William H. L. Thomas, 1985
B.A., Denison University
Founder and Chief Executive Officer
Citation awarded June, 2010
While he was a student in 1984, Bill Thomas discovered the perfect product…a pair of original WWII khakis he bought at an Army Surplus store down the road from Denison. Not only were they the best khakis he had ever found, they represented a forgotten piece of Americana.. They had to be saved. So he found a factory to make his vintage pants and borrowed enough money to produce 250 pairs. In 1989, he stopped selling them out of the trunk of his car, left his job at Chicago’s Leo Burnett and moved back to rural Pennsylvania to launch Bills Khakis.
When the 2003 entrepreneur-in-residence students asked him how Denison influenced his life and his career, Bill said there was a certain spirit and fun about this place that made him want to go out and do something for a living that he loved, not just “go to work”. His description of the transition goes like this: “These khakis were the manifestation of everything I felt was virtuous about business, entrepreneurship and this country. This was my chance to start the quintessential American company.” In short, he loves what the brand is all about, in terms of khakis representing the bygone era of the greatest generation.
Headquartered in Thomas’s hometown of Reading, Pa., Bills Khakis has grown from a small startup in 1990 to grossing sales in the multi-millions. Sales jumped 903% between 1995 and 1999. Bill Gates, Bill Clinton, Bill Bradley and the entire Bush family wear Bills Khakis, and GQ dubbed them “the pants of the gods” with a picture of a folded pair of khakis and the caption, “If not for the robes, what you’d see on Zeus, et al.” The pants retail for $97.50 and up at more than 500 men’s specialty shops nationwide. In April 2001, the Initiative for a Competitive Inner City and Inc. magazine placed Bills Khakis 14th on the Inner City 100 list of urban business successes.
Bill has reached out to mentor students at a local university in Reading, where he supports a modest scholarship. And at Denison, he has become something of a fixture on campus, returning as both an Organizational Studies Program presenter and an Entrepreneur-in-Residence.
We honor Bill Thomas ’85 for success fueled by some quintessentially American qualities: ingenuity, gumption, and hard-headed determination.