Growing up in Greenville, Delta Apparel’s CEO Robert Humphreys had his eyes on the business world. Although he started off in banking, he quickly made the transition to textiles, culminating in his leading Delta Apparel in its rebirth from parent company Delta Woodside Industries. Humphreys sat down with UBJ to discuss his entrepreneurial past, present and future.
What did you want to be when you were growing up?
I grew up in Greenville and went to high school here. After high school, I went off to Auburn University, but then came back home, and I have been here ever since. Growing up, I always liked business because it intrigued me, and as I got older, I saw local businesspeople that inspired me.
Did you have any heroes as a kid?
Like so many others growing up, I had a good family, so my parents were my heroes.
What was your first job?
I worked for a downtown bank called First Federal of Greenville right out of college, and I figured out pretty quick that banking wasn’t for me. However, I made some friends that later became business partners.
It was an accident. After my first job, I went to work for Regal Textile and the chairman there was a respected business leader in Greenville and an inspiration. Regal had a big data processing subsidiary at the time, and they were selling services to banks and savings and loans, so they hired me to sell. For a number of years, I never saw the inside of a textile facility, but they had a corporate planning group involved in textiles and that became my first experience in the field.
What steered you to Delta Apparel?
After Regal was sold, several other guys and myself left and formed a data processing company, but I soon went to work for Delta Woodside because Regal president Erwin Maddrey left the company and formed Delta Woodside Industries. After holding several positions there, I took on the Delta Apparel business after spinning it off as a separate company.
We started with Delta Apparel, which at the time was a $100 million revenue company, and we’ve been growing ever since. In fact, we just finished our 10th consecutive year of record revenue. We have acquired a lot companies, including the Soffe Company out of Fayetteville, N.C., Junk Food Clothing out of California, The Game Headwear out of Alabama, and the Salt Life license. We have grown through both acquisition and organic growth that has gotten us to where we are today. We operate in the U.S., Canada, Mexico, Honduras, El Salvador, and employ about 7,000 people.
My best decision was to go down to Delta Apparel and spin it off as a separate company.
What is the worst business advice you have ever been given?
In my position, you get so much stuff pitched to you that is half-cooked. But pretty quickly you develop your own matrix that helps you sift through those things.
What excites you about Greenville?
The downtown community and the business atmosphere are really exciting in this city.
What advice would you give a new boss?
You have to set an example, so you need to be the guy unlocking the doors in the morning and the guy locking them in the evening. You need to treat people the way you want to be treated, and around here, we think dignity and respect will take care of most of that.
If you attributed your success to one character trait, what would it be?
Hard work; I think in America it is still the best way to find success.
Who is your biggest mentor and why?
I would say Erwin Maddrey. I worked for him at Delta Woodside and he gave me big responsibilities, big opportunities and a lot of support over the years.
What is your greatest failure?
I don’t know if there is any one thing that stands out, but I have had normal business failures. I don’t dwell on them and I move on.
What is your greatest success?
My family. I have two kids that were easy and did the right things more often than not. All of that makes the rest fun.
Where would we find you on Saturdays?
I race sports cars. I built a road racetrack in South Carolina just outside of Camden called Carolina Motor Sports Park. I also spend a lot of time on the water because I love to boat.
What is the last book you read?
The Steve Jobs book.
What if anything keeps you up at night?
Cotton prices and consumer demands. If you think about it, no one needs apparel, so you have to connect with the consumer.
Who is the person outside of your professional circle who has the most influence on your work?
The co-founder of my racetrack, Joe Hooker; he is a good friend of mine and he is also a successful businessman.
How do you get your national news? Local news?
I get national news from the Wall Street Journal and the local news from my wife and all of the local papers
If you had to make a career change tomorrow, where would you go?
If I were in a different industry, it would be real estate, development or construction because Greenville would be the perfect place for it.