By  on May 1, 2006

NEW YORK — Allen Questrom, a turnaround specialist who has headed retail giants such as J.C. Penney, Barneys New York, Neiman Marcus and Feder­ated Department Stores, believes it's difficult to make dramatic changes to a brand such as St. John that is so closely aligned with its customer.

Questrom is familiar with the label from his days running Neiman's, where St. John is among its largest vendors. He believes the brand is so embedded in the consumers' minds that it's a tough proposition to make it more contemporary.

"You have to be very careful when you make changes," said Questrom. "[St. John] really appealed to an older woman. The fabric makes her body look better. It's slimming and travels well, and really hugs the body well and doesn't disclose things the woman doesn't want disclosed."

The company's customers, whom he described as well-heeled, basically conservative and like their clothes to be recognizably expensive, have grown to depend on the line. "Not many people want St. John to be contemporary. They want that line as it is," he said.

Further, he also questioned why St. John would want to become more contemporary, since that's such a small part of the business. Rather, he suggested, the company develop offshoot lines to reach a younger customer.

Although he has high regard for the job Richard Cohen did at Zegna, where he headed the North American business, he said that doesn't necessarily translate to running a women's ready-to-wear company and overseeing all aspects of the firm, including design.

When a new chief executive comes into a company, Questrom said it's important for him or her to focus on a few priorities and not change everything all at once. He explained that, when he first went to Penney's, he had to focus on a few key priorities. "You just can't fire everybody in the company. The challenge is to get done what you're trying to accomplish. Your employees know what the problems are. Penney's wanted to be like Macy's and Federated instead of being what Penney's was."

He said the ceo needs to understand a firm's strengths and what needs to be changed to keep the brand current."When you go into a company, some things have to be done quickly if the company is about to go bankrupt, like Penney's was," he said. "But you can't change a large company quickly. You have to pick four or five things that are key issues and stay focused on those issues ... One has to ask, 'What is the customer telling me about the product? Why is my line not doing well, and the competitors are doing well? Is it the quality, is it too high-priced?'"

Still, Questrom believes a company needs to keep updating, no matter what part of the market it's in. Even traditional customers need to keep up with the times.

"I'm sure things were wrong with the [St. John] line, but it was a tweaking problem more than heart surgery," said Questrom.

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