Venture capitalist and entrepreneur J. Christopher Burch, 59, is most widely known as the co-founder of Tory Burch LLC, the New York-based fashion label named for and co-founded by his ex-wife. But Burch's apparel roots stretch back to 1976, when he founded sportswear label Eagle's Eye while a student at Ithaca College. After selling that business for $60 million in 1989, Burch went on to make a fortune as an early investor in Internet Capital Group Inc., a venture capital firm that went public at the height of the dot-com boom. Investments in companies including Bluetooth mobile phone headset manufacturer Aliph Inc., bottled water supplier Voss of Norway ASA, wireless charger maker Powermat Technologies Ltd. and alternative asset management firm Guggenheim Capital LLC soon followed.
In 2008, Burch established J. Christopher Capital LLC to manage his investments and incubate the development of new brands. Last fall, he launched C. Wonder LLC, a colorful and preppy chain of boutiques with a flagship store in New York's SoHo. And he continues to hold a significant stake in Tory Burch LLC, where he remains a member of the board.
The Deal magazine's Richard Collings recently talked to Burch via e-mail about his past investments and his new projects. The following are excerpts of that exchange.
The Deal magazine: You got your entrepreneurial start with Eagle's Eye. What compelled you to start your own business, and what did you learn from the experience?
J. Christopher Burch: I thought it would be cool to be my own boss. When I was a young guy, I thought, "Wouldn't it be great to be entrepreneurial instead of working for someone else?" What I learned early on was how to find uniqueness and create product or an approach that's never been done. I learned I have an instinct for that.
In the 1990s, you were an initial investor in Internet Capital Group. What attracted you to technology, and what did you learn from that experience?
Yes, after Eagle's Eye I started looking for investment opportunities. I was fortunate to invest in ICG only because of a close friend who I highly respected, and I bet on him. That was my foray into the world of technology. I learned it is an industry that is energizing, and it has been financially rewarding.
In 2004, you helped jump-start the Tory Burch label. What was the seed or core idea there? What were your expectations? And where do you think the company is headed?
Tory had a fresh idea that has been enthusiastically embraced by women all over the world. Of course, I believed in her and her vision of the brand. It has been phenomenal.
Whether I am an investor or an advocate, I believe my history in the apparel industry has helped many companies grow in the right and effective way. But I will always give the credit in a business to the people who work there on a day-to-day basis. Whatever happens in the future of Tory Burch will be decisions that the leadership team makes in the best interest of the brand.
Moving on to C. Wonder, what makes the timing right for a new retail concept? What voids in the marketplace do you see, or what do you think is missing in retail today?
I believe what was missing was an environment that excites and entertains customers at every level, from the fitting rooms to point of sale. C. Wonder is bright and has high-energy, with surprises throughout the store. We sell floral-pattern scooters and cupcake makers and have an in-store monogramming machine. Customers can select their own music and lighting in the fitting rooms, pay for their products anywhere in the store, and we have been known to gift customers if they dance in our store. It is designed to be fun.
What was your inspiration for C. Wonder? And could you discuss some of your other promising concepts?
I was in a big-box retailer that offers tremendous value in an uninspired setting. I thought, "Why can't shopping for great value be a luxurious and fun experience?" That's our goal with C. Wonder. And I discovered many ways we can enhance 21st-century retail as I embarked on this journey. Other concepts in development include No. 9 Christopher, an accessible lifestyle luxury brand, incorporating a compelling space that creates a revolutionary retail experience; and Electric Love Army, a sportswear fashion line in partnership with People's Revolution founder Kelly Cutrone.
How many C. Wonder stores have you opened so far, and how many stores do you plan to open?
To date, we have opened four stores in the New York metro area. In 2012 we will open approximately five to six stores in addition to a few summer pop-ups. In 2013 we are planning on opening 10 to 20 stores.
You've spent a lot of time in Chinese factories, concerning sourcing. What role does sourcing play, and how important is it to a retailer's success? How has it evolved since your days at Eagle's Eye?
In the last 20 years of my doing business in China, prices have decreased across all sectors relative to our companies. We believe sourcing is a critical component to the success of any brand. With our own sourcing offices, we work directly with the factory owners to manage all cost and communication. Our manufacturing partners are as important to us as our customers.
Are you interested in acquisitions, either of labels or retailers? Or do you prefer working from blank canvas?
We prefer working from a blank canvas, but we are always looking for extraordinary opportunities where we can add value to a company with our creativity and supply-chain resources.
Going forward, what do you think the major issues are for e-tailing, brick-and-mortar retailing, apparel and sourcing, and fashion?
Overall, I am a champion of entertaining the customer in-store and online. The environment, the product, the packaging, the service, they all affect the key issue of creating a fun, exciting and giving shopping environment where the customer loves to spend time. I don't think that is an experience you should take away from the customer.