CINCINNATI — David Dougherty isn’t the first local executive to launch a new career in retirement. But he might be the only one pursuing two Next Act careers at the same time.
Dougherty, 62, is the former CEO of Convergys Corp., a call center operator where he worked for 20 years. Now he’s launching a tennis apparel company even as he competes on the USTA Pro Circuit in the Men’s 60-65 division.
Ninetyeight6 Performance Tennis Apparel plans to launch a new clothing line next spring that’s designed to keep athletes from overheating in the middle of a match.
“There’s a mineral embedded into the fiber of the material which helps regulate your body temperature,” Dougherty said. “In addition to that … we use body mapping to create airflow to help pull away and get the sweat away from your body.”
Dougherty is tapping into several economic mega trends in his new quest, including a rising number of people working past retirement age, the use of independent contractors to build new companies and the use of direct-to-consumer marketing strategies to establish new brands cost effectively.
AARP calls seniors “ the hottest demographic in the labor market ,” with 32 percent of 65- to 74-year-olds projected to be in the workforce by 2022. The Federal Reserve in 2017 estimated 31 percent of all adults – or roughly 78 million people -- were participating in the “gig economy,” which it defines broadly to include independent contractors, babysitters, Uber drivers and flea market merchants.
In addition, direct-to-consumer brands like Dollar Shave Club, HelloFresh and Warby Parker have caused major disruption for retailers and consumer-product companies like Kroger and Procter & Gamble. In fact, the new leader of Cintrifuse wants to court such companies as one of six ways of growing Cincinnati’s startup scene.
“I see no reason why we can’t have our own number of Dollar Shave Clubs in Cincinnati given the talent that we have,” Pete Blackshaw told local IT professionals in a Sharonville speech last week.
'Not just selling a shirt'
Dougherty is a prime example of such talent, with a 40-year business career that started in 1978 with P&G. After working to build the Puffs, Charmin and Pringles brands, Dougherty left to start a line of sunglass shops for Lenscrafters. Next came a 20-year stint at Convergys, where Dougherty held the top job from 2007 to 2010. After that, he launched a nonprofit call center company, Education At Work, which was acquired in 2017.
He’s been working on his tennis game since then, rising in the national rankings to the mid 30s this year before injuring his right shoulder. As he rehabs after surgery, he’s putting the finishing touches on his clothing line, which uses fabric from an Atlanta company, logo design from Cincinnati-based goDutch and production by Think Sports, an athletics apparel manufacturer in China.
“We wanted to make it here,” Dougherty said. “It’s quite a complicated design with a lot of laser cutting, body mapping, working with the material itself. Unfortunately, we couldn’t find anybody in the United States that had the technology to execute it.”
Although he plans to sell the apparel to online customers only, Dougherty said there is interest from professional tennis players who want to sell the product at their clubs. He also might sell a stake in the company to investors to raise money for expansion, but has no definitive plans to do so at this point.
Dougherty worked with Los Angeles designer Claire Ortiz, a former global creative director for Nike Inc., to develop prototypes that will be sold online starting early next year. Priced at up to $150 for a collared shirt and shorts, the gear isn’t cheap. But Dougherty thinks it will appeal to the roughly 2 million men who play tennis regularly in the U.S.
“If you can keep your body at 98.6 you actually perform best,” he said. “If your body temperature starts to elevate, that’s when your performance starts to degrade. You get more tired. You get lactic acid (build up in muscles). All these bad things start to happen in your body.”
The strategy makes sense to branding consultant Dan Crask, CEO and creative director of Brand Shepherd in Wyoming.
“You’re not just selling a shirt but you’re selling an element of a lifestyle,” he said. “Think about football players, baseball, basketball, cross fitters, these people are buying brands that fit their lifestyle. If this brand can position themselves as part of a tennis-passionate lifestyle, something that goes into that customer persona, they’ll have nothing but success.”
Will it work?
Tennis Pro David Russell is a fan of the product. He’s the manager of the Indoor Tennis Club in Indian Hill, where Dougherty trains. After a brief work out in Ninetyeight6 apparel, Russell praised how well the shirt “flows with the body movements” of tennis with a “very breathable” fabric that made perspiration a non factor.
“It’s very comfortable,” Russell. “I really don’t even feel like I have clothes on to be honest with you. It’s that light-fitted.”
Kim Dougherty likes a design feature of her husbands tennis line: A notch in the shirt that makes it easier for players to reach into their pocket for a ball. Married 32 years, the couple is enjoying the travel associated with this new chapter of their lives. Kim Dougherty has even taken up tennis as she helps build the company.
"I worked in cardiac rehab, taught a lot of exercise classes," she said. "But I didn't learn to play tennis until about two years ago."
Dougherty said the brand could grow to $5 million in annual revenue by capturing 5 percent of the roughly $100 million now spent on men’s tennis apparel. Down the road, he hopes to launch a line for women and add wearable sensors to the clothing as a way to generate future revenue growth.
“The ladies’ market is even bigger than the men’s market. So, we think that would enable us to continue to build the brand in the future,” he said.
Because tennis is a niche category, Dougherty thinks Ninetyeight6 can grow to a significant size before industry giants like Nike and Adidas go after him with competing products.
“Hopefully they do notice us because potentially down the road there’s an opportunity they could acquire us,” he said.