about the outdoor furniture industry as his clients are about their new products. Now that his company is stable, his latest expression of his passion is the new International Casual Furnishings Association. Echols serves on the executive board and has spent the last several months helping the new association get off the ground.
“I really believe that it is going to be something that will help the industry grow and protect our channel of distribution,” he said.
Echols is most excited about bringing everyone — manufacturers, dealers and reps — to the same table.
“Under the old structure, we as manufacturers would sit there and talk about issues and how we thought the dealers felt about them. It never seemed right to me that in an industry as small as ours, we couldn’t have the dealers there personally telling us how they thought,” he said. “I think this will bring a more cohesive channel of distribution, because I think we will be able to work more closely together without giving any advantage to any particular manufacturer or dealer. There are certain things we need to do that will help everyone be more successful.”
Having the reps at the table gives them a voice for the first time and an opportunity for the industry to hear and address their concerns as well, he said. Echols foresees ICFA will lead to better training for the reps, helping them better meet their dealers’ expectations.
A family affair
His passion for the industry fuels Echols’ leadership style, which manifests as a direct and honest assessment of whatever is at hand.
“Probably the majority of the time I spend talking to dealers is not spent talking about product,” he said. “It’s spent talking about the industry and where we are. The word is overused, but I really do try and be a partner with the dealers I work with.”
Echols strongly believes dealers need to cater to the upper end of the market.
“If we are totally honest, the products that the mass market is selling now are great products at a great value. But what they don’t provide is selection and choice,” he said. “Those dealers who have decided their customer is the high-end customer are the ones who are really successful. We have some outstanding business people in the industry who have changed as they’ve seen the market change.”
While he admires business savvy, Echols says it is the general warmth and caring of those in the industry that make it a great fit for him.
The industry is also a family affair for Echols. His son, Bryan Echols, is a rep for Lloyd/Flanders; his son-in-law, Scott Carr, a rep for Tropitone; and his stepdaughter’s husband, Jim Toker, a rep for Tommy Bahama. Not only does that result in too many conversations about outdoor furniture during the holidays, it also gives him a personal motivation to help the industry succeed.
“I have grandchildren who need to go to college,” Echols said with a laugh.