About five years after Marvin Traub helped sell Ellen Tracy to Liz Claiborne Inc., Traub and his new business partners are hoping to fulfill the vision Claiborne had for the bridge brand at the time but never achieved. Radius Partners LLC, Windsong Brands LLC, Barry Sternlicht and Traub bought Ellen Tracy for $42.3 million — a substantial discount from the reported $180 million Claiborne spent to acquire the bridge label from Herbert Gallen and Linda Allard. Together the buyers are setting up two companies, a holding side that will own the label and an operating side to produce the sportswear, creating a platform from which they can acquire other women's apparel businesses."We wouldn't be doing this if we didn't think we could get it back to its heyday," Traub said. "When I was at Bloomingdale's, Ellen Tracy was our leading supplier in bridge, and when the brand was originally sold to Liz, they said they wanted to take it to a much higher level. We can take it to that higher level."Of course, the 59-year-old brand is worse for wear since Claiborne bought it. Ellen Tracy did about $171 million in volume at the time and was the leading resource in the booming bridge department. The slide to about $100 million today was propelled by the weakening of the traditional bridge market, product problems and recent economic woes. The new buyers have several plans for the brand: adding Ellen Tracy full-priced retail stores, expanding internationally and launching a national marketing campaign. First, though, they must hire a designer, after George Sharp resigned last month to join St. John as executive vice president of design, as well as a business head. They said they are already in talks with several candidates. They plan to keep on "the lion's share" of the 77 core brand employees and 100-plus retail outlet employees. Ellen Tracy interim president Ann Bukawyn, a licensing veteran who has been at Claiborne since the Nineties and was installed as interim president in June during the vendor's restructuring, likely will take a new role at Claiborne, sources said.The expansion, including a New York flagship, likely will coincide with spring 2009, the first season under the new owners, after they feel the product is where it should be.Cleaning up the back office also will be a priority. Sternlicht said they have the sourcing capabilities established. He and William Sweedler — chief executive officer of Windsong Brands LLC — have teamed up before, investing in moderate brand Caribbean Joe and denim resource Joe's Jeans.The consortium had been negotiating the deal for the last four months, after originally bidding on five of the brands, including Dana Buchman, Laundry, Prana and C&C California. "Originally we'd looked at all the brands, and we'd seen Ellen Tracy as the crown jewel," said Sweedler "With Dana Buchman, we were not sure we wanted to be competing with two brands in the same space, though."Claiborne decided last month to license Dana Buchman to Kohl's, where it will become a moderate resource, and they predict that Ellen Tracy will benefit from eliminating the competition of a fellow traditional bridge brand. After four long months of negotiations, they also got a deal, according to analysts. Claiborne sold substantially all of Ellen Tracy's assets and liabilities for a $27.3 million cash payment, subject to inventory adjustment payable at closing, and a contingent cash payment of up to $15 million based on brand performance through 2012, while Claiborne will retain approximately $8.2 million in net working capital, excluding inventory. "Most of [Claiborne's] deals have been for inventory value," said Brad Stephens, a retail analyst for Morgan Keegan & Co. Inc. "They've been giving the brands away."
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