CNBC - "Sam Walton Was a Hillbilly"

"Sam Walton Was A Hillbilly"

Mike Hegedus

Published 9:27 AM ET Wed, 5 Dec 2007  Updated 3:51 PM ET Thu, 5 Aug 2010

How many of you have ever met Levi Strauss? How about J.C. Penney, the man, not the store? Did you ever call Sam Walton a "hillbilly" and an "s.o.b." in print? The answer of course is, no. But "Papa Jack" Weil has done all three and lived to tell about it. He's lived 106 years.

"I guess I was just lucky. Better that than smart." "Papa Jack" is talking about his career in fashion. Yes, fashion. He's the man who invented one of the great American iconic pieces of clothing. The snap front Western shirt.

"He says he made it so cowboys couldn't get hung up on their saddles. I think it was a success because cowboys didn't like, or know how, to sew on buttons." That's his grandson Steve Weil explaining the business to me while we walk around the company store in downtown Denver. Rockmount Ranch Wear is the name of the company. It was founded in 1946 and what Jack Weil did was catch on to the culture of the times.

The late 30's and the 40's were the heyday of the American western movie. Tom Mix, Gene Autry, Roy Rogers, John Wayne, all names of movie stars of the day. All at one time wore a Rockmount shirt designed by Jack Weil.

"I can't believe what he did," Steve Weil says as we look down from the balcony overlooking the store. Jack is in an animated conversation with someone who has walked in. Yes, animated at 106. Yes, he uses a computer.

"I consider him to be the Henry Ford of western fashion. He designed it, manufactured it and sold it," Steve, now the CEO, says with a smile. It is Rockmount's signature Diamond snap and sawtooth pocket that sets it apart, that, and the designs on the more elaborate offerings. Steve designs them now, his grandfather did all the originals.

Western styles come and go across the fashion spectrum, but Rockmount has never wavered. That's why the younger Weil believes they've managed to stay in business all these years. Delivering a unique product, of high quality, with customer service. Of course exposure doesn't hurt, nor does an internet presence.

"I picked up the phone the other day and it was Eric Clapton. Eric Clapton! He wouldn't have found us before the internet," Steve says. Bob Dylan was in two weeks ago, and Bruce Springsteen wears Rockmount shirts.

"It's a style, a cut, that appeals to the young kid on a skateboard, and to his grandfather," Steve Weil believes that's another reason Rockmount, which has just this one retail store, and sells mostly wholesale around the world, is so successful in 2007. That an maybe a good dose of "Papa Jack's" spirit.

"See that article on the easel over there? Read the part next to the bold print. Go ahead, read it out loud," he's laughing under his breath. It's an article from the London Times in which he says Levi Strauss was a nice fella, but got too big for his britches, and that Sam Walton was nothing but an "s.o.b" and "a hillbilly".

"I didn't actually hear him say it, but I wouldn't doubt it," says his grandson. Neither would I. Jack will be 107 in March.

You can see 'Mike On America' segments on CNBC's "Power Lunch," Monday, Wednesday and Fridays. You can catch us in person along the road. I'll be the one in a Western shirt.

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