From Corning to CEO: Pillow shares story of success

Terry Pillow

Terry Pillow '76

Terry Pillow always knew that fashion was his calling. From starched Levi’s and white button-ups topping off meticulously shined penny loafers in the 6th grade to the Armani suits he would don as a business man, Pillow knew a fashionable look when he saw it.

“Fashion is not the obvious career choice for a boy from rural Arkansas,” Pillow said during a recent sit-down with Conway business leaders during University of Central Arkansas’ Homecoming week festivities. With a resume including executive positions at Neiman Marcus, Chaps Ralph Lauren, AX Armani Exchange among other businesses, Pillow is the CEO of Tommy Bahama, the popular lifestyle brand which includes a men’s and women’s apparel collection, over 100 retail stores, 14 restaurants and a licensing business that includes accessories, fragrance, a complete home collection and international partnerships.

“I grew up in Corning, Arkansas,” he said. “I wasn’t as smart as everyone else, but I could look better.”

A quintessential Arkansan, Pillow retains a bit of his accent and his pride in his hometown, proudly stating he is from Corning, a rural northeast Arkansas town, instead of nearby Jonesboro, a more urban city.

Following his graduation from high school in 1971, in a class of 60 or so students, Pillow moved to Conway to attend State College of Arkansas, which would become University of Central Arkansas. His sister, Dianne, whom he describes as his best friend, was already attending the university and had joined a sorority.

“UCA was the perfect size and feel I was looking for, where I felt I could become a part of it,” Pillow said. It helped that then-University President Silas Snow, was the superintendent at Corning when Pillow’s mother attended.

“I was looking for every advantage I could possibly get,” he said, with a smile. “I may be able to get a date if my sister is here and if I got in trouble, my mother could get me out of it with the president of the college.”

A college job at Browning and White Men’s Store in Conway gave Pillow an opportunity to pursue fashion and learn the mechanics of the business, while studying the academic portion at UCA.

Pillow graduated in 1976 and pointed his car toward Dallas, where he knocked on the door of Neiman Marcus, which accepted him in its executive training program. Stanley Marcus, son of the founder, was still teaching a part of the training.

“We always got a Neiman Marcus catalog when I was a kid,” Pillow recalled, even though the family couldn’t afford the merchandise, the book itself made an impression.

A trip to Newport Beach, Calif., to open a Neiman Marcus store, brought the opportunity to see the ocean for the first time. When he returned to Dallas, it was as a menswear buyer for the department store chain.

“That was the piece that gave me the opportunity to meet some talented people in the early days of 1978,” Pillow said.
This would prove to be the jumping off point for the rest of his career. A working relationship with designers, marketing directors and CEOs of design houses would bring the likes of Ralph Lauren, Gorgio Armani and Alexander Julian into the life of a young upstart from rural Arkansas.

Terry PillowAt age 29, Pillow was asked to be the CEO of Chaps Ralph Lauren, which would take him to New York. “My head was spinning like a top,” he said. Stops to work for Julian and Armani, among other corporations finally took him to Tommy Bahama, based in Seattle.

Tommy Bahama is a brand based on relaxation and island living. It has been featured in movies including Couples Retreat, Meet the Parents and 50 First Dates, as well as television shows Burn Notice, Forgetting Sarah Marshall and It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia.

“I’m as close as you are going to get to a real Tommy Bahama,” Pillow told the crowd in Conway. “It came from a novel about a character who was rich who had adopted a kid and he wanted his son to grow up in the best way. He named him Tommy Bahama and let him do everything he wanted. It’s a good story that continues to guide what we do. We constantly go back to look at that story to make sure what we are doing meets the story.”

Pillow said he was proud to have his education from UCA.
“No one ever told me I couldn’t do something,” he said. “When I came out of UCA, I didn’t know what the other schools taught. I just thought I had the best education that anyone ever had.”

He added “When I knocked on Neiman Marcus’ door, I thought I was the most educated person who ever walked through the door and I guess I exuded that. … I was very impressed with what I saw in the classroom here [during a tour of classrooms].”

Pillow and his wife Kelley have a 6-year-old son.