If you want Ivy bona fides, this is all you need to know. I walked into the sales offices of St John Bay Rum Company in Ridgefield CT a few minutes early, and asked Rhys Moore for a picture. He swung around and grabbed a tie, and proceeded to tie it PERFECTLY while holding a conversation while walking around WITHOUT a mirror.
I asked him about that.
“Boarding school,” he said. “From September until July, I wear a tie almost every day.”
“Habit?” I ask.
“No, because you should always dress a little bit better than you need to.”
The resurgence of SJBR is due, in part to that attitude. When Moore came to the company in late 2016, it was with a background in turnaround. And a love for Ivy. His previous gig was a bank workout with Bill’s Khaki’s.
“The brand was languishing, and I saw an opportunity,” Moore said. “When I got here everyone knew the brand, but in their memory. I would hear all the time, “My father used to wear that” or “I wore that in college” and it was always followed by “I should try it again” – and they were right, they should. Happily, they did.”
At some point during every turnaround, the person with their hands on the wheel shakes their head and says to their significant other, “Man, what an S-storm.” In Rhys Moore’s case, taking on a company based in the Virgin Islands, his tenure began with… an actual storm. Two. Hurricanes. That devastated production.
“We are VERY committed to being a USVI company. Our office here is only out of necessity. There was never a question, even after Maria and Irma, about other choices than to simply build back. The Virgin Islands are a core part of our heritage and history and we are not willing to let go of that special relationship.”
Ok, so here is where we are in the story. Moore comes to turn a distressed company with its base in the Virgin Islands, and that already distressed company’s base gets wiped out by two hurricanes. 5 years later Moore has the company thriving, with everything from innovative marketing to new product introduction to green packaging. Yet when you sit with him you get the sense that his blood pressure never went up.
There are some classic mistakes in turnaround. Moore makes none of them. The first thing most companies do after a capital infusion is spend. There is a psychological reflex to show activity immediately, without pace and deliberation. Moore did the opposite, and deliberated, refusing to act until the time, and the idea, was right. Most companies in turnaround with a capital infusion people up and paper up. Moore did neither. His office is very lean, and his business plan is two pages. Moore is not interested in impressing you with himself. In fact, it took some doing to even get him to agree to a profile. Moore wants to talk about the product.
And he is doing so smartly. But not without risk. The tagline for SJBR is “Unapologetically Masculine.” In an era where self definition is pervasively fluid, SJBR took the risk invoking gender. And doing it firmly.
“Look,” Moore continues, “When I presented this to my team, I said it was a roll of the dice. But it is honest. We have a masculine product, and we need to tell people who we are definitively. If you say “smells good” you are one small fish in a very big sea. If you are very clear about what you are, you become singular. It is about deliberately highlighting the best about the brand, and being up front about it.”
The dice Moore rolled came up with the numbers he needed, on all fronts. The reception has been overwhelmingly positive, sales are up, and coupled with new package design, green efforts, and a steady growth pace, Moore has the company almost where he wants it.
“The storms set us back, of course,” Moore said. “But we are right on the cusp of where we thought we would be anyway. We got there by focusing on the brand and our brick and mortar partners.”
The other common mistake that executives in distressed companies make is to put their personal signature on things. Moore went the opposite way. In restyling everything, he kept to the playbook. No New Coke here. Instead, Moore reinvented with the same materials. The result is an update that is in lockstep with the brand’s tradition.
Tradition is something Moore embraces in all areas of his life. With his daughter, he fox hunts almost every weekend. I did not know the following:
1. No one even carries a gun
2. Nothing gets killed
Instead, these fox hunts, for which they dress, are all about the hounds and the ride.
“The foxes are too smart, they hide and you can’t find them. The coyotes are too fast, and you can’t catch them. The joy is in the ride. You aren’t riding on a path, you are following our pack of hounds over stone walls, through water, whatever. The hounds chase the fox, you chase the hounds, and when everyone is tired out, you break out the flask and head back for a big hunt breakfast. My daughter is an excellent rider, a joy to ride with and it is great just to watch her.”
Moore is an avid supporter of the arts, and historic preservation and that aesthetic weaves its way into a lot of his life, from the classic Ivy way he dresses to the font choice on his website. He is on the road a lot at trade shows, which makes sense. Moore is extraordinarily affable and a great storyteller. If I were turning around SJBR, I would lead with him, too.
In the trad category, tales of corporate recovery are littered with bankruptcy filings, frantic redirections, and an ultimate cycle of repeating the same mistakes. It is wonderful to see a reinvigorated brand that is walking perfectly the line between knowing how to talk to a new audience and staying in its lane. We can all think of other companies that could use this style of leadership.
In addition to SJBR, Moore serves on the board of several trad companies, and I for one can think of a few others who should give him a call.