How two islanders captured the Gulf culture with a logo
When Billy Ray Wagner showed up at his soon-to-be business partner’s door 10 years ago, all he brought with him was a concept that embraced his love for the Gulf and the culture that lies just beyond its surface.
The idea was to apply a stylized logo — SaltWater Soul — to apparel for those who shared his love of surfing and deep-sea fishing.
Tom Vaughn happened to share his passion for the sea.
“I’d been in the T-shirt business for 20 years at that point,” said Vaughn, Wagner’s partner in what came to be known as Wag Vaughn Sports and Adventures Inc., the company that owns and licenses the SaltWater Soul trademark. “I couldn’t tell you how many people had come to me with this idea or that idea, but I realized Billy’s idea could work.”
“All I had was the logo, a high school diploma and no marketing skills,” Wagner said. “But I’m an extrovert.”
If anything, that’s an understatement. The 47-year-old Wagner is kinetically energetic — “hyperactive,” is how Vaughn describes his partner in the Galveston-based apparel company. Not to mention enthusiastic, optimistic and passionate.
“I’ve never seen Billy with a doubt,” Vaughn, 51, said. “There’s always a spark lit by that passion that he has.”
Hence the brand.
“There’s something about being out on the saltwater, or in the saltwater, that gets in your soul,” Vaughn said. “People who get it, really get it. The brand is authentic. My wife and I and our kids, hey, if there are waves, we’re out surfing.”
“SaltWater Soul is a passion-driven brand,” Wagner said. “When I get away from the saltwater air, my nose starts bleeding. I’m not kidding you, I mean that.”
Full-time part-time job
When Wagner, who at the time owned a fence company, approached Vaughn in 2006 with his SaltWater Soul concept, the latter owned a T-shirt company specializing in silk-screen designs for companies, schools, sports teams and the like.
Wagner proposed that he and Vaughn team up to create a sideline, designing and manufacturing apparel bearing the SaltWater Soul logo: T-shirts, hoodies and ball caps.
Meanwhile, both men continued operating their existing enterprises; Vaughn has maintained his ownership in Outback T-shirt Co. — “it got the name because I was running it out of my garage and when my friends would call, my wife would say, ‘He’s out back’ — and Wagner continues operating his namesake Wagner Fence and Design.
The partners didn’t anticipate that SaltWater Soul — the brand is sold in select Gulf Coast stores as well as at Buc-ee’s convenience megamarts and, since last spring, at Cabela’s — would be as time-consuming as it has proved to be.
“We’ve done this on a part-time basis for 10 years,” Wagner said. “Part time, if you can call it that, with eight- to 10-hour days. It started as an idea that grew legs and started running.”
“Billy asks me all the time, ‘If you knew how much work this was going to be, would you do it again?’” Vaughn said.
His partner supplied the answered.
“I always say there’s no way I’d do it again, no way, no way in the world,” Wagner said. “We started out with black-and-white T-shirts, peddling them at piers and at fishing tournaments, that sort of thing. Trade shows, boat shows. We sold wherever we could, and we’ve grown this thing organically.”
Expanding the brand
The business partners don’t divulge Wag Vaughn Sports and Adventures’ revenue, other than to say it continues to grow.
“We’ve had healthy, consistent, steady revenue growth,” Vaughn said. “Hurricane Ike knocked us back, but four years ago, we said, ‘let’s really push this thing forward.’”
To that end, in addition to selling apparel wholesale to vendors such as Murdochs Pier, Buc-ee’s and Cabela’s, Wag Vaughn in January 2016 entered into a licensing agreement with TTY Branded, a division of Garland-based T-shirt Tycoon Solutions.
“Billy Ray has this thing about him, a really energetic, infectious personality,” said Adam Walterscheid, president and CEO of T-shirt Tycoon Solutions. “You take the company’s brand — good vibes and good times — and add Billy Ray to that, you’ve got yourself a really contagious product.”
One over which Wagner and Vaughn retain artistic control.
“We still maintain the design of the brand,” Vaughn said of SaltWater Soul-branded merchandise, while TTY Branded oversees production and marketing.
The arrangement has eased the partners’ workload.
“I told Tom, ‘I feel like this is the first time I’ve been able to breathe in 10 years,’” Wagner said.
Now, the privately held company is pursuing licensing agreements to extend the brand beyond apparel.
“We’re looking at other ways to market the SaltWater Soul logo, from sandals to sun block,” Wagner said. “Anything that speaks to the culture.”
That culture, as it turns out, goes beyond the soul, Vaughn said: “You’d be literally amazed how many people have SaltWater Soul tattoos.”