“He strolls through the sewing factory where workers sit at machines stitching up garments. He points out the room filled with bolts of fabric waiting to be cut and sewn … He walks through the showroom into a computer room where patterns are drawn and printed out on an electronic printer … The first thing most apparel firm chiefs would show visitors are the clothes they are producing,” the Tampa Tribune reported in August of 1982.
“(Dick) Jacobson passes the racks of samples without a mention.”
Jacobson and his brother, Marty, found success by dressing fans — for college and pro sports.
Dick Jacobson, who created, ran, took public and later sold Nutmeg Mills with his brother, wasn’t the salesman or the showman. He was the chairman, devoted to the details, working in the background, anticipating change before it arrived.
He died Jan. 8 of Lewy body dementia at the age of 79.
Growing up, the Jacobson brothers often fought for who got to look at the sports page of the newspaper. If Marty Jacobson prevailed, Dick Jacobson picked up the business section.
When he was 15, he gathered up his brother and some friends, bought a $20 license and started selling sports pennants outside Yale University games in their hometown of New Haven, Conn.
Inside the stadium, those pennants sold for double what the brothers and their friends charged.
The two opened a business together selling discount panels, and when that business sold, they took their earnings and invested in several businesses, including a women’s clothing business in Tampa. They eventually bought that owner out and took over, but found women’s fashions changed too fast. So the Jacobsons went back to what they knew and loved — sports.
They created Nutmeg Mills, named in honor of their home state, and started with a licensing deal to sell University of Florida apparel off campus. Before long, they had deals with Major League Baseball, the National Football League and the NBA, then with brands including Snoopy, Charlie Brown, the Looney Toons and The Simpsons, and sports and popular culture blended on T-shirts and sweatshirts.
It was the right business at the right time, Marty Jacobson said.
But also, it was the right people.
“They were the classic ham-and-eggers,” said George Derhofer, the former CEO of the company, of the brothers. “Marty was kind of the outside guy and Dick was kind of the inside guy.”
At its peak, Nutmeg Mills had more than 2,000 employees, Marty Jacobson said.
Read inspiring stories about ordinary lives
Subscribe to our free How They Lived newsletter
You’re all signed up!
Want more of our free, weekly newsletters in your inbox? Let’s get started.Explore all your options
Among them, Dick Jacobson’s sons Marc, in business, and Todd, in sales.
On a sales trip to Cooperstown, New York, Todd Jacobson hit a patch of black ice and totaled his car. He called his dad and reassured him he wasn’t hurt. His dad’s response: “But your samples are OK, right?”
Daughter Carrie Killeen was too young to work with her dad and uncle, but she remembers visits to the factory, the smell of cigar smoke drifting from her dad’s office, and maybe some raised voices.
Jacobson knew how to motivate people, Derhofer said, and that each person needed something different. Sometimes it was a stern talking to, sometimes just a pat on the back.
Nutmeg Mills went public in 1986. By 1988, sales had grown from $700,000 to $12 million, the Tampa Tribune reported. The brothers sold the company to VF Corp. in 1994, and Jacobson stayed in Tampa and continued working behind the scenes in the community.
Jacobson was a fan his whole life. He loved the Minnesota Timberwolves, golfer Jordan Spieth, Nascar’s Joe Gibbs Racing. He was a fan of Tampa Bay, too, and supported the region through involvement in numerous philanthropies, including as a founding member of the Florida Holocaust Museum, the Tampa Bay Performing Arts Center and Menorah Manor.
He taught his kids and grandkids that nothing replaces hard work, son Marc Jacobson said, and that with it comes responsibility to take care of the people around you.
“I think having one of the most successful public companies in the area, he took the great responsibility of making sure that he was helping the community,” Marc Jacobson said.
And often, that support came anonymously.
Jacobson enjoyed being in the background, his brother said, but behind the scenes, he was intensely focused on success. He found it in his career, his community and the lives of the people he loved.
Poynter news researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this story.
• • •
Sign up for Kristen Hare’s newsletter and learn the stories behind our obituaries
Our weekly newsletter, How They Lived, is a place to remember the friends, neighbors and Tampa Bay community members we’ve lost. It’s free. Just click on the link to sign up. Know of someone we should feature? Please email Kristen at email@example.com.
• • •
Read other Epilogues:
‘Chapel of Love’ singer Rosa Lee Hawkins dies in Tampa at 76
After death, they remember their beloveds with an annual ad