By  on November 14, 2007

NEW YORK — Determined to remain an independent, privately held company, Nicole Miller is selling 30 percent of its business to its 150 employees through an Employee Stock Ownership Plan.

The designer and Bud Konheim, owner of Nicole Miller's parent company, Kobra International, revealed their plans Tuesday following a year of mulling over various options. The company, which has sales of $350 million a year at retail, entertained six inquiries from American and European firms interested in different ventures, including the outright sale of Nicole Miller and its trademarks, and various partnerships.

In an interview Tuesday, Miller said what made the most sense was to maintain control of the company creatively, as well as from a business standpoint. Over the past 25 years, she and Konheim have developed a brand that sells eveningwear, dresses and sportswear under the Nicole Miller signature and Collection labels that are sold in the designer's freestanding boutiques and 1,200 specialty retailers. There are also accessories, bags, footwear, eyewear, fashion jewelry, fragrance, home products, furniture and the Nicole by Nicole Miller collection manufactured and distributed by licensees.

"The big thing is we don't like losing control of the business," Miller said. "This is a really great way to be able to offer something to our employees to make them want to stay. We have a lot of employees who have been here for a while and we want to take care of them."

Miller has also noticed how other designers sold their companies, faced difficult adjustments and, in many cases, lost their independence. "I've seen a lot of designers being sold to big companies and the small companies lose their cachet. We wanted to keep our own vision," she said.

Inevitably, many of those buyouts lead to grand expansion plans, Konheim said.

"This is not about getting money to leverage us into some big, big thing. We focus on trying to do the right things," Konheim said. "Everyone always says, 'How many doors do you sell?' We don't talk doors — we sell to people."

Konheim declined to say how much the offers were for, other than to say, "They were very substantial, and in some cases, we thought what we were offered was more than we were worth."The company planned to notify employees of the strategy today and this afternoon a celebratory Mexican lunch is planned for them in the showroom, Miller said. In the meantime, the designer planned to hit the Van Halen concert Tuesday night.

There is no cost to employees to participate in the ESOP and they are included provided they have worked a designated number of hours within the calendar year. Union employees will not be part of the ESOP.

Corporate Solutions Group LLC designed and implemented the transaction, which was set up by founder and managing director Larry Kaplan and managing director Alex Meshechok.

In unveiling the strategy, the fashion firm's parent Kobra disclosed that Nicole Miller's 2007 retail sales of branded products totaled $350 million, with apparel generating $166 million; accessories, footwear, handbags, prescription eyewear, sunglasses, fashion jewelry and fragrance accounting for $134 million, and home products, including bed and bath items, as well as Nicole Miller furniture accounting for $50 million.

In the meantime, sales of Miller's designer collection have doubled in the past five years, added Konheim.

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