In a story that's now enshrined in the company mythology, Hil Davis was reading The Warren Buffett Way on a plane about six years ago when he came upon a passage in which the legendary investor said that his best investment ever, dollar for dollar, was not Coca-Cola or American Express or Geico but the direct-sales kitchen-equipment company The Pampered Chef. In fact, Davis learned, Buffett owns several other direct-sales companies, under the umbrella group Scott Fetzer Companies.
"My first thought was, That makes no sense. Direct sales? That's a dirty word," Davis remembers. But Buffett was his hero, and Davis found himself preoccupied with figuring out what he had missed about the model. Davis, who talks in a high-speed mashup of business jargon and good-ol'-boy charm, was 33 at the time and working in investment banking as an equity researcher, a job that paid him the very handsome salary of $1.4 million. "I loved equity research," he says. "I loved the chess game, the math behind it." Partly, his deciding to examine direct sales in depth was just a way to channel his excess business geekery. It was a puzzle that demanded solving. But he was also restless.
Five years later, J.Hilburn is the single largest seller of men's custom dress shirts in the world. Shirts start at $89, and they're made from the same fabric as shirts from the Zegnas and Armanis of the world. Last year, Esquire named J.Hilburn the best custom shirtmaker. Since the company officially launched in 2007, it has expanded from dress shirts to custom men's suiting; ready-to-wear casual clothes; belts, ties, cufflinks, and other accessories; outerwear; and now formalwear.