By  on November 16, 2005

Claudio Del Vecchio is a master of the juggling act.

After purchasing the venerable Brooks Brothers chain in 2001, the president and chief executive officer of Retail Brand Alliance Inc. took a giant leap forward to return the battered chain to its former glory while never losing sight of its nearly 200 years of history.

In the past four years, he has significantly upgraded the merchandise mix, spiffed-up stores, expanded overseas and added several product categories. Although he acknowledged there's still work to be done — notably in the women's wear arena — his determination is paying off in higher-quality offerings and a more efficient shopping experience.

In a presentation titled "Brooks Brothers: 187 Years of Innovation and Change," Del Vecchio said the company is not good because it is old, but rather old because it is good. "At Brooks Brothers, we have a healthy respect for the past," he said, "but we're not completely influenced by it. We view our history as ‘an inventory of experience' to be drawn upon to meet the challenges of today."

Brooks Brothers is "a vital, dynamic, living organization," he added, with "very good genes."

Founded by Henry Sands Brooks in 1818 — "a time of tremendous change and opportunity" — the company was a pioneer in the transatlantic exchange of merchandising ideas and fashion trends. That connection still exists today, with Brooks Brothers stores currently in operation in Asia and Italy and on the drawing board for the U.K. This month, Del Vecchio said, Brooks will open its first store in London, with a second one on tap within the next year. "It might have taken us almost 188 years to get there, but it was inevitable and, at last, we made it," he said.

Del Vecchio attributed the company's survival over the years to "one of the most beautifully articulated and longest-running mission statements in American business history: "to make and deal only in merchandise of the finest quality, to sell it at a fair profit and to deal with people who seek and appreciate such merchandise."

In the late 1840s, the first American department stores sprung up in New York, and by the end of the century they dominated American retailing. Not to be outdone, Brooks opened its now-legendary flagship at 346 Madison Avenue, which Del Vecchio called "the final step in the elevation of Brooks Brothers to iconic status."In 1946, Brooks was sold to Garfinckel & Co. and John Wood, a former B. Altman executive, who was "described as ‘Brooksier than Brooks,'" took over as president. In the Eighties, Garfinckel was itself purchased by Allied Stores Corp., which soon undertook "aggressive growth" of the business, he said, "undermining the company's historic strengths."

"Then along came Robert Campeau: a reckless combination of stock market and real estate speculation in unprecedented proportions." Campeau purchased Allied and soon thereafter sold Brooks to Marks & Spencer. The British retailer's focus on the bottom line led to an even more diluted message, but Del Vecchio could nonetheless see the potential in the business and bought the chain from M&S in 2001.

He soon visited the company's archives and engrossed himself in the photographs, fabrics, colors and designs that illustrated Henry Sands Brooks' original mission. "What I saw in the archives was not the jacket to build, but the reason for it and the motivation behind it," he said.

Del Vecchio's strategy was to revert to the company's original mission statement and move back toward being "an innovator, not a conservator." Over the years, he said, Brooks Brothers has been credited with inventing everything from seersucker (in 1830) and the first ready-made suit (1845) to the button-down polo collar shirt (1896), the repp tie (1920) and argyle socks (1949).

"If you want your product to be the benchmark for the industry, you must commit constantly to reexamining your sources to ensure that you are providing the best product at a value to the customer. It's constant, sensible revolution, not revolution for revolution's sake," he said.

Noting that "today's retail environment is characterized by mind-boggling change," Del Vecchio said that from the unique vantage point of 187 years of history, the only true constant has been change. "At Brooks Brothers, we see opportunities in change and in today's accomplishments, we see the promise of tomorrow."

Fielding questions after his formal presentation, Del Vecchio admitted the company's women's results have been "inconsistent" and there's a "major disconnect" between Brooks' men's and women's offerings.However, he is convinced women's remains one of the company's largest opportunities. "The biggest limitation for women's growth is space," he said, noting the category currently represents about 15 percent of the volume. "The challenge is to remerchandise the stores to make room for women's, which is our fastest- growing business." He pointed to the Brooks store on the Ginza in Tokyo, where women's represents 37 percent of sales. "But we won't take out [men's] suits to do women's," he said.

Other opportunities include gifts, home, china, boys' and girls' wear, he said. Boys' is selling strongly and he is searching for space to add girls' as well. With stores averaging 10,000 square feet, it's hard to find space for other categories, he admitted, but "we're convinced the whole family can shop in our stores. Clothes are an excuse for the relationship and fulfilling the lifestyle is our mission."

One solution would be to open larger stores, but since he sees Brooks as a "downtown brand," it's hard to find significant space in prime urban locations. "So if we want to grow, we have to find other ways to do it."

One way is to look overseas. The company currently operates 15 stores in China, and Del Vecchio believes that country has the potential "to be a bigger market for us than the U.S." Brooks also operates 70 stores in Japan, which is "helping us a lot in China," he said.

Del Vecchio, who recently sold RBA's Casual Corner women's chain, said that when he purchased Brooks he was unaware of the effort and time it would take to effect a turnaround. "It was a bigger challenge then we realized," he said. At the same time, Casual Corner needed its own infusion of time and money and Del Vecchio had to make a choice.

"We realized if we invested in Brooks Brothers there would be a better return, so we let it [Casual Corner] go," he said. As a result, RBA's only remaining "real strategic business" is Brooks. The company also owns Adrienne Vittadini and Carolee, but "Brooks Brothers is our future," he said.

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