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Mike Wood (right), owner of Dogwood Black, sits with company investors Charles McDaniel (center) and John Tompkins.
BY CATHY JETT
With a few clicks of a mouse, Michael Wood customized a cotton dress shirt from collar size to cuff style, and then added a preppy bow tie.
The website for the fledgling company he runs from a small office in Westwood Office Park in Fredericksburg lets him see how the two look together in 3-D.
"Whenever you look at this, you're seeing within 98 percent accuracy what you're going to get in the mail," Wood said.
He's the CEO of Dogwood Black, which two local then-17-year-olds started last year. It began as James Adams' Commonwealth Governor's School research project, which longtime buddy Sam Thomas III urged him to turn into a business called Southern Ties.
Its specialty was bow ties, which Adams loves to wear. They made the first ones using a pattern they purchased at Hancock Fabrics and a sewing machine belonging to Sam Thomas' mother, Linda.
Both teens are now in college, and Adams has largely bowed out of the company. Wood, who joined it early on, has taken the business to the next level by lining up investors, sourcing high-end fabrics and finding manufacturers in the United States.
It debuted Saturday with its new name and high-tech website. Besides bow ties, the revamped company has expanded into regular ties and dress shirts. Seamstresses in Stafford County make some of the bow ties. For everything else, Dogwood Black uses manufacturers in Georgia, New York and New Jersey.
"We've spent the last year really figuring out the business," said Wood, whose previous business handled IT for health care systems. "I now understand distribution, manufacturing, getting product SKUs. It's really been fascinating to learn the entire process."
He's also gotten help from a trio of investors, starting with Thomas' former football coach, Charles W. McDaniel, who's also president of Hilldrup Moving & Storage in Stafford County. Thomas contacted him to see if he was interested in investing in the company, and Wood followed up by asking for a meeting to discuss what he was doing.
"Charles said, 'Go home and write a business plan and bring it back to me,'" Wood said. "I spent the next month writing a 30-page plan with statistics, and a cash-flow analysis to show how the company would run and where it would go."
McDaniel was impressed enough to suggest that Wood meet with John Tompkins, a friend from Baltimore who started a business and sold it for millions. He also brought in W. Michael Walker, a corporate attorney with Hirschler Fleischer in Richmond. All three are now involved in the business, and meet and email regularly with Wood.
"It's really been a blessing," said Wood. "Charles was as critical as his funds. John took a company from zero so he has more startup knowledge. Mike Walker makes sure all our i's are dotted correctly."
Wood and his investment team realized that they'd have to come up with a new name for the company. Not only did the owner of the domain name southernties.com want six figures for it, but the field is flooded with competitors who also have the word "southern" in their names.
"Whenever I'd call manufacturers, they'd say, 'Oh, we're not expecting your call until tomorrow' because they thought I was one of the other companies. I'd have to say, 'No, this is Southern Ties.'"
Wood said having to come up with a different name was a shame because Southern Ties is a double-entendre. They wanted the rebranding to continue reflecting the company's Southern roots, and chose Dogwood Black because the dogwood only grows in the South.
"Black was supposed to serve as irony or satire," he said. "One of the biggest things we didn't like about some Southern brands is that [they imply] if you weren't born in a Southern state, you don't belong in a Southern state. We wanted something that everyone would recognize but wouldn't offend you. We wanted to show that being Southern is a state of mind, not a state."
Dogwood Black's new website, dogwoodblack.com, is one of the few that allows online customers to customize their selections and see them together in color and in 3-D. Orders can be delivered in 10 business days compared to two to three weeks for custom orders made overseas, he said.
"Our manufacturer has pre-made almost all the components and is keeping them on their shelves. They trim the fabric exactly to our specifications," Wood said. "It's not necessarily the most cost-efficient way of doing business, but it is the most time-efficient. Hopefully, customers will choose this path rather than go overseas."
Dogwood Black's dress shirts are made of the high-end Thomas Mason line of fine cotton shirt fabric imported from Italy. A stock shirt sells for $110, and a customized one goes for $135.
"Thomas Mason is the be-all-and-end-all of fabric mills," Wood said. "If people are using it, they're going to brag about it on their websites."
Most of the fabrics for the bow ties and ties also come from Italy, although some is imported from France. None comes from Asia.
Dogwood Black is relying heavily on social media and social events to gather feedback and publicize its products. When Wood tweeted about a sample bow tie a Georgia manufacturer had sent using camouflage and blaze orange fabric, for example, he got 40 responses within 20 minutes from people who wanted to buy one.
"People just went ballistic," he said. "Sam [Thomas] wore one at Hampden-Sydney [College] and people were literally trying to buy it off his neck."
Thomas has organized several sales events for the company's products, including most recently at one of his college's football games. And Wood has reached out to 30 college students at 16 universities who have been blogging, tweeting or posting comments on Facebook about them to serve as product ambassadors.
"We say, 'Hey, you've been really kind to us,' and ask them to put on an event or two every semester," Wood said. "They gather 60 to 70 people and hand out free stuff like [drink] koozies. We hope they'll use them and remember us."
Not only does this help raise awareness of the Dogwood Black brand among potential customers while they're in college, but the hope is that they'll remain loyal long afterward.
"When they graduate and get jobs," Wood said, "the company pitched to them is the company they're going to buy from."
Cathy Jett: 540/374-5407