Before I Got All I Have, I Lost All I Had

William Wilson ThinkingI’m a living success story. I have everything I need, and more than I dreamed of. Some would say I have it all.

But before I got all of this, I lost everything. Before William Wilson Clothing, I owned a residential framing company called Arka-Mex. We framed custom homes that were over 8,000 square feet. So you see, before I even knew it, God had me working in custom. Anyway, my construction company was very successful. I was playing 2 rounds of golf a day, 4 days a week, and I had plenty of cash. Things were good. Then 2008 hit, and the economy crashed. I had already been planning William Wilson Clothing, and had saved over $85,000.00 to launch it the right way. But when the market crashed, the bottom fell out fast.

One day, one of my employees called me and told me he couldn’t reach of the builder to order more lumber. I tried and couldn’t reach him either. So I drove up to their offices. No one was there. “No biggie”, I thought to myself. “Maybe they are having a company outing. I’ll try them tomorrow.” The next day, I drove to the office again; no one was there. I looked through the windows, and the computers are gone. Everything is gone. Without warning, notification or explanation. They just closed shop, without paying anyone. I obviously wasnt going to get paid. But I had 2 weeks payroll to cover. $$82,385 to be exact. What was I going to do? These guys had done everything I’d asked for the last 2 weeks, and they deserved to be paid. I only had one choice. I paid them out of my own pocket. I’d saved up $85,000.00 to start this company. But after paying every one, I had $2,616.00. Not to mention, a $1345 mortgage, utilities, gas and groceries to buy. I had no work to do. I had lost everything. I don’t come from a rich family, so I had no one to bail me out. I was stuck.

So-with the last money I had, I bought a website building program, printed some business cards, went to Panera Bread in Ballantyne Village and started planning William Wilson Clothing. I was there everyday from open to close, for weeks. Building my website, doing research, and meeting with everyone I could. I taught myself the clothing industry, PR, marketing, branding, sales, and infrastructure building. I couldn’t afford consultants, so I had to learn to do it myself. One day, my friend, former Carolina Panther, Al Wallace gave me the opportunity to make him 2 sport coats. This led to me making suits for Mike Minter. Over time, I began making suits for more and more celebrities and athletes. The brand started to grow. Since I was still new to the business, I figured I should work to my strength. I would focus first on selling to the black community. After all, these are “my people” right? I figured, white people didn’t know anything about me, but at least “my people” would give me a chance. Especially the ones that are always talking about “giving back to the community” and “supporting black business”. But that was not the case. Not by a long shot. I was doing some leadership consulting on the side to make ends meet, and had a nice little celebrity client list growing. Things were slowly turning around. I figured eventually “my people” would start buying from me. With the money I WAS making, I started reinvesting into the business; in hopes of growing. Then it happened again. For 2 months, I didn’t sell a single suit. Not one! I made NO money. Everything I had saved went to pay my bills. I was down to $13.77 in the bank. I had 2 choices. Get off my butt or sit on it. I made a decision. This was the last time I was going to have less in the bank than a 2 topping pizza costs.

So I got up. And I decided to take a chance and widen my net. I went to every networking event, business meeting, luncheon, or anything I could find where people wore suits. I couldn’t afford to keep living like I was. I passed out cards, shook hands and smiled in the daytime. And I prayed, worried and often cried myself to sleep at night. I couldn’t believe I was broke again! But I kept going. And things started to change.

White people started to hear about me. And they started to buy my suits. And they kept buying them. And they started sending me referrals. I know some of my black brothers and sisters may not like that I pointed that out, but it’s the truth. I have to give credit where it is due. God blesses us how He sees fit; not how we expect Him to. I thought selling to “my people” would be easy. Especially after I started to get some brand recognition. But that didn’t happen. That’s not to say that I didn’t have ANY black clients. I did. But the data spoke volumes. Less than 5% of my black clients were non-athletes. My bills were being paid by white people. To this day, that is still the case. Less than 10% of my black clients are non-athletes. And I appreciate them JUST as much as I appreciate the rest of my clients. No more-no less.

Anyway, my bank account started to grow. And I began to sleep better at night. I kept selling more suits. I began to get more press, more social media presence, and more speaking engagements. I built some strong strategic partnerships, and became a philanthropist. Life had finally  started getting better. I woke up one day, and I realized, I was living the exact life I was hoping for, when I moved to Charlotte. I have not reached the top, but I can honestly say, I have everything I need. A healthy relationship with God (though I could do much better), great friends that love and support me, respect in the community, my family is healthy, and the ability to eat bologna and Ramen noodles by choice, not by circumstance. I have everything I want. But before I got here, I lost everything I had. There is nothing special about me. There’s nothing I did, that you can’t do. Just don’t give up. And don’t think outside the box. Use the box to store memories while you build a better life for yourself.

5 thoughts on “Before I Got All I Have, I Lost All I Had

  1. William,
    Every time I think about giving up, I get one of your blog posts in my email. This one really got me. I have been in business four years now, and to say it has been tough would be putting it lightly. But we keep going. Just when I am thinking about throwing in the towel I get blessed. Last month our furnace went out, my mom had a stroke, and business was super slow. Then this month I’m busy. It has been a roller coaster. I could say more but suffice it to say that I have been at “pizza status” many times and may be there again soon! lol But you give me hope. You are probably unaware but you are an inspiration to me because you are smart, you have a huge heart, and you always persevere. And you open yourself so that people can see who you are on the inside. I hope to be an inspiration like that myself to someone. Who knew that this sweet friend to my husband (who took time out of his busy schedule to help us move 12 years ago after my surgery), would end up becoming one of the most accomplished businessmen in Charlotte?! Thank you so much for this post. I so needed it. I’ll be watching you!<3

    -Stacie Towe

  2. Mr. Wilson,

    This was an interesting read, but I believe you should have commented on the flawed strategy of aiming his business at a single group, rather than incorporating the message that “blacks do not support my business, but white people are great to me!”

    I happen to know a bit about the custom clothing business, since I have been buying custom clothing for 25+ years …and happen to be African-American.

    First, the market for making custom suits for athletes/celebrities is extremely crowded, as I am sure you learned during your research. Athletes/celebrities are bombarded directly (or through their fellow athletes and celebrities) by individuals with the same modus operandi you are following — they that want to make a suit for one athlete/celebrity with the hope the athlete/celebrity will like the product and convince others in his/her circle to do the same. I am sure you are well aware of the army of entrepreneurs with the ambition of making suits, pants and shirts for Panthers, Hornets, T.D. Jakes, Tiger Woods, Pat Ewing, Charles Barkley, D, Wade, Lebron James, Kenny Smith, etc… I personally know a number of entrepreneurs that abandoned the athlete/celebrity space, because of the craziness of the market (i.e. athletes/celebrities routinely asking for free suits, pants and shirts for themselves and their entourage in exchange for their referral) and the extreme competition. Without doubt, you are aware of your peers in the athlete/ celebrity space that employ an army of scantily clad ladies as their sales team.

    Second, custom clothing options for executives,business people and others is plentiful, and the space has been crippled with the move to more casual work attire, extreme competition, and ecommerce. A few tidbits on the Charlotte market that I am sure you are aware of. Esquire, a popular clothing store frequented by NBA and NFL players, closed in December 2012. The owners – who I knew well – cited in a Charlotte Business Journal article that the closing was prompted by changing fashions, sluggish economy and the fact that “men are not dressing as much”. Old Dog Clothing, a merchant with a long history in the Charlotte custom clothing space, downsized from their Phillips Place location and is now serving existing clients on an appointment basis. The owner of Old Dog (Doug) would tell you he was affected by the same things that led to Esquire’s closing. Bruce Julian Clothier, another merchant with a long history in the Charlotte custom clothing space, is currently moving back to the SouthPark area. His shop has been in the Arboretum shopping center for the last 14 years. Bruce has also been affected by the same conditions that led Esquire to close. Taylor, Richards and Conger, one of the premier custom clothing merchants in the Southeast, has been less affected than others because of their high-end clientele. Paul Simon and Tom James have long operated in the custom clothing space, although their styling would not appeal to the majority of Mr. Wilson’s clientele. Belk’s, Nordstrom and Neiman Marcus have very good custom clothing programs. Nordstrom has a wide range of price points, while Neiman Marcus (as expected) is more for the high-end clientele. Former NBA player Kevin Willis has a fine store in Atlanta and a fashion line that is now in Saks. I could devote a book to Atlanta options.

    I have purchased custom suits from several places, primarily to diversify patterns and style. The bulk of my business, however, has been with one merchant because of my satisfaction with their service and price points. With the move to business casual, I don’t have a need for suits, pants and shirts at the top end of the price scale. The preferred merchant also has my current measurements, which makes it easy to simply pick fabric, style options, and wait for my clothing to arrive.

    In closing, it is a major flaw for any aspiring African-American business owners to assume they can structure their business around African-American consumers. This generally does not work. Additionally, why anyone would want to narrowly center their clothing, catering, cupcake, car repair, restaurant, etc. at a single consumer group? Discuss these points, rather than talking about the difficulty of selling to “your people”.

    I do intend to your shop – not because I feel compelled to transact with a ‘brotha’ – but because I continue to look for opportunity to expand my fashion.

    • Let me first say, thank you for reading my blog, and taking the time to respond in such a clear, defines and respectful manner. I really appreciate it. However, your premises on a few things are flawed. So I would like to take the time to clarify them.

      First, you mentioned the “flawed strategy of aiming his business at a single group”. You went on to discuss the difficulties in working with celebrities. Let me be clear on 2 things. Athletes and celebrities have never been, and will never be, my target market. My target market is business people. Id’ rather have clients that work in the Bank of America Corporate Center, than ones that play at Bank of America stadium. Not because I think one is a better group of people. But it’s numbers. The guys in BOACC wear suits everyday, as do their colleagues. The guys at BOAS wear them for events and road trips. One has a consistent need. The other doesn’t.

      Second, though I fully agree with you on the difficulty of getting your foot in the door with athletes, I can fortunately say, that is not my issue. I have never really had a problem gaining athletes/ celebrities as clients. In fact, I’ve been blessed to be sought out by about as many as I have pursued. I think this is mostly because of a policy I bring to my clients that most of the clothing places you mentioned don’t. I befriend my clients. I speak to them. We golf together. We go to lunch together. We communicate about things other than suits. So we form a personal relationship outside of buying clothing. And I am FULLY aware of the company you mentioned that employs the services of scantily clad ladies. That is not only distasteful, but an insult to the profession.

      I am also aware of all the businesses you mentioned, and their issues. You are correct on all of them. That’s why I have chosen to operate on a model that doesn’t require me to carry $1000s in inventory, and to need tons of space. I keep my overhead low. and have just enough room to provide a unique level of service, while sticking to the core fundamentals of my brand. I also cover a variety of price points that fit every socio-economic group of suit wearer.

      Also, I absolutely could not agree with you more that it is a MAJOR flaw for African-American business owners to build their structure around the African-American community. That isn’t what I did. I was trying to build a broad, diverse customer base. I wrongly assumed that I could at least START in my community. Something I was COMPLETELY wrong in doing. But it was never my strategy to build my business model based on them. If I gave you that impression, I apologize for the confusion and my lack of clarity.

      I am impressed with your knowledge of the custom clothing industry. I look forward to working with you one day. Who knows, I may be the last new clothier you seek. 🙂 That is my goal anyway.

      Thank you again for reading the blog. Have a great day, and as always. God bless and dress well.
      William Wilson

      • William

        I appreciate your response. Your point about assuming you could at least START your business in your community is an important clarification. I failed to acknowledge that the QcityMetro site was my introduction to your business.

        I do appreciate your response, and am now even more motivated to stop by.

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