A dark SUV pulls up to a Beall's department store in northeast Tallahassee and deposits Guy Harvey at the front entrance. It's a Sunday afternoon in December, and more than 100 people are lined up inside, waiting to have Harvey put his distinctive, long-stemmed signature on the T-shirts and posters they are carrying.
It's a diverse crowd: suburban moms towing toddlers, tanned 50-something men, college girls in running shorts, a Marine in his dress blues, teenage boys.
Some have arrived hours early to get a better spot in line. After Harvey settles in for the two-hour signing, one particularly rabid fan approaches.
John Davidson drove 440 miles from Memphis, where he builds airplanes for Lockheed Martin, to Harvey's appearance in Pensacola the day before. Then he motored on another three hours to Tallahassee to grab a second Harvey autograph. Harvey recognizes Davidson, greets him warmly, and Davidson walks away with another autograph to add to his stash of more than 40 Harvey-signed posters and artworks.
Not all of Harvey's devotees are as fervent as Davidson, but they continue to swarm to Harvey's 27-year-old brand, paying premium prices for Harvey-decorated posters, sandals, doormats, dog collars, coffee mugs, cellphone covers and, of course, his hugely popular fish- emblazoned T-shirts.
The T-shirts, which sell for between $15 and $30, bring in the most revenue, Harvey says, but he won't disclose how many shirts he sells or much else relating to the financials of Guy Harvey Inc., a nine-employee Davie operation that oversees the licensing of his name and artwork. "We don't talk about that," Harvey says.
Steve Stock, Guy Harvey Inc.'s president, is also tight-lipped about the company's finances, but it's clear the apparel business is lucrative. Since 2004, Harvey's sportswear has been manufactured and distributed by the American Fishing Tackle Co. Bill Shedd, AFTCO's president, says his company, which employs 75, maintains a staff of five just "to build designs for Guy Harvey" — adding design flourishes to Harvey's painted images. AFTCO, says Shedd, sells "millions" of Harvey T-shirts each year. Licensing experts say Harvey likely receives a royalty fee of between 8 and 10 percent of the wholesale cost of his T-shirts. Assuming a wholesale cost of $10, Harvey could pocket about $1 per T-shirt.
An 11th-generation Jamaican, Harvey, 57, didn't set out to become an entrepreneur, or even a painter. After getting a degree in marine biology from Aberdeen University in Scotland and a Ph.D. in fisheries management from the University of the West Indies, he took a job teaching marine biology at the latter school in the early 1980s. Interested in drawing as a child, Harvey began painting fish in his spare time. A friend convinced Harvey that his work had commercial potential, and Harvey started selling his paintings at art shows.
His first big break came at the 1986 Fort Lauderdale International Boat Show. He sold everything he brought, including watercolors, pen-and-ink drawings and a set of 12 drawings depicting Ernest Hemingway's Old Man and the Sea story that brought him $1,200. (Today, those paintings are worth $24,000.)
By 1988, he had quit his job as a professor and was painting full time. He began licensing his work, partnering with a company called T-Shirts of Florida that put his designs on cotton T-shirts. Harvey says he was "a little bit skeptical, to be honest," but liked that the art reproduced properly on the shirts. "It makes it look exactly like a real painting."
Initially, Harvey's art caught on with anglers, who appreciated his efforts to render fish in vivid detail. Apparel sales took off when Harvey's designs became popular with others, including teenagers and young adults, a notoriously fickle demographic.
"When we first started, if you went to a Guy Harvey signing it was a couple of older guys who fish together who wanted to buy a T-shirt," says Shedd, who acknowledges he is a little baffled by Harvey's enduring popularity with young adults.
Harvey quickly steers business conversation toward marine conservation. He prefers catch-and-release fishing and will eat only sustainable seafood, he says, handing out a wallet-sized pamphlet listing what's acceptable. He says he almost single-handedly persuaded Cayman Island restaurants to stop offering grouper because they are overfished.
Fourteen years ago, he founded the Guy Harvey Research Institute at Nova Southeastern University at Dania Beach. The institute focuses on scientific research intended to protect marine life from overfishing and habitat loss. The program receives its funding through the Guy Harvey Ocean Foundation, Guy Harvey Inc., licensing fees, and grants and donations.
Sustaining the foundation and his business, meanwhile, has meant casting an ever-wider net. There was a Guy Harvey television show. There's a Guy Harvey magazine. Along with Harvey-branded scratch-off lottery games and Florida license plates, there are plans for two Guy Harvey documentaries that will be available on iTunes. Most recently, Harvey licensed his name to the TradeWinds Island Resort in St. Pete Beach, which rebranded one of its resorts as the "Guy Harvey Outpost."
He has had some failures — a chain of seven restaurants called the Guy Harvey Island Grill closed last year.
The Harvey brand hasn't broken through nationally in the same way, for example, as the Tommy Bahama apparel line. Trend contacted two analysts who follow the retail industry. Neither had heard of Harvey.
Harvey is keen to change that. Last year, Guy Harvey Inc. began a campaign to broaden his appeal — starting with a line of collegiate T-shirts for Southeastern schools that feature the schools' mascots rather than fish. The company also has rolled out a line of shirts with images for the Navy, Air Force, Marines and Coast Guard. The shirts don't feature fish.
"We are trying to get bigger than the fishing business," Harvey says. The collegiate and other lines "are all important for us to build the brand into a meaningful national brand, not just a lifestyle brand." Success, he adds, means more money for marine conservation.
Harvey, who travels at least 30 weeks a year to events like the Beall's appearance in Tallahassee to promote his brand, lives and paints on Grand Cayman Island. Commerce is always close at hand. Harvey's studio is also a store, and he says he likes to chat with customers as he paints.
"It's all fun; it's all part of the game," he says. "We get a lot of cruise ships coming in. The beauty of that situation is you get a boatload of customers every single day."
This article originally appeared in Florida Trend magazine. To read other Florida Trend stories and interviews, go to floridatrend.com.