For Bill Sweedler, running a private equity firm and racing cars have a lot in common.
“To succeed at the highest levels in business requires the same attributes as in racing: it takes preparation, teamwork, an incredible amount of effort and not giving up,” he said.
And over the course of his career, Sweedler, managing partner of Tengram Capital Partners and an award-winning sports car driver, has proven that to be true.
His consumer products-skewed private equity firm owns brands in a variety of industries ranging from fitness and food to fashion, everything from Robert Graham and Luciano Barbera to Emeril Lagasse, Martha Stewart and Linens ‘n Things.
Sweedler grew up in the fashion business. And while he originally hoped his love of fast cars would be his life’s path, he realized that he needed a real job before indulging that passion. He started with Polo Ralph Lauren before creating a successful private label manufacturing firm. That led to the creation of Tengram in 2011.
His success in finance has allowed him the time and resources to fulfill his love for racing cars, and Sweedler has won several prestigous events including the 24 hours of Lemond, 24 hours of Daytona, 12 hours of Seabring and the International Motor Sports Association’s North American championship.
WWD: How did you get started in the business?
Bill Sweedler: My father worked for Embassy Shirts, then Hathaway and then was president of Gant. It is definitely in the blood. And racing is in the blood, too. My father has been an avid horseman his whole life and while he focused on single horsepower, I focus on hundreds of horsepower. That’s the difference.
WWD: How did you get into racing? Is it something you’ve done your whole life?
B.S.: From when I was a young kid, I loved fast cars and racing. I used to go to any race I could and always dreamed of being able to actually race. I went through the early ladder series of trying to become a race car driver for a living but I got married very young and I realized very quickly I wasn’t going to be able to support myself or my wife or pay for a mortgage by racing, so I joined Polo. That was 1989 or ’90, the Peter Strom days.
WWD: How did you make the transition into private equity?
B.S.: When I left Polo, my father was in the process of retiring and I said to him: “With all my 3 ½ years of experience and your lifetime of experience, let’s start a business.” So we went into the private label business and started manufacturing for Tommy Hilfiger and a lot of the department stores: Dillard’s was a big customer at the time. One thing led to another and we started licensing brands. And from licensing brands, we ended up buying brands and the business grew exponentially.
WWD: What were some of your brands?
B.S.: One of the big brands was Joe Boxer. I recognized very quickly that other than payroll, the only expense we had was royalty. So I thought: this could be a great business to be in — owning a brand and collecting royalty. When Nick Graham, who had created Joe Boxer, ran into some operational issues, we ended up investing in the business and converting it into a full-licensing model. That was my indoctrination into licensing and I realized that was something I wanted to focus on. We grew from zero to $250 million in volume in 10 years’ time.
WWD: When did you create Tengram?
B.S.: In 2006, I started investing in different brands: my capital as well as a good friend of mine. He was the founder of Starwood Hotels so we invested together in several transactions and that’s where I met my partner in this business, Matt Eby. We formed Tengram in 2011. So today, we invest in purely consumer brands: apparel, home furnishings, beauty, personal care, sporting goods, food, beverage — anything across the consumer platform. We invest in brands that consumers are passionate about. That’s where we focus our efforts.
WWD: How do you dress now for work and how is it different than five years ago?
B.S.: I think my personal style has been casual yet dressy for the past several years. It’s been a while since I’ve shown up in a suit every day. I’m very comfortable in most circumstances with a sport jacket, a layered look in the winter and something a little comfortable in the summer.
WWD: Even though you’re in the financial business, you still don’t feel the need to wear a suit?
B.S.: My reputation in fund-raising has been a little bit of a joke with our limited partners. When they see me put a tie on, they get worried a bit. I do wear ties — frankly a tie is a fashion statement today so I think the days are gone where you need to have a full suit and tie when you walk into a room. A man can be just as put together without a tie and command a presence and do it in a nicely tailored look. That’s the difference between 10 years ago and now. There’s a tidal wave of people wanting to look good and take care of themselves today. They’re much more knowledgeable about what to eat, how to exercise, they want to live a better life as long as they can and that plays into how people dress.
WWD: Do you find other people in your field are dressing more casually?
B.S.: Private equity has always had a traditional suit-and-tie bent, but as the business has evolved over the last 15-20 years, there are firms like ours that focus specifically on consumer and we’re very comfortable in the products we invest in. So I have Zanella pants on, a Robert Graham shirt, a Luciano Barbera sport jacket. And Tommie Copper underwear. We’re very proud to wear the things that we invest in. It may be pushing it when it comes to blush and different things, but…
WWD: Do you invest in brands that you like personally?
B.S.: You’ve got to take your personal taste out of it. When I say consumers are passionate about a brand, it may be consumers that are unlike me. Some appeal to me and some don’t. But the most important thing is that it appeals to a segment of an audience.
WWD: Do you follow fashion trends or prefer to stay true to your own personal style?
B.S.: I’m traditional with a twist. There are certain other brands that I do like. I love James Perse, the simplicity and the quality of the fabrics. But I love finding new, young brands to wear too. I’m always on the lookout. I wear Hudson Jeans, they’re the best-fitting brand of jeans, bar none. Now, we do own it, and we also own Joe’s but that’s my weekend brand, comfortable and a little more casual. Hudson I wear during the week because they’re very dressy. I like the fit for work.
WWD: What’s your favorite purchase of the last few months and why?
B.S.: In fashion, it would be sneakers. I wear them a lot. I got a pair of Tom Ford sneakers on Gilt. I am a closet Gilt guy.
WWD: Do you have any guilty pleasures beyond shopping at Gilt?
B.S.: Red wine and a good mezcal.
WWD: Do you own that too?
B.S.: Yes, we own a mezcal company.
WWD: You can’t wear fashion when you race, right?
B.S.: No, you’re in a fire suit and fireproof underwear.
WWD: When you’re around the racing world, do you have a different persona?
B.S.: My Twitter handle is “consumer investor during the week, professional racer on the weekend.”
WWD: Do you like watches?
B.S.: I don’t wear watches anymore — I love my Fitbit. It gives me amazing data. I’m embarrassed to tell you how many watches I have. Once in a while I’ll put one on but you know the one I put on most of the time, even though I have much nicer ones? A Rolex Daytona that I won that says Winner 2014 because other than the trophy, the most prestigious thing in racing is to win a watch from the 24 hours of Daytona. I won one other Rolex for a championship and I want to win one more because I have three kids, that’s the goal.