Thursday, March 22, 2012

Jerome Chazen from Liz Claiborne: "We allowed the growth potential to overtake the company"

This mistake story is from Knowledge@Wharton's interview with Liz Claiborne co-founder Jerome Chazen, author of "My Life at Liz Claiborne: How We Broke the Rules and Built the Largest Fashion Company in the World."

Knowledge@Wharton: What would you say your biggest mistake was running the company, or even before you became CEO, during that whole 30-year tenure?

Chazen: Well, with the benefit of hindsight, I would have worked harder to moderate our growth. I think we allowed the growth potential to overtake the company instead of us being in charge of it. It's a hard thing to explain. But you know, it was so exciting, for me anyway, to report better and better numbers, especially after we went public. I mean I loved it. I loved those quarterly [numbers] that were up 20% or 40%, whatever.

I think, looking back now, that I got carried away, that we should have done things more moderately. I very much appreciate, and I do mention in the book a couple of times, that the Ralph Lauren model was a much better model long range. He's still around and still cooking, and things are going well. Now of course he's primarily in the men's business, which is a much different business and in many ways a much easier business. But he balanced out. I wanted our company to eventually become very important in our own retail business. Unfortunately, we had grown so fast with the department stores and we were so locked in and dependent upon those people -- not only for the clothing we made, but for every other division in the company, including jewelry and fragrance and accessories and so on and so forth -- that we just couldn't move anymore. We couldn't make any moves.

Knowledge@Wharton: Too big, too fast.

Chazen: We did open some stores, but we were never able to be successful because, at that time, we were getting caught in the whole sale mentality of the department stores, which is another thing.... I tried very, very hard to stay out of those messes with the department stores, but it just became impossible.

Chazen vividly describes here what a seductive mistress growth can be. It was "exciting." He "loved" it. But at the end of the day, growth was a trap.

The company called Liz Claiborne will change its name in May 2012 to Fifth and Pacific. It owns the Juicy Couture, Lucky Jeans and Kate Spade brands. The Liz Claiborne brands have been retired.

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