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Tory Burch talks about choosing great investors

January 22, 2013, 10:12 PM UTC

In a Fortune exclusive, the fashion entrepreneur speaks after resolving her legal battle with her ex-husband and bringing in two major new investors.

With no formal education in fashion, no MBA and just $1 million of her own capital, Tory Burch started selling “affordable luxury” in 2004 and built a business now worth billions.

But the golden girl of the fashion industry recently experienced “every entrepreneur’s nightmare”–as I called her company’s partnership gone awry, in an exclusive Q&A with Burch at Stanford University last week. Our on-stage session was Burch’s first interview since she resolved a legal battle with her co-founder who became a fierce competitor. In her case, the competitor is her ex-husband and the father of her three sons. Using the name C. Wonder, Chris Burch opened a chain of stores that seem like a downmarket mix of Tory Burch and Kate Spade and J. Crew, with Tory-like but cheaper merchandise, including the signature logoed ballet flats that helped make Tory Burch a global brand.

The legal settlement, finalized in late December, has Chris Burch revamping his retail concept, leaving the Tory Burch board, and selling about half of his 28.3% stake in her company.

Neither party is permitted to speak about the legal battle or the settlement. But Tory Burch, who committed months ago to sit down with me at Stanford, offered this advice about bringing on investors: “One thing I see all the time with entrepreneurs is that they give too much of their company away way too soon.”

Burch, 46, earned her entrepreneurial chops while working early in her career for Ralph Lauren and other fashion icons, but lately learned about partnerships the hard way. Her new partners, who acquired her ex-husband shares, are Connecticut-based investment firm General Atlantic and Chicago-based BDT Capital Partners.

“It was not a just-met situation,” Burch told the audience of Stanford students, faculty and alumni. She spent a year or so getting to know General Atlantic CEO Bill Ford and BDT’s Byron Trott, assessing their visions, gauging their integrity, and keeping in mind a key question: “How is [their investment] going to affect the company five, ten years from now?”

Ford and Trott convinced Burch that they’re patient investors, as focused on long-term growth as she is. Trott is a former Goldman Sachs banker who earned the favor of his client Warren Buffett and left Goldman in 2009 to open his own firm. Trott’s BDT Capital has, in addition to its new position in Tory Burch, stakes in Peet’s Coffee and Tea, Caribou Coffee, and the maker of Weber grills. General Atlantic’s portfolio includes Facebook , Gilt Groupe, Chinese Internet giant Alibaba, and a collection of Chinese-based consumer companies. The firm typically holds on to its investments for five to seven years, longer than many of its rivals.

Of course, neither investor was game to bet on Tory Burch until she settled with her ex. Now that Chris (who like Tory, invested $1 million nine years ago) has unloaded half his holdings, Tory is her namesake company’s largest shareholder, with 28.3% of the stock. Her new investors valued her business at more than $2.5 billion–making her stake worth more than $700 million.

With 83 freestanding stores and her colorful sportswear and accessories in 1,000 department and specialty stores, Tory Burch brings in some $800 million in annual revenue. Now Trott and Ford are expected to be key advisers and help the designer-CEO accelerate her company’s global growth.

Will Tory Burch go public? Probably, but Burch says that an IPO is not in her plan soon. One thing she values practically as much as growth: restraint. “We’re a very patient brand,” she says.

Here’s more from Tory Burch, on stage with me at Stanford: