NEW YORK — Lawrence Stroll stepped down as co-chairman and director of Tommy Hilfiger Corp. to concentrate on his new babies, Asprey and Garrard.
This story first appeared in the July 30, 2002 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.
“It’s been a wonderful 13 and a half years since acquiring Tommy. I feel I’ve done all I can do,” said Stroll, 43, who was reached in London. “I want to move into different pastures. I bought Asprey & Garrard two years ago and am enjoying it tremendously. I thought it was the right time.”
He said the A&G Group, which he bought with Silas Chou, was taking more time than he originally thought. “It’s London-based and it’s a lot easier for me,” said Stroll, who resides with his family there.
Stroll said he made the decision to leave about nine months ago and apprised his partners. He said there were no disagreements, the parting is amicable, and he remains friendly with them. Sources said Stroll has been less involved with the Hilfiger business as A&G has started to take up an increasing amount of his time.
Asked if he believes there’s growth left in Hilfiger, Stroll said, “There’s absolutely opportunity in Tommy. You won’t see the growth levels of five to six years ago, it’s too large a company. You can only have a certain amount of distribution without lowering one’s standards.”
Stroll said he will retain his shares in Hilfiger. He and Chou each own 1.1 percent of the company.
“I think we put together a fantastic team. All four partners made an equal contribution to our enormous success,” said Stroll, referring to Tommy Hilfiger, honorary chairman, Joel Horowitz, chief executive officer, and Chou, who continues to serve as co-chairman.
Although sources consider Chou the genius and innovator behind Hilfiger’s remarkable growth, they credit Stroll with making some major contributions to the company. With a product design and marketing bent, Stroll spearheaded many of Hilfiger’s ventures, including international distribution, in which he was well versed, having had a previous partnership with Polo/Ralph Lauren in Canada and Europe.
Sources said Stroll has a difficult personality, but the back-and-forth banter between he and Chou allowed great ideas to come out of the Hilfiger business. They said Stroll was very aggressive when it came to product offerings, which was a boon to the growth of the business.
Stroll brought Polo to Canada in the late 1970s, and in the early 1980s, became the Polo licensee for all of Europe. He and Chou, whose fathers were friendly, became partners in Polo in Europe in the mid-1980s. In 1989, an affiliate of Novel Enterprises, owned by Chou and Stroll, acquired the majority ownership of Tommy Hilfiger Inc. and the licensing agreement with Mojan Murjani was terminated. They took Hilfiger public in 1992, followed by three secondary offerings. These offerings paid off handsomely for the partners. At one point, the partners had netted a combined $325 million on an original investment of $206,000.
While building Hilfiger, Stroll and Chou engineered some key moves, such as the $1.15 billion acquisition in 1998 of two of its sister companies: Pepe Jeans USA Inc. and Tommy Hilfiger Canada Inc. Stroll’s family owned 100 percent of Hilfiger Canada, and Pepe Jeans was held by associates of Stroll and Chou, Hilfiger and Horowitz.
In 2001, Hilfiger Corp. also completed the acquisition of its former European licensee, T.H. International NV for $200 million in cash. Based in Amsterdam, its principal operating subsidiary was Tommy Hilfiger Europe BV (and its subsidiary, Tommy Europe). Tommy Europe was controlled by Apparel International Holdings Ltd., whose owners were Chou, Stroll, Hilfiger and Horowitz.
Independent of Hilfiger, Stroll and Chou bought Asprey & Garrard in July 2000 from previous owner Prince Jefri Bolkiah, the younger brother of the Sultan of Brunei. They aim to transform the A&G Group to compete with such luxury firms as Hermés, Louis Vuitton, Bulgari, Gucci and Tiffany, and eventually go for an initial public offering. “Our plan is to build a business. If going public down the road is sensible, we’ll entertain that, but it’s not in the cards today,” said Stroll on Monday.
Although Stroll kept a low profile and preferred to keep his name out of the press, he has been busy on many fronts. Over the past several years, he and Chou have been actively seeking acquisitions, both for Hilfiger and themselves, and have made unsuccessful bids for various companies, namely Calvin Klein Inc., Brooks Brothers and Valentino. Asked if he’s looking to make any more acquisitions, Stroll told WWD, “I’m not looking, but if the right opportunity crossed my plate, I wouldn’t say no.” He said he could make an acquisition with Chou, or “it could be myself alone.”
Stroll said that currently he is more involved than Chou in the A&G Group, which generates $75 million in volume.
“Silas is not as heavily involved in A&G as I am. Now I’m involved in the design of product and the marketing function. That’s my side of the contribution to our partnership. Silas is more involved in the financial, distribution and accounting” said Stroll.
Executives were surprised Monday with the news that Stroll was departing Hilfiger. Some sources said Stroll’s role at Hilfiger was unclear and that he could be disruptive, late for meetings and unfocused. Others called him shrewd, and someone who “lucked out” by partnering with Chou.
“As co-chairman and in looking at the big picture, Lawrence was very instrumental and very important,” said John Koroukas, president of sportswear at Warnaco Group, who previously worked with Stroll at Pepe Jeans and Hilfiger. “He was extremely involved, particularly in the earlier years. He had great eye and a great opinion of trends. He was very strong, very aggressive and very opinionated. He’s a real cornerstone of the organization.”