Management and Business Distinguished Achievement Award Winner
Shep Murray ’93
Final subject approved
The Vineyard Vines catalog says it all. Two young men dive off a sailboat into sun-splashed waters off Martha’s Vineyard wearing swim trunks emblazoned with the company’s island-centric designs. Images of vacation-themed preppy apparel and accessories for men, women, and children are interspersed with photos of customers sporting their favorite Vineyard Vines gear and sharing their personal stories of living the good life, embodying the promise of the company’s tagline, “Every day should feel this good.” By any measure, the company’s co-founder and CEO Shep Murray ’93, has achieved the American dream. Taking in more than $100 million in retail store and online sales last year and boasting licensing agreements with the likes of Major League Baseball and a huge cadre of devoted customers nationwide (over 432,000 Facebook likes at last count), Vineyard Vines was named the “official style” of the Kentucky Derby in 2011. No wonder Shep and his brother Ian, the company’s co-founder, were profiled as part of Entrepreneur magazine’s “Hot 500” list of America’s fastest-growing businesses in 2007. The accolades haven’t stopped since. But the Connecticut natives did not always enjoy the limelight. They’ve come a long way from the day they started the business in 1998 selling handmade silk ties out of the back of a jeep on Martha’s Vineyard.
The story of how their entrepreneurial journey began is firmly entrenched in company lore and is a case study in how hard work, staying true to what you love, and thinking outside the box can transform the most fledgling and unlikely enterprise into a major American success story. One important stop on that journey for Shep Murray was his time at Skidmore College.
A talented singer and guitar player, Shep arrived on campus planning on majoring in music, but found that he loved literature courses, and considered switching his major to English before finally settling on management and business. He recalls the introductory course BU107 as a seminal experience. “It gave students the chance to work together as a team and come up with a solution for a real company. That’s exactly what you do in the business world. It gave me the opportunity to roll up my sleeves and think outside the box.”
That opportunity would bear fruit a few years later. In 1997 both Shep and Ian were working for Manhattan advertising agencies and hating it, particularly having to wear the dull corporate uniform of suit and tie—most especially, the tie. The brothers, who had summered on Martha’s Vineyard since childhood, also dreamed of spending more time there. That summer, they conceived a solution to their dilemma: creating and selling handmade silk ties that signified the “good life” they enjoyed on the Vineyard, ties that young professionals would find fashionable and fun. The novelty insignias, including the signature Vineyard Vines pink whale and other island-themed images, were meant to be conversation pieces that would bring people together. The following year, the brothers quit their jobs on the same day, and starting with an $8,000 cash advance from a credit card, began selling their ties on beaches and in boatyards and bars, employing the motto “Don’t be just another suit. Tie on a Vineyard Vine.” They were soon able to move themselves and several hundred ties out of their parents’ house and into their first apartment, which doubled as their company headquarters. In 1998 they launched their first catalog, and started upon an astounding upward trajectory.
The company has grown from a dozen whimsical men’s ties sold on the Vineyard (the brothers opened their first store there in 2005) and the Cape to a full range of shirts, sweaters, jackets, caps, skirts, pants, belts, flip-flops, and totes for men, women, and children sold across the county. The vacation-themed gear is currently available in 32 Vineyard Vines stores nationwide, as well as online and in some 600 specialty, boutique, and department stores, including Bloomingdale’s, Nordstrom, and Saks Fifth Avenue.
Part of the brothers’ creative brand-building includes developing unique partnerships with sports organizations and colleges and universities, cultivating legions of loyal team fans and alumni. Its products hang in hundreds of golf and tennis pro shops. As of 2011, Vineyard Vines has licensing agreements with Major League Baseball, the National Football League, and the National Hockey League to produce custom ties and totes for all teams. That year, it also renewed its partnership with the New York Giants, and in the fall of 2010, one seat in the Giants’ home MetLife Stadium was painted pink and embellished with the Vineyard Vines whale. In addition to the Golf Collection’s presence in pro golf shops, custom products have been made for every major PGA championship event. The company has also produced custom ties for some 150 schools and colleges, including Skidmore.
The Murray brothers collaborated with Teresa Heinz Kerry to create an exclusive red, white, and blue tie and scarf design for Kerry’s campaign in 2004. Former President George H. Bush, President George W. Bush, Robert Kennedy, Jr., Rudy Giuliani, Mayor Michael Bloomberg, and Steve Forbes, among other high profile CEOs and television personalities, also don the “good life” ties.
Their marketing strategy has always revolved around developing grassroots customer loyalty, treating business partners fairly, and giving back to the community—values that Shep says were imparted by former F. William Harder Chair and Department of Management and Business Professor James Settel. Shep reflects, “He stressed the importance of being ethical and honest. And that’s the way we’ve done it from the start. We were never out there just to make money. Being ethical, treating our employees well, treating our customers well, valuing partnerships, and giving back is a huge part of what we’ve accomplished.”
Other Skidmore faculty members were important mentors for Shep. “Management and business professor John Holmes taught me the importance of creating “win-win-win” situations in marketing and in life. English professor Peter Griffin, an expert on Hemingway, introduced me to great short-story writers and the importance of writing stories that came from the heart. His idea of giving almost everyone an “A” if they just wrote the best they could was really unconventional, but empowered us to explore and do what we wanted rather than doing it to get a good grade. Management and business professor Martin Canavan’s passion for entrepreneurship was incredible. If you put together the lessons learned from these four faculty members—telling a great story, creating a win-win-win situation, doing it in an honest, passionate way, and entrepreneurialism—you have a great foundation for life. It has led me to success, both personally and professionally.”
The Vineyard Vines catalog and website, both of which feature customer wedding photos and colorful personal profiles, trumpet the playful customer storytelling Shep and Ian have used to build their brand.
Equally important to the Murray brothers, the company’s longtime commitment to community service and philanthropy is evidenced by the Vineyard Vines Tied to a Cause program, which provides custom ties, tote bags, and other items for their favorite charities and donates all proceeds from the sales of the items to those organizations. The program’s first partnership was formed with Waterkeeper Alliance, the advocacy organization founded by Robert F. Kennedy Jr. to protect water from polluters.
The extraordinary growth of Vineyard Vines has garnered the company a roster of honors from the business community. Named Ernst & Young Emerging Entrepreneur of the Year award in 2005 for the metro New York region, it was ranked 217 among the 500 fastest-growing companies in the country by Inc. magazine the following year. In 2006, the company was also the recipient of the Men’s Dress Furnishing Association Achievement Award, and in 2007 Shep and Ian were inducted into Quinnipiac University’s Business Leaders Hall of Fame. Vineyard Vines was also selected 2007 Brand of the Year by trendy fashion company DNR. In 2008, they were featured in Fortune magazine and more recently, in such publications as the New York Times, Newsweek, People, InStyle, and Cosmopolitan. The brothers and their merchandise have also appeared on television, including CNBC, the Today Show, and The Big Idea with Donny Deutsch. Shep and Ian have also been popular guest lecturers at Yale, Columbia, University of Pennsylvania, Lafayette College, and Boston College. Shep was particularly gratified to deliver a lecture and speak to business classes at Skidmore in 2010.
Their remarkable success hasn’t altered Shep’s original vision for Vineyard Vines. “We went out there to start our own company and be masters of our own destiny—to live the American dream. That’s exactly what we’ve done, but we’ve picked up a lot of people along the way. That’s because of giving back and getting involved in communities.” He adds, “It has been very rewarding. I get to wake up every morning and drive my kids to school, create a product people love, and go to bed at night happy. I work with great people, we have great customers, and it’s awesome to be able to make people happy.”
He adds, “It is an honor to be recognized with this award. I’m greatly appreciative of the experience I had at Skidmore; it shaped the framework of my life, both personally and professionally.”
Shep currently lives in Riverside, Conn., with his wife and three children. The family summers on Martha’s Vineyard and is in Florida as much as possible during the colder months.