Spencer Hays, a genteel Southerner who parlayed a career as a door-to-door Bible salesman into a multimillion-dollar men’s wear business, has died at the age of 80.
The cause of death was a brain aneurysm that he suffered in New York on Wednesday, according to a spokeswoman from Tom James, one of Hays’ companies. No services have been set at this time.
Hays, who split his time between New York and Nashville, was also the owner of Oxxford Clothes and Individualized Apparel Group and the executive chairman and majority owner of the Southwestern Company, a firm that recruits students to sell books and educational materials door-to-door.
A native of Oklahoma, Hays traveled to Nashville in 1959 during his freshman year at Texas Christian University as a salesman for the Southwestern Company. Hays joined the company full time after graduation, eventually becoming president and chief executive officer. Under his leadership, the business has grown to 12 companies under the umbrella of the Southwestern Family of Companies.
He took the skills he learned in direct selling to the men’s wear business in 1966, creating the Tom James Co. in Nashville. Tom James is credited with inventing the business of selling high-quality suits to men in their offices or homes.
As the business grew, Hays began buying suppliers and other custom-clothing companies. Today, his holdings include 16 companies including the Holland & Sherry Group as well as the high-end Oxxford Clothes brand.
Hays was also majority stockholder of Nashville-based Athlon Media Group, the publisher of Parade magazine and 93 other titles.
His philanthropy was well known. He was a trustee emeritus of TCU and a founder of the Schermerhorn Symphony Center. With his wife Marlene, Hays was an active supporter of the Frist Center and numerous other museums around the world. The couple cofounded the American Friends of the Musee d’Orsay in 2013 and last year, they donated 187 paintings from their collection of artwork to the museum. As a result of the donation, worth $380 million, the couple was named Commanders of the Legion of Honor by the French government.
In 2014, he donated $30 million to his alma mater, TCU, to expand the college’s Neeley School of Business.
Despite his wealth and stature, Hays remained humble and kind. He is quoted as saying: “A business is a reflection of the people in the business. You can’t build a business — you build people. People build a business.”
In revealing Hays’ death to the employees Thursday, Todd Browne, president and ceo of Tom James, said: “Spencer had an unwavering passion to provide opportunity for young people who wanted to better themselves through ‘setting high goals, having good self-talk and holding themselves accountable.’ You heard that phrase repeated in almost every conversation with Mr. Hays. He loved hearing of each of your successes, and how your life and your family’s lives were bettered by your career and opportunity at Tom James.
“In a recent conversation, Spencer shared with me that his greatest pride was turning Tom James over to each of us through the sharing of company ownership. My admiration, respect and love for this great man grew with each and every encounter; may the void in our lives be filled by fond memories, sincere appreciation and continuing his great legacy at Tom James.”
In addition to Marlene, his wife of 60 years, Hays is survived by his daughters Julie Gaglione and Mary Alice (Scott) Hughes, six grandchildren, two sisters and a number of nieces and nephews.
The company said donations in his name can be made to The Mary Moore Foundation, P.O. Box 305140, Nashville, TN, 37230; the American Friends of the Musee d’Orsay, c/o Bernie Duhaime, treasurer, 807 North 148th Street, Omaha, NE, 68154, or the United Way of Metropolitan Nashville, 250 Venture Circle, Nashville, TN, 37228. The Mary Moore Foundation was created by Hays, and named after his grandmother, to assist employees, and in some cases, their families, who are facing serious hardships.
Services will be held on Tuesday, March 7 at 1:00 p.m. Central Time at First Presbyterian Church on 4815 Franklin Pike in Nashville. A reception following the service will be held at The First Center for Visual arts at 919 Broadway. The service will also be live streamed at https://livestream.com/accounts/23747132.