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Eileen Fisher’s Peaceful, Profitable Process

The bridge designer talks in Chicago.

Eileen Fisher speaking in Chicago.

CHICAGO — For some, it could have been an awkward moment, but not for Eileen Fisher.

When Fisher, the keynote speaker at the Entrepreneurial Woman’s Conference at Chicago’s Navy Pier, called for a minute of silence to replicate the manner in which she begins some company meetings, the capacity crowd of mostly women entrepreneurs looked around at each other and complied, though clearly relieved at its end.

“Isn’t it amazing how long a minute is?” Fisher posed. “It’s wonderful, though. It gives you a little space.”

Though seemingly simple, the technique illustrates Fisher’s unconventional approach to the workplace and likely represents a key to her growing $254 million business.

“I stumbled on a new approach to business,” she told the estimated crowd of 2,300 people. “It’s a more feminine approach.”

The soft-spoken Fisher, who admitted public speaking doesn’t come naturally to her, said she shrugged off her own discomfort to tell women to “learn to be confident in their own natural way and to trust that they don’t have to do it the man’s way.”

The formula has worked for Fisher, whose bridge brand has enjoyed 15 to 20 percent annual growth over the last five years while competitors such as Sigrid Olsen have shut down and Dana Buchman has gone down-market to Kohl’s. Fisher’s retail reach also continues to expand, with the company opening its 43rd store in suburban Highland Park, Ill., in November.

Amid all that activity, Fisher likes to relay that vibe within her own company. Having grown up in suburban Des Plaines, Ill., where she once worked at the local Burger King, she said she initiated a few minutes of silence to temper a stressful workplace. “People do too much work,” she said, and once the company began starting meetings with minutes of silence, “everyone calmed down. You could feel the collective energy and relax.”

The Irvington, N.Y.-based company also operates without a traditional structure.

“It’s nonhierarchal,” Fisher said, comparing the company structure to a solar system or constellation of stars in which a boss acts more as a facilitator or guide. “It could look chaotic, but it’s not a rigid box. I think of my company like a big school where we can be ourselves and be authentic.”

With that in mind, it’s not uncommon for some employees to shuttle from department to department based on changing interests or passions. Fisher, who likens her company to a family and at one point conducted meetings in her home, finds she focuses on employee dynamics, as well as fashion.

“Work is about the product, but it’s also about relationships,” said Fisher, who noted the company has conducted workshops about listening skills and stress management. “It’s about the people and the way we work together. To focus on those relationships has been really meaningful for us.”

Eileen Fisher also shares profits with its employees, gives them $1,000 apiece for education and offers another $1,000 a year to spend on wellness, be it for yoga classes, massages, belly dancing or reflexology.

Fisher, however, is careful about who she brings into the ‘family.’ She expects egos to be left at the door and kindness to prevail.

“We don’t hire someone if they’re not kind,” she said.

And that soft touch, no doubt, influences her clothing, which Fisher says she likes to keep simple and comfortable.

While Fisher, who is considering writing a book about the way she does business, says the company is looking to expand globally and increase its Internet presence, she feels grateful and wants to give back.

“I love the way it feels to be in my company,” Fisher said. “It’s joyous. I don’t know another company that operates like that. We have a certain abundance. Our cup is spilling over and it just feels right to do this. We want to support women.”