Milbank native Tom Patterson, son of former Milbank residents Norm and Nancy Patterson doesn’t have a work from home job, but he still works in his underwear every day. Patterson is the founder of Tommy John, a New York-based company that produces and markets an innovative line of men’s underwear known for its comfort. The company just sold its two-millionth pair and in its brief existence has made quite a splash in the apparel industry.
In 2008, Tom was a medical device salesperson in San Diego, California. “I was wearing a suit and tie to work every day and was frustrated with all the undershirts on the market,” he said. “They would stretch out, yellow, pill, and constantly come untucked. They never fit properly – it felt like they were made to fit a UPS box.”
As necessity is often the mother of invention, Patterson set out to find a solution to his problem. He went to a fabric store, with his wife and co-founder of the company, Erin Fujimoto, and selected material. He used his second grade art skills to draw a sketch of how he wanted the undershirt to fit and took the fabric and sketch to a local tailor to have a prototype sewn. “My design solved my problems and I wondered if there were other guys out there that needed these, too,” he said.
Patterson tweaked his design, created more prototypes, and sent them to family and friends in search of honest feedback. It turned out they all loved the product and Tommy John was born. And, Tommy John keeps on growing. In each of the last two years, the company has grown nearly two and a half times. High end department stores Nordstrom, Nieman Marcus, and Bloomingdales carry Tommy John products and Tommy John has partnered with the Dallas Cowboys to sell in their fan stores. Tommy John also just launched in Scheels – including the Sioux Falls location.
Funny thing is – Tommy John unmentionables keep getting mentioned. Tommy John has been featured on CNBC’s Squawk Box, The New York Times, Esquire, The Street, Fortune, Fox Business, and Business Insider.
Howard Stern also touts Tommy John. “Howard’s endorsement is extremely powerful,” Patterson stated. “When he first talked on air about our product in 2014, he almost broke our website. We had an insane peak in traffic and sold a ton. That was a milestone moment for us.” He said the best part about Stern’s recommendation is his authenticity. Stern genuinely loves Tommy John and wears it everyday.
Patterson is grateful so many big names appreciate and promote his product as he did not envision Tommy John as a company that shells out hundreds of thousands of dollars for a famous athlete endorsement. Instead, every spokesperson is a fan.
Actor and comedian, Kevin Hart, recently decided to get some skin in the game. He invested because he loves the brand. Hart profiled the business on The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon in October. “That was a surreal experience,” Patterson said. “Sufficient to say, all 50-plus Tommy John employees were glued to their television sets that night waiting to see Tommy John flash across the screen.” Hart sent Patterson a text that afternoon to make sure he tuned in. “So, I knew it was going to be special. It’s priceless to be featured on a show like that.”
Patterson also contributes Tommy John’s success to choosing steady and strategic growth for the company. “We are not fueled by venture capital. Instead, every dollar we earn goes back into building the company. We are focused on creating a foundation that will grow past our lifetime.”
Patterson and Fujimoto started the business in a 500-square foot apartment in New York City with their 110-pound dog, Marley, at their feet. “I knew New York was the place for us to grow the business, but it’s one of the last cities I thought I would live in before I started Tommy John,” he said. “ It just makes sense for us and fits the speed we want to be at right now. Every day is exciting. Every day is inspiring. And every day there is a new problem to solve or challenge to overcome. I’ve always been curious about how things are made and how they could be made better. Tommy John is a testament to that thinking.”
Patterson and Fujimoto also run their business with hometown values. “Growing up, I had a sense of community instilled in me. I wanted to create a company with that South Dakota mentality – polite, hardworking, and honest. Everyone in Milbank would extend a hand to their neighbor. They are good, down-to-earth, genuine people. Erin and I work to replicate that culture at Tommy John. Our greatest compliment is when people say how welcoming the company is or how glad they are to be working for Tommy John.
Patterson also learned business skills and began his entrepreneurial journey at a young age. He had a snow removal business in Milbank in the winter and lawn mowing service in the summer. He would work before school and after sports practices. He also worked at Subway, but knew someday he would start his own business.
His mom, Nancy Patterson, attested to his work ethic and unflappability. “He always worked hard and was able to do whatever he set his mind to,” she stated. “And he always had the ability to remain calm.” Nancy recalled Tom during his first piano recital at the age of five. “He asked me ‘Why is everyone jumping up and going to the restroom?’ I told him they were probably nervous about playing in front of so many people. He said, ‘Why? All you do is go up and play your piece and then go back and sit down!’ And that was how he was growing up – he never got rattled.”
His mother said Patterson acquired his calm nature from her father, Jim Emanuel. “Because Norm and I worked so much at the funeral home, Tom spent many hours with his grandfather doing boy things. “They went to sporting events at SDSU, my dad taught him to golf, and took him on his first hunting trip.” He and his sisters also spent time with her parents on Big Stone Lake. “But, Tom and my dad had a special bond and were as close as a grandfather and grandson could be.” Patterson echoed his mother’s comments, “He was my best friend and mentor. I observed how he treated people and it was something I wanted to copy.”
Today, Patterson’s greatest influence is his wife. Patterson and Fujimoto were married five years ago and she is the head of merchandising at Tommy John. They have one child, Violet, and are expecting their second in February. She’s a huge force behind the success of Tommy John and although things are constantly in motion, she somehow manages to keep a lot of balls in the air. Patterson said, “She is my unwavering support system both in and out of the office and the backbone of our family.”
The people back home have also offered support for Patterson and Tommy John. “From the beginning, hometown people promoted him,” Patterson’s mother said. “It’s awesome how many people from Milbank and South Dakota have purchased Tommy John products. It’s hard to beat people from South Dakota!”
Although Tommy John has redefined men’s underwear with their top-drawer products, Patterson promises exciting announcements are still to come. The global underwear industry is a 110-billion dollar market and “we haven’t begun to scratch the surface.”
To locate a store, order products or view more information about Tommy John, please visit their website at www.tommyjohn.com.