A bustling Triangle retailer loses its shirts when Champion Products changes its style of doing business.
Twice in 1996, Pam and Danny Jones nearly lost their contemporary, creek-side home just north of Chapel Hill. When Hurricane Fran blew through in September, several large oak trees landed on the house and garage, requiring six months and $50,000 of repair. That was a tempest in a teapot compared to what happened when they tangled with Champion Products and its parent, Sara Lee Corp.
Fran hit when the Joneses were trying to dig themselves out of a financial and legal mess that cost them their two stores and mail-order apparel business, drained a million dollars of personal assets and mired them nearly another million in debt. "I feel like Champion put us out there on a limb," says Danny Jones, 39, pointing to one of the trees still standing in his yard, "and then they sawed it off. It's just not right for a big company like that to promise you the world and then not live up to it."
There was a time when the Winston-Salem-based apparel maker embraced Jones. It held up his two Triangle stores as examples for its other retailers and touted his mail-order business as the way it would blow into the Southeast. But there was a shift in the winds, and a small company got caught in changes at a big one. Danny and Pam Jones found themselves in way over their heads, buoyed, they believed, by trust and promises but without even a contract to bail them out.
The couple first hooked up with Champion in 1988. Danny Jones was a Lowe's Cos. salesman in Chapel Hill, and his wife sold cellular phones. They were interested in setting up their own business and contacted Champion. The company referred them to Tom Decker, its North Carolina sales rep. He talked with the couple about opening a Champion "concept" store in Durham just off the Duke campus.
Champion was hot, its logo on every official NBA uniform and those of some NFL and Major League Baseball teams and dozens of colleges. Then based outside Rochester, N.Y., it had most of its retail distribution in the Northeast. Within a year, Chicago-based Sara Lee would buy the company and move its headquarters to Winston-Salem.
After years of being unable to get the campus bookstore to carry its products, Champion was searching for ways to get its expensive sweatshirts and shorts on the bodies of wealthy Duke students. Champion offered, in essence, to set the Joneses up in business with attractive payment terms on merchandise. Danny Jones, who had been with Lowe's 10 years, quit and began cashing out his $600,000 of stock. The couple borrowed off their credit cards to get started.
They opened their first store in fall 1989. They called it The Duck Shop because Duke wouldn't allow them to use its name. Sales were so strong that Duke's bookstore eventually started carrying Champion goods. A year later, the Joneses opened The State Shop just off the N.C. State campus in Raleigh. They also sold through the Duke and State alumni magazines and became Champion's exclusive vendor for the UNC Alumni Association's Carolina Collectibles catalog.
The Joneses, who had discovered that people would pay extra for quality items such as Champion's reverse-weave sweatshirts, dove headfirst into the mail-order business. They started All Conference Inc. in 1992 and the next year published their first catalog, featuring clothing and goods bearing the names of the nine Atlantic Coast Conference schools.
They mailed a million full-color catalogs, using alumni and booster-club lists Jones got from most of the schools. Fans had a chance to buy apparel that had not been available through the mail in any organized...