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Glen Senk Links With Berkshire Partners

Retail executive and private equity firm have formed Front Row Partners — which plans to build a portfolio of companies in the retail and consumer sectors.

Glen Senk has landed and plans on shaking up the investment scene.

The former chief executive officer of David Yurman and Urban Outfitters Inc. has linked with private equity firm Berkshire Partners to form Front Row Partners — which plans to build a portfolio of companies in the retail and consumer sectors that are in sync with Senk’s design-conscious, people-pleasing approach to business.

Berkshire has committed an initial $350 million to the venture, but could put in additional funds. As well as his time, energy and connections, Senk will throw in his own money alongside of the Boston-based private equity firm and serve as chairman and ceo.

“I do believe in putting your money where your mouth is,” Senk told WWD in an interview in Midtown Manhattan last week. “It’s important for people to have a financial stake in things. It makes people make good investments and make good decisions.”

Front Row has a broad horizon, and Senk said they could invest in small, medium-size or large companies in a variety of sectors around the globe.

Marni Payne, senior director at Berkshire, said the effort could “unfold lots of different ways.”

“Through Front Row and our collective effort, our hope is that we bring something to the table that’s more than just capital,” she said. “We’re still in the early innings with our effort with Glen. The pipeline is robust, we’re looking at a lot of things together.”

Senk was set on this path in mid-2004 when he connected with Bare Escentuals founder Leslie Blodgett on his way to a WWD panel discussion on “The Next Wave of Beauty Retailing.” They met in an elevator on their way to the summit and Senk recalled the two of them hugging by the time they arrived. That led to a board seat at Bare Escentuals and an entrée to Berkshire, which had a stake in the beauty firm. Berkshire currently has investments in Aritzia, Citizens of Humanity and Coty Inc.

Senk said Front Row would seek out and invest in “concepts that are authentic, that are true to the vision of their creators. The businesses will have a common thread. They’ll be original, highly differentiated, innovative, creative, design-driven, forward thinking and customer-centric.” That’s a long and lofty list — and perhaps an uncommon set of attributes for a big-money investor to focus on. But Senk has an uncommon résumé. The first openly gay ceo of a Fortune 1000 company, Senk has spent time at a number of companies that share at least some of these virtues.

He worked at Bloomingdale’s, merchandise and marketing firm Habitat Group and Williams-Sonoma before joining Urban Outfitters in 1994 and leading the Anthropologie chain from a single-store prototype to a retail leader. Senk also had a seat on the Tory Burch board and a hand in that company’s development.

“I’ve known Glen a long time, and when I started the company, he was one of the people I went to for advice and showed him the concept,” Tory Burch said. “He really inspires people to do great work for him. I’ve always asked him for advice over the years. It was a pivotal time in our company’s growth. Every six months it was becoming a different kind of company, and I think he showed flexibility of thought and I think that was important for us.”

His 2012 move to David Yurman was a surprise and, as it turns out, a relatively short engagement. “I loved my two years at David Yurman,” he said. “It was a fantastic two years, and I’m really proud of what I was able to accomplish.…We agreed on most everything. We disagreed on a few things, and I just felt like it was time for me to do this.”

The paths not taken include Apple’s mammoth retail business. Senk had some preliminary discussions with the technology giant on the subject.

“I think if Steve Jobs had been alive,” Senk said, trailing off. “I never had a chance to meet him. There are some people I would just dream about meeting and he would be one of them. He was just a god to me in terms of what he was able to accomplish. An iron will, disciplined. What a genius.”

Front Row Partners is a chance for Senk to reengage on an entrepreneurial level. He plans to advise companies from the perspective of someone who worked six-and-a-half days a week to get Anthropologie off the ground, overseeing every order for the first five years.

“Entrepreneurs tend to trust other people who have been there, done that,” Senk said.

Senk said the industry is in the midst of massive change that was sped up by the recession and has opened up massive opportunity.

“Everyone keeps blaming the fashion…I don’t think it’s the fashion,” he said. “I think there’s a structural thing going on with apparel; I think there’s just too much apparel. It’s been commoditized, and I think the customer’s been trained to buy it at sale.

“It’s going to be a long time before we have a regular full-price apparel business,” he continued. “It will happen because I don’t think people are going to ever stop buying apparel, but I don’t think it’s going to look like it used to look.”

Senk said the Internet has commoditized anything with a code or style number and that forces of technology, demographics and emerging economies are rapidly changing the market. “It’s all bubbling up and having a dramatic impact on what people want to buy, the way people buy.”

He wants to work with companies that approach this challenge in a personal way.

“I love people,” he said. “I love taking care of people. I love making people happy. To me, the customer’s king. We’re in the business of making people feel good. We’re not in the clothing business. We’re not in the yoga business.”