OGDEN, Utah – Brigham City businesswoman Jill Williams Grover’s pioneering spirit should come as no surprise. It’s evident not only in her dedication to her fast-growing company, it’s also in her blood.
Her Jillie Willie line of clothing and fashion accessories, which combine pioneer sensibilities and design with modern fabrics and style, are blazing a trail much like that of her great-great-great-grandfather James G. Willie, captain of the Willie Handcart Company, who led a group of settlers on their arduous trek across the American West.
In August 2006, Grover visited Martin’s Grove in Wyoming and spent three days retracing the footsteps of her famous ancestor, developing a newfound admiration for what he and the other pioneers endured. Grover said the experience changed her life and planted the seed for Jillie Willie.
Upon returning from the trek, Grover and her older sister, Debbie Griffiths, began making aprons to sell at Brigham City’s annual Peach Days festival. The response to the aprons was astounding. Grover sold out within two hours, and she and her sister were inundated with calls and orders for more, even weeks after the festival ended.
“There’s something about aprons that conjures up memories of days gone by, of mothers and kitchens,” Grover said. Her line of aprons draws on that nostalgia and updates it with fresh colors, designs and fabric, and modern necessities, like pockets for cell phones.
Reminiscent of her pioneering ancestor, Grover’s path to success wasn’t easy. Just as the Jillie Willie idea was starting to take off, Griffiths took ill and passed away suddenly.
“It was about the time I lost my sister that I started thinking, ‘I need to really hit this or get out of it,’” Grover said. “I thought, ‘I’m done, I’m done,’ but I could feel Debbie’s spirit nudging me to go on and really hit it.”
And hit it she did. Soon, demand for aprons forced Grover to abandon sewing them herself, and she had to find a U.S. manufacturer to make the products. Jillie Willie also began to diversify, offering bags and slippers in addition to aprons.
“I’m good at design and the creative side of things, but I’m not a numbers person,” Grover said. “I wasn’t prepared to tackle the marketing and contract side. I really didn’t know where to begin.”
With her expanding business facing new challenges and opportunities, Grover sought assistance from Beverly King at Weber State University’s Small Business Development Center (SBDC).
“I took in a stack of papers to Beverly, and she went through every page and explained it to me in words that I understood,” Grover said. The paperwork included a contract offer from the Neiman Marcus catalog.
King also referred Grover to Curt Roberts, Utah Science, Technology and Research’s Northern Utah Regional Technology Outreach director, who previously worked as corporate vice president for global strategy at Nike.
“Curt knows the apparel business,” King said. “I knew having Jill talk to him could help her focus on some key branding, production and distribution issues.”
Grover said Roberts gave her insights into dealing with overseas markets, and his encouragement and excitement gave her increased confidence about the products and the Jillie Willie brand.
“It was great to draw upon Curt’s knowledge and experience,” Jill says. “He gave me some great advice on costs, and it was also helpful getting his perspective on branding and labeling. I remember he said, ‘Your product is of premium quality. Charge for that quality, and don’t sell to just anybody.’ He gave me confidence to engage with Neiman Marcus at favorable terms.”
Neiman Marcus ultimately placed some Jillie Willie products in its catalog and reordered twice, moving more than 1,000 items. Grover, who credits King and the SBDC with helping her understand the process, is amazed that such valuable expertise is available for free to small business owners. Grover said that when Neiman Marcus contacted her again this year about another placement, she was much more comfortable and immediately knew how to respond.
Jillie Willie products have been featured in several other publications, including the Ladies Home Journal’s December gift guide. Rave reviews have come from customers across the country including TV personality Kelly Ripa, as well as customers in Norway, Germany and Scotland.
Responding to customer feedback, Grover thinks the next step for Jillie Willie may be placing her products in retail settings.
After spending 15 years as a successful interior designer, Grover was able to use the Jillie Willie product to return to her first love: fashion design, which she studied as a student at Utah State University. She also is the author of several craft and decorating books, many of which are available for sale on the Jillie Willie Web site.
The mother of three and grandmother of two loves that she can run the business from her Box Elder home. Manufacturing takes place in Los Angeles, with a warehouse in Brigham City.
“These aprons are my kids, and if somebody didn’t like one of them, I don’t know what I’d do,” Grover said. “Good thing the feedback has been so positive.”
For more information about Grover’s company, visit jilliewillie.com.
Visit weber.edu/wsutoday for more news about Weber State University.