By  on February 20, 2009

DENVER — Craig Andrisen and David Morton consider themselves just a couple of suit salesmen.

But over the past three decades these super sellers have built one of the most highly respected luxury men’s and women’s specialty store operations in the country—one that rings up annual sales in excess of $15 million.

Later this week, Andrisen Morton will fête its 30th anniversary with a three-day celebration at its tony Cherry Creek stores as its owners look ahead to the next phase in the stores’ growth.

The two met in 1975 when they were working as salesmen for other specialty stores in the Denver area. “We started having conversations and decided we could do it better,” Morton recalled. “There were five or six men’s stores in downtown Denver at the time. We got along well and we love people. We were sales guys and we thought we’d open and all of our clients would follow.”

However, if truth be told, when Andrisen Morton opened its doors in 1978, “none of our clients followed us,” Morton said with a laugh.

“But we still did $28,000 our first week,” Andrisen added. “We really hit it out of town.”

The store offered traditional men’s wear from such brands as Hickey Freeman, Troy Guild, Linett and H. Oritsky. Its stock in trade was the three-button sack suit. The store’s first ads showcased suits at $295, dress shirts for $27.50 and ties for $17.50.

“Every store back then was an iteration of traditional clothing,” Morton said. “Until American Gigolo came along, fashion really wasn’t in the mainstream. A well-dressed guy wore charcoal or navy suits, a white buttondown shirt and a tie.”

To separate the new store from its competitors, “we tended to buy better product,” Morton said. “We created the platform that we’ve morphed into today.”

In the late ’80s and early ’90s, Andrisen Morton started to move toward more-fashion-forward merchandise. “We realized we were selling replacement clothing and men were buying clothing to make a statement,” Andrisen said. “People liked us, but they thought we were too traditional.” And so, the store branched out into more trendy wares. “We were the first door outside of Paul Stuart in New York to carry Samuelsohn,” said Andrisen. “The first model we offered had 21-inch shoulders—you could have carried a plate of spaghetti on it.”

In 1984 the company added a second location in the Denver Tech Center and continued to upgrade its offerings.

A turning point came in 1996 when Andrisen Morton was invited to join the Forum Group, an association of non-competing upscale specialty retailers from around the country that shares information and advice. Among the Forum Group members are Mitchells/Richards in Connecticut and Stanley Korshak in Dallas.

“Joining the Forum Group was the best thing that ever happened to us,” Morton said. “When you’re first-generation guys like we are—basically clothing salesmen—you have no way to tell if you’re doing it right. We didn’t have fathers or uncles to turn to for advice. But [the other retailers in the group] became friends and we learned from them.” Andrisen agreed: “They stop you from making the same mistakes they’ve made.”

Their participation in the Forum Group led to several “milestones,” the men acknowledged. First, they closed their two downtown locations and relocated to the upscale Cherry Creek suburb. “They told us to find the biggest location we could as close to Neiman Marcus as we could, and consolidate,” Morton said.

Spot on! After taking the plunge in 1999, revenues went up 70 percent and profits catapulted 500 percent in the first year, Morton detailed.

Next up, the women’s business. Andrisen Morton saw the potential growth of adding women’s and their Forum Group friends advised them to buy an existing business, preferably one that owned its location. So the two approached Auer’s, a carriage trade store doing business a few doors down, and made an offer.

After the acquisition in 2003, the men rebranded the store, and today top labels include Loro Piana, Oscar de la Renta, Michael Kors, Ralph Lauren, Tory Burch, Dolce & Gabbana, Armani, Prada and Rachel Roy. Volume is $7.5 million a year, slightly less than the $8.5 million of the men’s store.

“Women’s should be much larger,” Morton admitted, “but we’re not there yet. Women’s is such a left-brain business compared to men’s. Women are ‘want’ buyers, not ‘need’ buyers.” Andrisen added, “Men’s is more like a club.”

That men’s club is housed in 9,500 square feet and offers brands ranging from Brioni, Isaia, Zegna, Canali, Armani and Borrelli to Robert Talbott, Zanella, Prada and Ferragamo. Andrisen said the average suit price today is $2,395, the sport coat average is $1,895, trousers $360 and dress shirts $280. Tailored clothing still represents over 70 percent of sales, but upscale sportswear is gaining in importance.

Although many of these brands are available at their nearby department store competitors, the men say customer service is what sets Andrisen Morton apart. “They can buy the same labels across the street,” Andrisen said. “The only way to beat them is the experience.”

Looking ahead, the partners hope to elevate that experience even further.

Owning the real estate on which the 10,000-square-foot women’s store sits will allow the retailers to achieve their next dream—creating a world-class men’s and women’s store under the same roof. “Our goal is to have it together,” Morton said. “If we can create enough scale, we can give the department stores a run for their money.”

The idea is to have men’s on street level, women’s on the mezzanine and a parking facility on the lower level. “Growing a business without hard assets is next to impossible,” Morton said.

They did not provide a timetable for completing the plan, but Morton believes that within 18 months a combined store can achieve sales growth of 50 to 60 percent. “The upside is huge,” he said. One big store will also allow Morton and Andrisen to work side-by-side once again.

Since the purchase of Auer’s, Morton has been at the women’s store, while Andrisen remains at the men’s store. “The long-term goal is to have Craig and I back on the floor together,” Morton said. “For the first 25 years we were together every day. We’re only 300 feet apart, but it’s not the same. People still shop us because they like Craig and Dave. We’re an odd couple, but the power of the two of us is pretty compelling.”

Although they have no plans to retire—Andrisen is 58 and Morton is 55—they are beginning to think about transitions. Right now, Morton’s daughter Lindsey is the only family member in the business; she’s been working in the women’s store for the past 18 months.

Whether Lindsey is the heir apparent remains to be seen, but until that time, Andrisen and Morton are working hard to be together once again. “When it comes to selling and making customers happy, we’re better than average,” Morton modestly concluded.

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