Dave Smith's"aha moment" about the unmet need for big-men's clothing came at a Microsoft shareholders meeting at Safeco Field a few years ago when all attendees were given embroidered shirts to mark the occasion. But there wasn't one that would fit Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer's 3X size, Smith recalls, adding "It wasn't pretty."
Smith, who at the time worked for a company that provided promotional products for firms, including Microsoft, recalls that "we always had trouble finding 2X and larger products for customers."
Thus was born an idea for Smith, but it couldn't come to fruition until he met Doug Hill, who was making a presentation to Smith's boss at Staples Promotion and Smith recalls thinking: "this guy's a born salesman."
Conversations soon guided them, about four years ago, to go into the clothing business, where they both had long experience, and discussions led them to agree "big and tall (which they refer to as B and T) was wide open so we just started with it."
After a false start with a big-and-tall retail outlet in Seattle's Georgetown neighborhood, they launched Bentley BT, a Seattle-based online start-up that promotes its Bentley Performance Underwear with the tagline "we can CYA up to 8X."
Bentley BT is an 18-month-old company specializing in the design, production, and distribution of fashion underwear for big and tall consumers, a market they contend is ignored by most retailers who don't want big and talls "jamming into their dressing rooms or crowding up their aisles. So it's a big deal to these guys to be treated as something special."
It wasn't on a lark or for a laugh that they decided underwear would be the first product for Bentley BT, according to Hill, but rather on the basis of some market research that showed "underwear is a big problem for the big guy."
As for the general clothing market among big and talls, Smith says: "All you have to do is look at the statistics showing that over the past 20 years, people in the U.S. and other countries are getting bigger and taller to understand why we view this niche market as opportunity. And it's one with enormous growth and profit potential."
The domestic big-and-tall men's apparel business is estimated to be $16-$18 billion, and growing, with them men's underwear portion of that market estimated at more than $4.5 billion.
"Our target is to capture one-half of one percent of that market, which would be $24 million in sales," says Smith.
"We really think that we make the world's greatest underwear for our consumer so the next step would be to go right into t-shirts," Smith says. "Once we've developed trust on the part of this audience, we can do all kinds of clothing."
Hill started as a clothing salesman, moved to regional sales for a women's sportswear line and eventually joined what was then Seattle-based Brittania Jeans as Midwest region manager. When ex-Britannia execs started Generra Sportswear, he joined them in Los Angeles to start their West Coast Women's Division.
Smith and Hill first produced warmups "in very large sizes" for basketball players who were NIKE athletes and when other big-and-tall guys saw the warmups, "we were urged to offer them to a broader market," Smith recalls. "So we decided there was a niche play in providing fashion to that consumer audience."
In the short time they've been in business, they have distribution in about 30 specialty stores and their product has been featured on Amazon.com in the big-and-tall category. Plus Smith says they are in initial conversations with major retailers.
But they emphasize the importance of web sales by noting that 50 percent of all big-and-tall business is conducted on line and, says Hill, "50 percent of that is women buying for men."
Their average online transaction is for about $150, "so we have good margins," says Smith, who adds that "a lot of people who discover our site are afraid we won't be there next time so they order up to a dozen items."
And Smith, who has a 34-inch waist and says Hill has a 32 waist, emphasizes that whatever the size, from 32 to 70, "the price for the underwear is the same."
At this point Bentley BT is in its start-up phase, although they're already booking orders in the hundreds online.
Their underwear is made in China, but Smith says "we have the fabric and the sourcing to do them in Los Angeles."
While they'd like to zero in on athletes, they've already begun to target firemen, ," says Smith, recalling they once met a group of firemen in Chicago sitting in the summer heat as a lightning storm was going on and "once we told them we make underwear that could really help them in high heat situations, they were hooked."
"Our next offering will be to the troops," he adds. "My son was a spec ops medic and he knows firsthand what bad underwear can do when you are in the field."
As far as exit strategy, Smith says their marketing is aimed at "the disenfranchised customer, retailing's forgotten guy. Some company is going to say 'let's fold these guys into our operation.'"