Fortunoff’s new owner appointed two executives Tuesday to lead the effort to revive and grow the $439 million, 23-unit jewelry and home furnishings chain.

Charles Chinni, a veteran of home furnishings retailing, was named chairman and chief executive officer, confirming a report in WWD. Don Watros has been selected as vice chairman, a new position.

NRDC Equity Partners LLC, owner of Lord & Taylor and Creative Design Studio, last week bought Fortunoff out of Chapter 11 bankruptcy for $110 million. The seller was Trimaran Capital Partners, an equity group that along with K Group, another private equity firm, purchased Fortunoff in 2004. NRDC said it plans to spend $100 million to renovate Fortunoff stores and wants to double the size of the business in five years.

The chain’s “serious challenges” include immediately replenishing inventories, attracting more shoppers and pumping up key categories, Chinni said in an interview. “The stores look good, though our inventory has been somewhat depleted based on the problems of the last six or eight weeks, and the lack of shipping. Right now, we are certainly low on inventory. Looking at the overall condition of the stores, I think they held up.

“The franchise isn’t broke at all,” he added. “People respect this name and brand. It’s almost iconic in the Northeast.”

“I do have a short list of categories I think can begin to be looked at for growth,” Chinni said, citing window coverings, the more casual side of bridal business and fashion jewelry. He believes seasonal Christmas and outdoor furniture are among the stronger categories.

Chinni said he would consider a possible celebrity-endorsed home line to bring greater exclusivity to Fortunoff, but as yet has no one in mind.

He is reviewing the top managers but has no immediate plans for changes. Chinni succeeded Arnold Orlick, who left two weeks ago. He intends to get an apartment in Manhattan for easy access to the Fortunoff stores in the metro area, including the four full-line stores, and the Uniondale, N.Y., headquarters.

Another priority is installing Fortunoff-leased jewelry shops inside the 47 Lord & Taylor stores, replacing the Finlay leased jewelry operation.

This story first appeared in the March 12, 2008 issue of WWD.  Subscribe Today.

“This is a big project,” Chinni said. “We do need to review layouts and space allocations and perhaps expansion of many stores. There is a lot of work for us to do and only a year to do it. But the major ingredients are in place. Fortunoff has the buying and the infrastructure, but we do have to put together an organization capable of managing and running the 47 locations. We do need to expand our jewelry team to be able to run a turnkey operation at L&T,” with administrative and store personnel, as well as planning and allocations staff.

Another possibility is bringing elements of Fortunoff’s home business to Lord & Taylor. “Whether layering in a Fortunoff home business into Lord & Taylor [ultimately] includes every category depends on the evolution of the business as I see it, coupled with the amount of space available at Lord & Taylor,” he said.

“We have a really an aggressive growth plan,” Chinni said. “The relationship between Lord & Taylor and Fortunoff is special. It affords a lot of opportunities for both companies.”

Chinni had been retired for about a year since leaving J.C. Penney Co. Inc., where he was executive vice president and general merchandise manager for home, family footwear and women’s accessories. He was instrumental in helping turn around the Dallas-based chain and launching the Chris Madden home collection.

Chinni worked 26 years at Macy’s and its former Bamberger division, where he rose to president of merchandising responsible for home, cosmetics, lingerie and fine jewelry. He later served as executive vice president of merchandising for Kmart and chairman and chief executive officer of bed and bath retailer Stroud’s.

Watros, in addition to his new post at Fortunoff, continues as NRDC’s managing director of retail operations. He has been with NRDC since August 2006. Watros has spent more than 20 years in retailing and before NRDC was chief administrative officer for Saks Fifth Avenue. His expertise is in finance, planning, information technology, logistics and outlets.

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