How World War II khakis inspired an accidental entrepreneur

Company: Bills Khakis

Founder and CEO: Bill Thomas

Founded: 1990

Headquarters: Reading, PA

Employees: 32


Fun fact: Bills Khakis can be found in more than 500 men’s specialty stores across the country.

By Lindsay Eney

Life as Bill Thomas knew it changed completely in 1990 — all because of a trip to an Army surplus store and a pair of World War II khakis that seemed destined to end up in his wardrobe. “It was the best pair of khakis I’d ever found. From a product standpoint, they were made from the right cloth — inside and out — and they didn’t cut corners,” Thomas recalls. “In the process of wearing them, I quickly realized that the market was taking a commodity approach to the category.”

That one revelation was what Thomas calls an accidental, but very determined, beginning to Bills Khakis. “I realized that most men didn’t have a favorite brand of khakis. Once they got into a pair they liked, they couldn’t find the same pair again,” Thomas says. But at Bills Khakis, “They know they can come back and get the same pair again. The first pair becomes an invitation to have a relationship with that customer for the rest of their life.”

Thomas grew the company one pair of khakis — and one customer — at a time. He had his mother co-sign a loan to make 250 pairs of one style of khaki pants. He took them on the road, selling to friends, friends of friends and strangers at various events like horse shows. “It was a trunk-of-the-car effort,” Thomas says. “Our approach is much the same today, even though we have many more customers and many more products.”

“Change is a good thing, but you have to be well grounded and confident in who you are as you navigate through the changing trends and consumer preferences.”
Bill Thomas, founder and CEO, Bills Khakis

From that initial pair of khakis, Bills added different colors, then additional fits, styles and fabrics. Eventually, they expanded to shorts, jeans, shirts, outerwear and accessories, like belts. That said, remaining true to the American heritage style has always been a priority. From the very first belt — Amish-made, paying homage to their location in Reading, PA — to the rest of the lifestyle collection, the method remains the same: start with one iconic product, get buy-in on it, then expand the line.

Thomas — who prefers flat front to pleated khakis — notes the importance of keeping up with fashion trends while remaining true to his values and his company’s. “There has been a return to American heritage brands. That’s what we always will be,” he says. “We can filter the trends through our own brand. Change is a good thing, but you have to be well grounded and confident in who you are as you navigate through the changing trends and consumer preferences.”

While Bills Khakis has expanded its product line to dress the whole man, Thomas notes that “bottoms” are still more than half of his business. That could very well be because of Thomas’ approach to manufacturing his iconic product.

“I liken Bills Khakis to a microbrewery of khakis: we take a craft approach to a commodity,” Thomas says. “This is the way it was once done. Some people are discovering it for the first time, but it’s different because nobody else is doing it anymore.”

Thomas hopes his high-end customers find more than just a good pair of pants from Bills. “Our customer seeks a brand that shares their values; they want to identify with the brands that they consume and support.”

And that’s exactly what Bill Thomas believes they’ll find at Bills Khakis, again and again. CEO

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