by Tony Moore
Speaking about her famous line of colorful, summer-inspired women’s apparel, Lilly Pulitzer once said, “Anything is possible with sunshine and a little pink.” But for Scott Beaumont ’75 (economics, English; mathematics minor), reviving the iconic brand in the 1990s took a lot more than that. And the path was a little more complicated than a sunny walk in the park.
“What I was really thinking at the time was, is there a way to develop a chain of private schools that would be affordable? Because I’ve always been interested in education,” Beaumont says, looking back at 1992 or so, when he had a solid career going in the apparel industry and an MBA from Harvard Business School under his belt. So to explore the idea a little, he met with the director of alumni placement at the Harvard Business School during a reunion. And he was told in no uncertain terms that starting a business in the education field wasn’t a great idea.
“ ‘You cannot both jump to a completely new industry and do a startup,’ he told me, ‘especially when you have four kids between the ages of three and eight. You have to stay in what you know, and you know the apparel business,’ ” Beaumont recalls. “So this was fabulous advice. It's not exactly what I wanted to hear, but it was fabulous advice.”
Since he was in the apparel industry—and was always keeping his finger on the pulse of the business—it wasn’t long before Beaumont found the opportunity he was looking for, where his knowledge base met his ambition to launch a startup.
“I became aware that there was an opportunity to acquire the rights to the trademark Lilly Pulitzer, and being a dutiful employee, I brought that opportunity to the people I worked for,” he says, noting that he’d built up his reputation in the industry over the previous 13 years. “And they did not think it was a good idea.”
In trademark law, if you don't actively market a trademark, it falls into the public domain after a 10-year period. And Beaumont knew that that was about to happen to the Lilly Pulitzer trademark, which had been inactive for nearly a decade, and he knew Lilly Pulitzer the person had a need for the trademark not to fall in the public domain. The “queen of prep” had started her own apparel company in 1959 and had given up the high-end business in 1984 due to personal reasons, but she was still protective of her brand—and name.
“Because for Lilly, if someone like Kmart acquired it and did some tacky line or something, that would be a disaster socially,” he says. “So she had a need for somebody who could actively market it and handle it in a way that would be good for her too.”
So despite the lack of interest his company showed in the idea, Beaumont’s gut told him there was something there to explore.
Working with Pulitzer and an equal business partner, Beaumont bought the rights to the brand in 1993, left his apparel job behind and relaunched Lilly Pulitzer as a new company the next year.
“For us, it really was a startup, but with a brand name that had name recognition,” he says, noting that at the time the brand had zero revenue and zero employees. “What was the key? Everybody hates this answer, but we brought our A game every day for 23 years. That was the key.”
Inspired by a talk by the CEO of Perrier he had heard while a student at Harvard some years before, Beaumont knew just what that A game would involve from the very start.
“He spoke about this concept to sell bottled water in six-ounce bottles for around $1.40. Coke was around 70 cents a bottle, and people just weren't paying for water at the time, so I was like, I have to hear what this guy has to say,” Beaumont remembers, noting that the soft-drink business at the time in the U.S. was $40 billion. “He said if he could get 1% of this, he could do $400 million, but he had to be perfect for that one in a hundred. And if you think of the Lilly Pulitzer business, it's a highly differentiated, narrow business. But I only needed one in a hundred.”
Beaumont knew what he wanted to do and he had a strategy, but maybe more than anything, he knew that Lilly Pulitzer was a fashion icon.
“I'm a big believer in brands, and we had to be true to the brand,” he says, noting that anything short of that would either sully the brand or sink the new endeavor. “When John Grisham is going to write his next novel, it needs to have newness, but it needs to be within a range of expectation. A brand in fashion apparel is very, very similar.”
That note brings Beaumont to Dickinson, where he's been reengaging in a big way lately.
“Dickinson's a lot like Perrier; it doesn't need to be a mass-market item,” he says on the uniqueness he sees in the college. “In niche marketing, you need to be the first choice to some rather than fourth choice of many.” One thing that Beaumont sees as setting Dickinson apart is the new data analytics program, which he discovered through the Revolutionary Challenge and which launched in the fall of 2021.
“Dickinson has been important to me, and I think that it really needs to be thoughtful about the future of private liberal-arts education and needs to be evolving,” says Beaumont, who now serves on the college’s Data Analytics Advisory Council. “Dickinson offering data analytics as a major will be an important point of differentiation and distinction.”
In 2010, Beaumont and his business partner sold Lilly Pulitzer to Oxford Industries, staying on as co-CEOs for another six years. Since then, Beaumont has gotten involved with other start-ups, as an investor and board member. He also co-founded the Chester Charter Scholars Academy, in a low-income area outside Philadelphia, returning to his '90s-era desire to make a splash in education. Beaumont also serves on the board of a nonprofit, Operation Warm, which provides new winter coats for school-age kids across the country.
“There are kids who don't go to school in, say, January because they don’t have a winter coat—it's unbelievable, hard to imagine,” Beaumont says, noting that the organization manufactures and distributes a staggering 500,000 coats every year. “It's a case where I actually know a couple things, in manufacturing and apparel, and can add some value.”
When it comes to getting involved in new ventures and even getting his hands dirty in diverse areas, Beaumont’s desire to leave his mark, to stay engaged, is apparent. And it seems like an echo of what he thought about when relaunching the Lilly Pulitzer brand, what drove a 39-year-old with four kids under the age of 10 and a career that begged him to settle in for life to make the leap.
“I didn't want to wake up someday and be 75 years old, saying, ‘Why didn't I take a shot?’ ”
And it’s more than likely that that's what Beaumont would tell Dickinson students today, as they think about making their next move.
Published November 18, 2021