A chance meeting in 1979 at a tradeshow in Anaheim, California, led to TEE JAYS becoming one of the most recognisable printwear brands in Europe today. P&P editor Melanie Attlesey spoke with Peter Hofler, CEO of Tee Jays, to find out more about the brand’s rich history and exciting future.
To provide you with an accurate idea of how the Tee Jays brand came to be, we need to start at the beginning.
TEE JAYS was founded in 1976 by Terry Wylie and his partner Jim in Florence, Alabama, which explains the origin of the name. Jim left the business after a few years, but Terry continued on to pursue his dream of creating high quality printable garments and custom made products.
It was on a sunny day in 1979 that Peter’s father George and Terry met for the first time. George was attending a tradeshow in California and while walking past the TEE JAYS stand, a man remarked that he liked the smell of his pipe – that man was Terry. This chance meeting sparked a lifelong friendship between the two men.
At the time of this meeting George owned a wholesale business in Denmark with his wife Lone called LG Sportswear. George was so impressed by the quality of TEE JAYS’ offering that he was keen to bring Tee Jays to Europe. After meeting with Terry again in Florence to discuss options, the first shipment of Sof-Tee heavyweight T shirts made its way to Europe.
The following year, after doing such a fantastic job of selling this tee into high-end retail stores in Europe and setting up the first distributors, George was hired as the European sales director for TEE JAYS – a job he did for more than 20 years.
This is where Peter picks up the story.
TEE JAYS in Europe
At the tender age of 18, he was asked by his father if he would like to go to America to spend some time with Terry and his team learning the production side of the business; everything from knitting and dying to sewing and screen printing.
“I had always been fascinated by what my father did, so I jumped at the opportunity. It was a fantastic 24 months. I couldn’t ask for better learning,” Peter explains.
Peter then returned to Denmark full of ideas and joined the business, focusing primarily on sales and purchasing. It was around this time that George began talking about producing garments in the Far East because due to the nature of the business, production in America was becoming expensive.
After seeking approval from Terry, George organised for the first Tee Jays T shirt to be manufactured outside of the US in 1995. The basic tee was produced at a specialised factory in Bangladesh and distributed widely across Europe.
George and Peter continued purchasing the Sof-Tee, sweats and polos from Terry until 2001, when they got the news that he was selling the business. At its peak Tee Jays employed 4,000 people and had 20 shipping and production plants in the Florence area. At the time George and Peter were trying to establish TEE JAYS Europe as a multi-brand distributor in Scandinavia, distributing well-known brands such as OuterBanks, Result, Hanes and Stedman together with a limited TEE JAYS collection, but their numbers were bleeding and both men knew this wasn’t the direction they wanted to take the business in.
“After Terry closed operations we no longer had the rights to sell TEE JAYS in Europe. My daddy turned to me and said, ‘it’s your future, I’m 55, what do you want to do?’ I knew I wanted to build a quality brand that was high end, with the best fitting and the best fabrics. And that’s what we started at that point,” explains Peter.
So, in 2003 TEE JAYS Europe became the company you will recognise today. The plan was simple – to focus 100% on building the TEE JAYS brand in Europe.
DNA and values
Today, TEE JAYS is 100% owned by Peter. The DNA and values that were instilled in the business way back in 1976 are still present today. A word is a word and even one of the original products – the Sof-Tee – is still in the current collection, albeit refined.
In the beginning the TEE JAYS’ range was quite basic – a T shirt, a polo shirt and a sweatshirt. The TEE JAYS you know today has taken this DNA and limited product collection, but given it a Scandinavian, modern, mindset.
Peter explains that it is the quality of the product and the minimalistic design that makes TEE JAYS stand out above other brands in the current printwear market. “We are a premium brand and you get what you pay for – that’s the way it is.When buying a polo shirt or a T shirt you can see the difference in quality when you wash it and wear it. That’s when you buy another one, because it’s the best shirt you have ever worn,” he says.
Product development is a key part of the business and the upcoming 2019 range is no exception. A new high quality shirt collection is being introduced into the portfolio next year, which the design team has spent the last two years developing. This range will have 150 SKUs. Peter says: “Getting the design and fabrics right is the foundation of our business.”
UK customers will be able to get their hands on this new garment next year through, not only BTC activewear which has distributed Tee Jays’ products since 2015, but new distributor PenCarrie. In addition to this, visitors to Printwear & Promotion LIVE! in January will be able to view the new pieces and old favourites on Tee Jays’ stand.
Peter says: “The feedback we get from UK customers is fantastic. They love the Scandinavian feel and the minimalistic design. It is something the market has been waiting for. Sales have been increasing year by year by year since we started distribution in the UK and across Europe. We believe extending our distribution and availability in the UK is the right thing for Tee Jays and the right thing to do for the UK.”
But what does the future hold for Tee Jays? Two years ago, Tee Jays opened a new 60,000sq ft logistics and distribution centre in Svenstrup, Denmark. Peter says he has just submitted drawings for the centre to double in size. “We have invested a lot of money in the distribution centre to secure our product availability for customers. You need to have the product on the ground to supply your customers,” he adds.
Not only this, but Peter has plans to double the size of the business within the next five years. In 2015, Peter acquired the rights to distribute and sell Tee Jays in North America. With no immediate plans to expand overseas, the first orders have already been shipped to selected US customers.
Peter is clearly very passionate about what he does and this passion comes through when you speak to him about any aspect of Tee Jays.
“I don’t have a job – I have a passion,” he says. “This is my life. My private life and my business life are totally moulded together. I love to be with my colleagues and my good customers as much as I do with my best friends and family. For me this is not work, it is a hobby – a very serious hobby!”
And what about Terry? “He is our family and our family is his family. We still keep in touch. There is a tight bond that will always remain.”
It is this tight bond that has helped to shape Tee Jays into the successful brand it is today.