BY SUSAN MAY
t was the final project of a semester-long marketing class: Build a make-believe company from the ground up. Business plan. Product development. Advertising strategy. The works.
The imaginary company created by Eddie Rodriguez (B.B.A. '77) in that University of Miami classroom in 1976 was a runaway success. He even wrote customers into his script and had them clamoring around the world for his fictional product. His success wasn't all just on paper, either-he earned an "A" for his effort.
Two decades later, Rodriguez's University of Miami education has paid off. Many times over. He is creative director and CEO of Wilke-Rodriguez, a men's designer sportswear company he co-founded in 1987 on a shoestring budget. Over the past 12 years, he has watched it grow into a multimillion-dollar clothing line sold in hundreds of stores all over the world, including three of his own. By the time his third store opened in Miami Beach last year, he had come full circle, back to his roots, back to his home.
Born in Varadero Beach, Cuba, Rodriguez grew up in Miami and graduated from Belen Jesuit Preparatory School before deciding to study business at the University of Miami.
"I didn't really know what I wanted to do back then," says Rodriguez, 42. "It was more like a process of elimination. I was always interested in pop culture, and I really liked fashion. And I knew I wanted to be in a creative business-not selling widgets.''
Armed with a degree in international marketing, Rodriguez left the University in 1977 and started working for a footwear company before moving on to a string of apparel outlets. He finally joined Gravity, a young men's sportswear company in New York. It was there that he really learned the business inside out.
"I've always been involved in start-up companies, but at Gravity I was really thrown into the lion's den," says Rodriguez, who spent five years as vice president of marketing and sales. "I was made responsible for everything from product design to business strategy."
All that responsibility soon led to frustration. He wanted more control. He yearned to lead a business of his own.
"I realized I had to stop complaining," says Rodriguez. "I said to myself, 'If you're so unsatisfied, why don't you do it on your own?'"
t was during that time that Rodriguez crossed paths with Terry Wilke, a young designer who had been recruited by Gravity to work on its young men's collection. They shared the same ideas. Both were burned out by the bureaucratic decision-making and compromise. They wanted to grab hold of the creative process and guarantee top-drawer merchandise. So they began planning.
"One night we went out to dinner and issued a challenge to each other to make it on our own," says Rodriguez. "The next day we both resigned. I think after that, it was fear that propelled us."
Their first hurdle was financing their new company. With money borrowed from their parents, the young entrepreneurs stitched together a conceptual plan. They began traveling across the country, with only sketches and painted swatches to show potential buyers. Rodriguez still keeps mementos of those days-orders written on hotel letterhead and legal pads.
"It was a struggle," he says. "We were working in a very capital-intensive business with very little capital. We didn't even have an office for the first nine months."
What they did have was a vision.
"We wanted to improve the dress of American men," explains Rodriguez. "We wanted to create the kind of product that could truly inspire men to express their individual sense of style, rather than follow the herd mentality.''
Their instincts paid off. Their first year produced sales of $150,000 and the thrill of finding their niche in some of the best stores in the country, like Bloomingdale's and Macy's.
But the rush of the pairs' ultimate success would belong to Rodriguez alone. Five years after the company was created, Terry Wilke died of complications from AIDS. His death at 36 was a tremendous loss, but Wilke's commitment to the company was evident to the end.
"While Terry was literally on his deathbed, he wanted to be involved and engaged," says Rodriguez. "I wanted the design team to work as much as possible with him to really understand the Wilke-Rodriguez philosophy."
Rodriguez believes that those final months of working together helped keep Wilke alive.
"It was a horrific experience to see such a creative, wonderful guy die," he says. "We were business partners and close friends, and we had worked so hard together. I went through a long thinking process. Do I shut down? Do I try to continue? I finally decided that the best tribute I could give him was to keep his name alive.
"My biggest regret,'' he adds, "is that he never got to see what our company has become."
Wilke would have been proud. Today Wilke-Rodriguez has its own stores in East Hampton, New York; Santa Monica, California; and Miami Beach, Florida, with another planned for New York City's Soho district. Their merchandise is also sold in 360 stores in the United States and Canada and is distributed in Japan, Australia, New Zealand, and Mexico. And the company has earned lofty positions on Hispanic Business magazine's list of the top 500 Hispanic businesses and in Crain's New York Business Survey.
odriguez believes his success rests upon his long-held commitment to integrity hard work, and the overriding belief that anything is possible. Their corporate name, PAECO (Possibilities Are Endless Company), reflects this vision. They created a line of sportswear, casual wear, and accessories that are fashionable, practical, and comfortable. They wanted to make clothes that promote confidence and individuality in men. Clothes that reflect close attention to fabric, color, and shape. Clothes that men of all ages could afford.
"It's not about age, it's about a lifestyle," says Rodriguez. "When we design, we keep in mind a man who is aware, a guy who could be in his mid-20s or mid-50s. You can be young at heart at age 55 and want something more distinctive, very sophisticated."
Wilke-Rodriguez was inspired by some of the top fashion designers, including Ralph Lauren.
"Ralph Lauren is not just about a pair of pants and a shirt," says Rodriguez. "He's about a certain style, whether it's clothes or bed linens. He's created a vision. He has sold people on his world, at least from a fantasy point of view-the house in the country, the BMW-close your eyes and it can be yours. But at the end of the day, what he sells is a lot of $50 polo shirts with that little horse on it. He's a marketing genius."
And the message Rodriguez wants his clothes to inspire? "I want people to think of us as cool, sexy, modern, fun, spirited," he says. "I want to give men great options and not dictate 'You will only wear black.'''
That's not to say Rodriguez wants to shy away from the glitter crowd. Opening a store in South Beach seems a natural for Wilke-Rodriguez's self-described blend of sexy, modern, and cool. So what took so long?
"I fought the idea of opening a store there because Miami was the place I came to relax, not to work," explains Rodriguez. "I wanted to keep Miami as this nice little place where I could hang out at the beach, visit my mom and dad, and eat black beans and rice. But I had a wonderful opportunity I couldn't pass up: an architecturally beautiful building in a key location at Eighth and Washington. And it's doing very well."
Although Rodriguez may have been reluctant to bring his work to his home, he admits the creative ideas and designs that have made his company such a success are strongly influenced by his culture and environment.
"I'm a true definition of a Cuban-American. I've grown up in America, but I'm rooted in my mom and dad's culture. When I mention spirited and fun and passionate, those words are often used to describe the Latin culture. I make clothes with natural fabrics that are tropical and earthy and reflect the colors of the ocean and the sand. I am who I am, so my work has got to show that."
A fan club of friends, relatives, and South Florida celebrities welcomed Rodriguez back to South Florida last year with open arms. The store's grand opening was more like a homecoming, with Emilio and Gloria Estefan (A.B. '78) and Latin music superstar Carlos Ponce on hand.
"A big part of my heart is in Miami," says Rodriguez, who now splits his time between Miami Beach and New York. "My parents live there and so does my brother, and my godchildren. And I still root very loudly for the Hurricanes."
In fact, Rodriguez will soon have the opportunity to revisit his alma mater. Marketing professor Michael Levy has asked him to speak to his class. It will be an honor for Rodriguez, who fondly remembers his own college days when successful businesspeople would visit and help make the connection between school and the real world. This time, Rodriguez will be able to offer his own words of wisdom.
"I'll tell the students to follow their hearts and persevere," says Rodriguez. "It's easy to work for someone else and collect that paycheck, and it's a struggle to start your own business. But if you stick to it and follow your heart, it becomes a labor of love."
Susan May is a frequent contributor to Miami magazine. Photography by Don Hamerman.