J. Christopher Burch may be New York’s best example of entrepreneurial ADD. He has had a hand in launching more than 50 brands in his more than 35-year career as founder, owner, and investor in companies, including the fashion line by his ex-wife Tory Burch. He started his first business in college, selling Scottish sweaters to coeds. He grew that business from a $20,000 investment into a $120 million company, Eagle’s Eye. Over the years, Burch has invested in technology ventures, such as Jawbone and Powermat, and real estate development, such as the Faena Hotel + Universe, as well as companies that include Voss Water and Poppin office supplies.
Burch, now 59, says he is drawn to the creative process of building brands. But he’s also more than apt with logistics. Burch created 9 Kings, a full platform of sourcing services including product development, quality control, logistics, order management, and IT. With offices in Hong Kong, Dongguan (China), and Shanghai, 9 Kings manages direct supply chain relationships globally. Burch leverages 9 Kings to create the merchandise for several of his current retail businesses. It will also source for Burch’s upcoming launch of Cocoon9, a designer and manufacturer of prefabricated homes. These modern style homes will be built in panels in China, then shipped to the US for assembly.
Burch recently launched a retail chain and product line, C. Wonder, that carries apparel, accessories, and home décor. Since the flagship SoHo location opened its doors in 2011, Burch has opened eight more locations, and he plans to open between 20 and 30 more stores over the next 12 months. During this time, he also invested in launching designer (and girlfriend) Monika Chiang. In 2013, Burch has two more launches planned—No. 9 Christopher, an accessible lifestyle luxury brand; and Electric Love Army, a sportswear fashion line in partnership with Kelly Cutrone, founder of public relations firm People’s Revolution. Recently, executive editor Daria Meoli spoke with Burch about his ideal employee, why retirement is not on the agenda, and more.
Photograph by Giorgio Niro
Daria Meoli: You not only sourced the merchandise for C. Wonder overseas, but you also designed and manufactured the interior of the retail store in China. Why?
Christopher Burch: It was about a two-year period between the idea hitting my head and actually opening the doors to the store in New York City. We start the process by creating a video. The video was representative of what the brand would become. It was useful to keep the team aligned on the vision and for hiring key staff members. We then designed the product, executed on the video, and built the store concept in China. We all walked through it. We didn’t like it, and we rebuilt the whole store again. Once the design was right, the store was panelized and shipped over here, and then constructed in New York City. This saved on labor costs.
DM: Your plan for C. Wonder is to open 300 stores in six years. Why such aggressive growth?
CB: We’re very aggressive in our growth because when you spend so much time and money developing a concept you need to have multiple locations. Unlike a little boutique where we buy from other vendors, we actually create a new product, and in order for us to stay in business, we have to grow aggressively. But we won’t be a huge concept. We’ll be 300 stores worldwide, but that won’t be that big relative to other brands.
DM: Why was it the right time for you to start the product line and retail chain?
CB: I always go opposite direction of what’s happening culturally. When everyone’s running away, I run to it. So, when everyone’s nervous about opening stores, we’re opening nine new concepts. When everyone says don’t open retail, we open retail. When everyone says it’s time to expand, we actually will condense.
Photograph by Giorgio Niro
Getting a Taste of Success
DM: When did you start your first business?
CB: I grew up outside of Philadelphia, went away to prep school in New England, and ended up in Ithaca College. I wanted to make some money, so I started selling sweaters door-to-door to girls on college campuses. When I got out of college, I spent $20,000 with my brother, and we started to design sweaters. We made them in Scotland, put monograms on them, and sent them to girls. Those monograms became a preppy craze and we were really successful. We built that business to about $120 million, and I sold it in 1989. Then I got into the internet and technology business. I was involved with Jawbone and Jambox, Voss Water, and Faena Hotel, which we built in Buenos Aires. I either co-founded, founded, or invested in all of these businesses and then took the capital I earned from them to build new concepts.
DM: Why not take an early retirement after you sold Eagle’s Eye?
CB: I love what I do. I’m having so much fun and I feel so fortunate. It’s actually my job now to make other people pretty successful and pretty wealthy, and I enjoy it. It’s cool to create, and it’s actually as much fun as doing nothing. Sometimes I feel a little pushed, like I take on too much, but it’s not for my own internal ambition, it’s just because it’s so much fun. It’s not a boring business. I meet great entrepreneurs, and I know I’m going to be successful. You can only take on a project if you execute it flawlessly, so you can get the next project.
Daria Meoli is the Executive Editor at The New York Enterprise Report. She can be reached at email@example.com