By  on May 16, 2007

It's the end of an era for Leslie H. Wexner and the business he founded 24 years ago.

The $11 billion Limited Brands Inc. has decided to sell off 67 percent of Express to Golden Gate Capital, a private equity firm, for $548 million, while retaining 33 percent.

In addition, the company will explore options for the Limited Stores division, including possibly selling it off.

"These changes are born of a careful, and I believe thoughtful, strategy shift, and are undertaken to increase value and improve performance and opportunity for growth for all businesses involved," Wexner, the chairman and chief executive officer of Limited Brands, said on a recorded message. "Over the last decade, we have changed a lot and evolved, putting greater emphasis on personal care, intimate apparel and beauty."

Golden Gate has about 100 transactions to its name, manages $3.4 billion in funds and has been active in the specialty apparel and direct marketing areas. The portfolio company, Catalog Holdings, has annual revenues of $1.1 billion across 13 titles, including Newport News, Spiegel and Eyecare Centers of America. It's also active in electronics, software, media and financial services.

The restructuring of Limited Brands is a culmination of almost a decade of steamrolling ahead with its Victoria's Secret and Bath & Body Works divisions, while largely stagnating on the apparel side, which analysts believe has been a drag on Limited Brands' stock. Ironically, shares dropped $1.23 Tuesday to $26.18 on the New York Stock Exchange, and has a 52-week range of $23.54 to $32.60.

The downsizing also reflects recent difficulties being experienced by an older generation of apparel specialty chains, including Gap, Ann Taylor, Pacific Sunwear and Talbots, that seem to be losing market share to Abercrombie & Fitch, American Eagle Outfitters and J. Crew, as well as department and discount stores that have been beefing up private label fashion offerings such as Target, Kohl's and J.C. Penney.

Wexner founded his empire in 1963 with some borrowed money and a single fashion store called Limited in Columbus, Ohio. In two decades, the business became a specialty store powerhouse, and for awhile, the envy of the industry. It was known for fast turns and rapid interpretations of trendy European fashions that were on the selling floors for the masses within a few weeks after the runway shows.

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