By  on March 16, 2006

NEW YORK — Jones Apparel Group chief executive officer Peter Boneparth is slowly recasting the empire that its founder and chairman, Sidney Kimmel, built.

Now Boneparth might be about to take the biggest step of all to shape Jones in his image: to sell Nine West. Financial and market sources said a book is out on the footwear firm, which Jones bought in March 1999 for $1.48 billion. Whether it will result in a sale is still uncertain. Brown Shoe Co. Inc., a competitor, is said to have looked at the company, while Vince Camuto of the Camuto Group is said to be contemplating a buyback of Nine West, which he co-founded in 1977.

Calls on Wednesday to executives at Jones and Camuto Group were not returned for comment at press time. A spokeswoman for Brown Shoe declined comment.

Boneparth, at a Bank of America Consumer Conference presentation here on Tuesday, acknowledged that because of the money that has to be put to use by financial players, prices were getting "pretty frothy out there."

While Jones doesn't need to make an acquisition, that frothy acquisition environment could also be an ideal time to make a divestiture.

Boneparth said that the company's mind-set is to do what will "enhance shareholder value....What's going to be the thing that's going to maximize shareholder value, whether it be divestitures, acquisitions, stock buybacks, dividends, pay down debt...that's how we think."

Financial sources said Nine West does about $1 billion in annual wholesale volume, and about another $900 million or so in retail sales. A sale of the entire operation could bring in at least $2 billion for Jones, some Wall Street analysts predicted. In addition to footwear, the Nine West brand is a big player in the accessories business, from handbags to small leather goods. The company also has a small apparel component. The Nine West stable of brands includes Nine West, Enzo Angiolini, Bandolino, Easy Spirit and Pappagallo.

But the Nine West business has been struggling for several years. While the footwear sector is profitable, one Wall Street analyst noted it's an area of little growth. The brand, however, generates a "decent amount of cash flow," the analyst said.

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