At Home with Bob Timberlake

Home is where the heart is for artist Bob Timberlake and his team, who built a successful lifestyle brand based on talent and persona. Quiet, natural country settings are the focus of Bob Timberlake's artistic vision. T

April 6, 2018

At Home with Bob Timberlake

Home is where the heart is for artist Bob Timberlake and his team, who built a successful lifestyle brand based on talent and persona.

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Quiet, natural country settings are the focus of Bob Timberlake's artistic vision. The artist, who primarily paints landscapes utilizing tempura in the school of realism, chooses subjects that range from a basket of pumpkins basking in the sunshine to a lonely seashell resting upon a weathered porch overlooking an empty beach. Lexington, N.C., is home to Timberlake's impressive gallery, which handles the sale of his original paintings, but he has also achieved international success with several gallery exhibitions, held throughout the world. Historically, his primary marketing relationship for original art has been with Hammer Galleries in New York.

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About 50 employees manage the Bob Timberlake business, following the company mantra that employees don't work "for" anyone else, but work together as a team. "We're like a family," says Dan Timberlake, COO and general counsel at Bob Timberlake Inc., who, in fact, is Bob's son. "We all work and play hard, and we love and take care of one another," says Dan. Perhaps it's this fusion of talent, ethics, intelligence, and integrity that led Bob and his team to success.

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Bob does not create original artwork specifically for licensed product, some of his licensed products does actually feature his original artwork, but it appears in a much more subtle fashion. "We try to keep distinct lines between Bob's art and design businesses," says Dan.

On average, Bob paints several small studies and originals annually while he simultaneously works on design and licensing projects. Since Bob first entered the licensing arena in October 1990, he managed to build quite a successful and impressive lifestyle brand. In fact, a comprehensive survey of veteran executives with more than 20 years of experience was conducted by

Furniture Today

and the World of Bob Timberlake (WOBT) was selected as the most significant branding/marketing program in the last 50 years and the most financially successful program in history.

EVOLUTION OF A BRAND

The WOBT licensing program kicked off with a collection of original furniture and a home furnishings collection that included area rugs (Capel) and lamps/lighting (Sedgefield), as well as accessories and framed art. "The WOBT furniture line was an immediate hit and sales of the furniture and growth of our small family business exploded overnight beyond our wildest expectations," says Dan, who notes that Bob approaches the design process from a consumer perspective and, at that time, aimed to create an eclectic collection of pieces inspired by his favorite antiques and pieces he had commissioned from local craftsmen.

By the fourth year, wholesale sales of licensed products exceeded $100 million. While furniture continues to be strong today, apparel is also a key category. Dan reports that the outdoor/sporting products line with Bass Pro is also growing quite rapidly. Dan says that when WOBT was originally introduced, licensing or branding within the home furnishings industry was relatively unknown, so Timberlake didn't craft a very specific strategy at launch time. "Since the collection was an instant hit, we tried our best to reasonably and responsibly react to the growth and opportunities. In essence, we were (by necessity) very reactive and learned the business as we went along," says Dan, who mentions that it took approximately five years to get a handle on the brand business.

During this period of explosive growth, Bob naturally didn't find much time to paint, but he greatly enjoyed exploring the design process, as well as learning the business—from textiles to tabletop and top of bed. During that time, Bob yearned to return to painting and a more regular schedule that would allow him to spend more quality time with his grandchildren, since family was always closest to his heart. Around 1996, Bob Timberlake Inc. began taking a more proactive approach to the business. "We saw some changes getting ready to happen in the home furnishings industry, which we felt would mirror the transformations that had occurred in textiles (primarily apparel) a few years prior, but had no concept of how the shift in production to imports would affect retailers, distribution, and consumers," says Dan. "We also had a great deal of frustration with merchandising the whole lifestyle concept and getting branded product consolidated at retail. We had approximately 25 licenses and all the manufacturers were selling through their own retail distribution, which from a brand standpoint was good for sales, but very fragmented and hard to manage."

Today, the team takes a very strategic approach to the business, specifically when making decisions on which partners and projects to take on. The business is now divided into two major parts—Bob the "man" and Bob the "brand." Dan describes the "man" aspect as primarily art and those areas that are strictly dependent on Bob's role as an artist. The "brand" part had apparently taken on a life of its own—one that Bob wanted to live on, given his desire to slow down and live a more balanced lifestyle.

"We started to slowly and subtly wean the brand from the man and vice versa; attempting to become less dependent upon the individual, while also making sure the brand was synonymous with him and directly reflected his persona, ethics, values, and benevolence, but was not directly dependent upon him on a day-to-day basis."

RETAIL CHANNELS

Distribution is primarily through small-to-mid-sized retailers that offer product in the mid-to-upper price range. Although independent retailers are key to the business, product has been offered through several department stores and mass merchants, specifically JCPenney, Dillard's, Macy's, Nordstrom, and others. Dan believes the larger merchants seem to change their merchandise strategies and personnel more often, and their cycles are quicker. "We really don't view that distribution as compatible with our core image—mass merchants offer more product vs. brand opportunities," says Dan.

The licensing business actually evolved into a retail business for Bob Timberlake Inc. Currently, Bob Timberlake has a main gallery located in Lexington, N.C., and an outlet, Blowing Rock Gallery, which is also open for business. Other retail operations include an e-commerce site and a direct mail/catalog. These ventures allow the team to control all aspects of the brand while setting an example for other retail partners. Dan says the gallery/retail component of the business stemmed from Bob's desire to have a public showroom that would enable him to merchandise the branded products in a lifestyle environment. This would also enable the company to diversify the business structure and enhance the wholesale and retail components of the business. The retail environment also aids in product design, testing and incubation strategies, and more importantly, keeps the team in tune with the target customer who is an affluent female aged 35 or older.

VALUE-DRIVEN

Dan says one of the biggest challenges is remaining focused on striving to be better rather than bigger. Making strategic, carefully planned decisions on long-term business partners and projects is another significant consideration. He says the business has changed quite dramatically over the past several years, which affected almost every aspect of the home furnishings industry—from the shift to imported products to channel management/distribution, and retailing.

"We are always taking stock of how to efficiently reinvent our business structure and relationships (not the brand image) to maximize the long-term benefit and value of the brand for our business partners," says Dan, who reveals that the licensees are categorized into two departments, which includes home furnishings (furniture, area rugs, and accessories), as well as home "finishings," which are proprietary home plans distributed through Southern Living, and "fixture" components for the home.

As brand manager, Bob Timberlake Inc. (BTI) facilitates and develops co-op advertising programs, and oversees all design development by establishing the parameters for all partners in advance on generalities (color palette and story boards) and then assists the internal design departments on specific design; as well as overseeing all marketing and promotional campaigns, and the use of the trademarks. BTI also assists all partners in cross-merchandising opportunities and co-op photography/showroom expenses and displays to leverage each sales event, show, or program.

"It's our philosophy that we're here to serve our partners, not vice versa," believes Dan. Loyalty, integrity, ethics, and financial stability are among the top considerations for potential partners. Personality also plays a key role in the determination process since it is important to "like the folks we may be working with," says Dan. "If not, it won't be fun and Bob won't do it." The product program must, of course, make absolute sense for the brand and meet the quality standards of comparable branded product. Final licensed product must indeed reflect the brand image.

Bob believes that you have to remain hungry and work at your business every day. "Too many retailers have become consumed with the short term—instant gratification rather than the old-school approach of creating value long term," says WHO. He advises retailers to step back and take a hard look at what their objectives are (short and long term) and not let market fluctuations or nuances result in quick reactions. He believes they also need to reexamine their vendors and suppliers, and strive to do a better job in partnering with reliable, ethical, and stable partners. On the other end, they must work tirelessly at taking care of the customer because if they don't do it, someone else surely will.

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