Billionaire Chris Burch
He sold sweaters door-to-door to fellow students at Ithaca College. That turned out to be his first step on the road to becoming a billionaire.
As founder and CEO of Burch Creative Capital, entrepreneur and investor J. Christopher Burch has helped to establish companies in the fashion, hospitality and technology industries. Along with his then wife, fashion designer Tory Burch, he cofounded Tory Burch LLC in 2004 and he continues to be a large shareholder in that company. His other present investments include Trademark, a clothing business launched by two of his daughters; E.D., a fashion line created with Ellen DeGeneres; Nihiwatu Resort in Indonesia; Aliph, which owns Jawbone, maker of Bluetooth headsets and speakers and fitness trackers; and Poppin, which manufactures and sells office supplies.
Born and raised in Pennsylvania, Burch says he was a terrible student. He couldn’t focus, couldn’t read and was last in his elementary school class. The problem was severe attention deficit disorder (long before the phrase was even known). Burch’s parents were told that their son had a wandering mind and they should limit their hopes for his future. When he was 14, however, his parents managed to get him into the Tilton prep school in New Hampshire, to which Burch gifted $1.3 million in 2013.
When he was in junior high school, his father put him to work in construction after school and during the summer. Burch was a small, scrawny kid and as he spent his days pushing heavy wheelbarrows, he concluded that there had to be an easier way to make a living. While an undergrad at Ithaca College in 1976, he decided to sell preppy girls’ sweaters door-to-door on campus. With his brother and a $2,000 investment, Burch started an apparel company, Eagle’s Eye. (Eagle was their father’s nickname.) The operation expanded and the brothers sold it to the UK-based Swire Group in a deal that concluded in 1998 and that valued the business at $60 million.
Since launching that initial venture, Burch has spent nearly 40 years as an investor and entrepreneur, participating in the rise of more than 50 companies and building a personal fortune that has been estimated at $1 billion. We caught up with him at his sleek offices in the Flatiron district of Manhattan.
Your father owned a business [a distributorship of mining equipment and supplies]. What did you learn from him?
My father was my hero. He was the guy who, when someone broke down on the road, would pick them up. He was 100 percent about integrity and the truth.
Where did you get your interest in creeating fashion companies?
I played tennis in college and when the pro tour came through Philadelphia I looked at the players with their bright green sweaters and tennis shorts. I used to go to a thrift shop and buy secondhand preppy clothes and that’s how I started my first company. I copied Drumohr’s brushed Shetland sweaters in bright colors and sold them to college girls on campuses.
The first shipment came from a factory in Scotland—$20,000 worth of sweaters. It was devastating. The factory screwed us and gave us tiny sweaters. We had to sell them, so we sold them as [if they were intentionally] really tight. Then we put strawberries and whales on turtlenecks and Fair Isle sweaters and we were off and running.
What factors lead you to invest in a business?
It’s 100 percent people. All my investments are based on the human side and the disruptive side of the business.
Do you have an industry-specific focus?
I invest in healthcare, hotels and consumer products. We have a big investment in a food company called Little Duck Organics and I put up the initial capital for Guggenheim Capital. Now it’s one of the larger banks. For me, it’s about being open and warm and investing in great people and being a good partner.
What do you look for in people? How do you read them?
I ask them to tell me about their parents and siblings. I look for core values, energy, passion, positiveness and specific talent. I want to be involved the rest of my life with people who can benefit the customer first, themselves second and me third. I look for people who are extraordinarily, disruptively talented.
Speaking of disruptive, you’ve said that you’ve been involved in brands that disrupt and change the world with new ideas and concepts. Can you explain?
If you look at Jawbone or Jambox, they’ve created a new way of listening to music. In Faena Hotel, we took the worst section of Buenos Aires and turned it into the most exciting place. In 2013, we took one of the most difficult places in the world to work in—Sumba Island in Indonesia—and were able to make Nihiwatu Resort happen.
What made you decide to buy Nihiwatu?
I first went there with my sons. It was a little surf village. Hotelier James McBride persuaded me to come back a second time and I knew it was special. I bought it for my children and as a piece of something that I hope we can preserve and give back to the community. When you’re in a place where the palette is so beautiful, you can do things that you can’t do in other places: build a spa under a waterfall, go to places where no others have been, have a butler in every room. Nihiwatu has turned into more than I expected, which is rare because most times things turn into less.
In projects in which you invest, do you help with the creative as well?
In the case of a business, I may be actually designing and merchandising the product. In some businesses, it’s very collaborative; in other businesses it’s not. But my core strength—[the reason] people come to me—is my creativity.
In 2005 you bought a house in Southampton for $14 million, renovated it and sold it four months later for $25 million. Do you buy properties with the intention of flipping them?
I did that for a long time. I bought in Nantucket, I bought in Southampton, I bought all over the world. That was a fun business but I’m not doing that much now. I just buy properties for myself.
A year after selling the Southampton house you founded J.B. Christopher, a supplier of construction materials to real estate developers. Do you create businesses based on a particular need?
Yes, for instance, I started a company with Steve Ross, founder of Related Companies [a real estate developer], to supply a lot of its building materials. Today we’re working with great hoteliers around the world. We provide furniture, kitchens, whatever.
In 2011 you formed C. Wonder, a retailer of inexpensive preppy clothing and gifts, which you grew to 32 stores. You said C. Wonder was a “really good idea that should have been successful.” What happened?
I would love to talk to you about this but cannot for legal reasons.
What’s your strength?
We add a very creative component to the capital: linking, marketing and creativity. We just invested in Vital Now!, a company in the healthcare area, to help people save on their copay. When we do the ads, I’ll bring in my team and my advisors and we’ll talk about what the ad should look like and how do we do it. A normal private-equity guy is not doing the ads for a company. We want to get involved in the nitty-gritty details but not necessarily in the board meetings.
You partnered with Ellen DeGeneres to launch her lifestyle collection, E.D. She said you’re both very competitive and want to break every rule. What did she mean?
Ellen and I both never say die. She’s an amazing person and we have a unique relationship. We’re real partners. This is not something where I’m paying her. We’re partners.
Ellen flew to Paris on your jet. How long have you had your GIV?
A year and a half.
How did you fly before that?
I leased planes.
Did you refurbish the GIV?
I did. Actually, I wanted to turn it into the superhero jet and put Batman, Robin and all these people on the outside—really fun. I’m working on it. I’m looking at painting it so that you can look through it like in 3D and have all the superheroes sitting in the aircraft. Every company says I shouldn’t do it, that no one will lease it, but I think they will, and I want to do it.
How does the GIV help you in your business and personal life?
It allows my friends and people around me to talk business on the aircraft and really enjoy the trip a little bit more. And I can treat someone like Ellen to a beautiful trip. It makes it easier for her because she can relax and not worry about being in a public atmosphere.
The GIV really is incredibly helpful—not for positioning, it’s for comfort. I feel much happier in the plane when I fill it with people than when I fly it alone. It’s really beautiful. You talk about something that’s beautiful to me—airplanes are beautiful.
I don’t know if it’s the design, the metal, the fact that it has to be structurally so pure, how it stays up or what it looks like. It’s beautiful. I had a conversation with the artist James Turrell about lighting my plane. He’s one of the great light artists of all time and I want to make my plane a creative plane. It could be a superhero plane, lit by Turrell. Planes are all white—there are some reasons for that, but it would be cool to see something beautiful.
You’ve said that Asia is more important to you now than the U.S., that the Chinese are buying more luxury items than the Americans. How do you find the business climate in China?
I find the Chinese to be extraordinarily brilliant and fun to work with. No roadblocks.
You once said you attribute your successes to luck, but what do you really attribute them to?
Tenacity, creativity, passion and sensitivity.
What drives you?
Insecurity and opportunity.
Margie Goldsmith interviewed filmmaker Francis Ford Coppola for BJT’s February/March issue.
NAME: J. Christopher Burch
BIRTHDATE: March 28, 1953 (age 62)
POSITION: Founder and CEO, Burch Creative Capital
PREVIOUS POSITIONS: Cofounder, Eagle’s Eye and Tory Burch LLC
EDUCATION: B.A., Ithaca College, 1976
PERSONAL: Lives in Miami; Southampton, New York; Sumba, Indonesia; Senlis, France. Divorced from Susan Cole and Tory Burch. Three children from each marriage. Enjoys collecting minerals, fishing, sailing and spending time with his children.
Christopher Burch’s Gulfstream GIV
Years produced 1986–92
Variable cost/hour for latest model $5,209
Seating (exec/max) 13/19
Range (nm) 4,168
Maximum cruise speed (kt) 500
Maximum takeoff weight (lb) 73,200
Cost range used (millions) $3.0–$4.0
Sources: Conklin & de Decker Aircraft Cost Evaluator and Aircraft Performance Comparator, Vref Aircraft Value Reference