You will find the headquarters of American Eagle Imagewear on a Hilton Head Island street lined with live oaks draped in Spanish moss. Universal Unilink member Jim Sanford relates that most of the local residents would have no idea what goes on here. “We don’t even have a name or logo on the door. You would never know by looking at it but behind that door is a multi-million dollar business.”
American Eagle’s intentionally low-profile in the local Hilton Head area allows them to have a singular focus on national and international clients. American Eagle maintains an industry-wide reputation for delivering high-quality, unique and complete apparel programs with a strong focus on client customization and customer service.
As a Naval Officer stationed at the Pentagon, using his military background, Jim experimented with designing Desert Shield and Desert Storm t-shirts in his spare time which achieved noteworthy success. After resigning from active duty in 1992, he married and started American Eagle Imagewear in Macon, Georgia and soon moved the company to Atlanta where many of his subcontractors are located.
Initially the company offered screen printing and graphic design t-shirts but Jim made the decision to let the market show them what it needed. It turns out that custom designed uniforms and corporate apparel had the greatest demand and providing this allowed Jim to grow a list of corporate customers and the local, state and federal government clients that he serves today.
American Eagle often uses off-the-shelf shirts and pants and adds to them with embroidery, screen printing and other embellishments to make something completely unique for the customer. Sometimes the unique customization extends to fabric choices and combinations that the customer may not have seen before. Jim is able to work with Universal Unilink Preferred Suppliers to get these custom products but also works directly with offshore garment producers for some of the larger clients with multi-year contracts.
“Apparel is a common commodity business. Virtually any company can provide cookie-cutter, off-the-shelf type garments and embellishment. What differentiates a good supplier from a great supplier is to provide the end user with a unique line of apparel that fits what they want, what they need and maybe, just maybe, what they never had previously imagined or thought feasible and affordable.” That gives the client a unique look in their market and in turn gives Jim repeat business as the provider of that unique product.
American Eagle Imagewear grew quickly in Atlanta and a few years later the company moved to Hilton Head South Carolina so that Jim could be closer to family. “With this business model and spider-web of great suppliers throughout the Southeast, I could run this company from Fargo, North Dakota, but Fargo is too cold. Why not base the operation in a great location?”
Hilton Head became the company’s corporate headquarters focusing on marketing, fulfillment and distribution with most production work remaining off-site. They maintain a sophisticated just-in-time production and inventory system in the Hilton Head area with $500,000 worth of client-based inventory. Every order is triple-checked before being shipped to maintain order accuracy and high quality standards. Though the triple-check may seem redundant, Scott Taylor, Warehouse Manager relates “Getting it right the first time and every time is actually easier and more cost-effective in the long run
That pursuit of quality and being customer-centric has paid off. The majority of his customers have been with him for over 15 years and he continually works to understand their evolving needs. Jim puts his University of South Carolina MBA in Finance to good use by intently studying his customers’ annual reports, press releases and other publicly available financial and general information. It is his goal to know more about the inner workings of the organization, their budget and their needs than the buying agent may know. “If you understand exactly what they do, you can make suggestions that will significantly help them while staying within their budget.”
That market research also applies to customer acquisition. Jim’s company does no advertising. He and his staff decide who they want as customers and investigate if they will be a good fit. While they don’t win over every prospect they seek out, Jim is always looking to expand the types of clients they serve. Much like a diversified stock portfolio, keeping clients in many different business and government sectors evens out any bumps in economic downturns.
If a partnership looks promising, they offer the prospect better designed uniforms or apparel for the same or less than they were previously paying. Often they will suggest a client try a better quality item that may be a few dollars more but will not need to be replaced as often. This can be difficult with some of the government clients that are used to buying only by looking at unit cost instead of the overall annual cost of the program.
Because they are so involved in the client’s business operations that go far beyond the supplying of apparel, Jim and his multi-faceted staff began being asked to provide business consulting services to a number of their clients. While specializing in employee satisfaction, minimizing overhead costs and most-importantly, reducing shipping and fulfillment costs, American Eagle’s DFS division allows clients to increase revenue and streamline their shipping process. This consultation greatly enhances the long-term partnership and is a fast-growing segment of American Eagle Imagewear’s portfolio of services.”
Jim and his staff work long hours building business relationships with vendors and clients. Bob Sanford said “Jim’s focus has always been on the relationship, not the sale. Business will take care of itself. What you do with the relationship is everything.”
Jim points to a sign on his office wall that reads “At the end of the day, the only thing that matters is how good a husband and dad you are.” In 2003 and 2005, Jim and his wife adopted two girls from China. Now 10 and 11, it is evident from the abundant pieces of their artwork, awards and pictures decorating his office that his family holds the top spot on Jim’s priority list. Jim’s attention to quality products and services, partnerships with quality vendors and seeking quality clients has made it possible to enjoy some quality time with family in Hilton Head, South Carolina.