The day after Paul Watson '02 graduated with an MBA from Oxford University, the Lehman Brothers collapse caused fear in the financial world and job prospects to disappear.
With his dreams of a financial consulting career on the backburner, Watson began brainstorming with his friend and classmate, Paul Trible. They had always toyed with the idea of starting a clothing company and decided it was time to pursue their dream.
"We were in the UK where there is a long history and industry of tailoring. Everywhere we looked there were these great custom suits and products that we, as graduate students, could enjoy. We immediately noticed there was a lack of these accessible products in the U.S. market," said Watson.
The two decided to take advantage of their location and learn about the business from the ground up. They spent a year as apprentices on London's Jermyn Street with Robert Emmett, a well-respected tailor. When they first started, said Watson, they knew nothing about shirt making.
"We were really able to learn the key features of how garments are put together and use all those best practices. That gave us the confidence to go into the luxury market, and we were able to have that value proposition," said Watson.
Although the height of the recession was looming and timing seemed less than ideal to launch a luxury product, Watson and his business partner decided to take a chance.
"It was a time in which people were really questioning the value of the goods they were buying. One had the opportunity to go to big box retailers and buy a cheaper product, or spend a few hundred dollars on a quality garment," said Watson. "Our focus has always been making a product that was as good as we could make it while making it accessible."
In 2009, Watson and Trible founded Ledbury, a line of men's shirts with a focus on quality craftsmanship.
The company began as an e-commerce operation based out of Richmond, Virginia. The city seemed to be the perfect place to establish roots. Trible was from Virginia, as was Watson's wife, Meredith Shuba Watson '03.
"We chose Richmond because we were excited about where the city was in its growth phase. It had old southern charm and history. It was a perfect mix of a good place to start a business along with personal ties," said Watson.
What really validated his move to Richmond, Watson added, was a chance meeting with a fellow alumnus one day.
"One of the first people I bumped into when I moved to Richmond from London was Eric McKay '03. He had just moved to town to start his own business," said Watson. "That really solidified my sense that Richmond was a great place to be. The strong network of alumni has been extremely supportive in the area."
Watson has embraced the city and is active in the area both personally and professionally.
"Community involvement is widely encouraged at Davidson. In some classes, part of the requirements were to do community work. It is something that has stuck with me and I have continued to embody at Ledbury," said Watson.
Employees work with a local recovery and homeless shelter called CARITAS Works, where they teach a free course called Dress for Success, which helps men understand how to interview for jobs and present themselves in professional situations. The men are provided three complimentary Ledbury shirts in their size.
Every six weeks Watson's employees take turns teaching the class.
"It gives our employees a chance to interact with the community on a greater level and give back," he said. "It's fun. You can see the men are eager to learn, and they have lots of questions. And, it helps our staff remember that there are other things going on in the world."
In his personal time, Watson teamed up with Lawrence Cann '00 to organize a local soccer team for men and women in precarious or homeless situations. Through Cann's organization, Street Soccer USA, Watson is able to coach at-risk individuals.
"It's a fun way to give back to the community and stay involved with a passion of mine," he added.
Watson's local involvement has undoubtedly helped Ledbury flourish. In six years the company has expanded from dress shirts to a clothing line, with two brick and mortar stores in Richmond and another opening in Washington, D.C., in the spring. Ledbury is carried by Nordstrom, Trunk Club and Oak Hall, among others.
Watson acts as chief operating officer and in part credits the Davidson network with helping his company grow.
"I can rely on friends and classmates, as well as other alumni, to act as advisers, networkers and connectors for me," said Watson. "It's extremely useful to have folks on the other end of the line to call and know that they will take the time to open doors and answer questions."
The lessons he learned while at Davidson were one of the reasons he took a chance on opening Ledbury, added Watson.
"The general rigor with which you are taught to approach a problem is key. It sets a solid base for growth and for the trajectory of your career."