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Familiar Ring at Polo Meeting

NEW YORK — Marking its fifth year as a public company, Polo Ralph Lauren Corp. conducted its annual meeting Thursday morning with a presentation at the St. Regis Hotel that has become somewhat formulaic.<br><br>Chairman Ralph Lauren summed up the...

NEW YORK — Marking its fifth year as a public company, Polo Ralph Lauren Corp. conducted its annual meeting Thursday morning with a presentation at the St. Regis Hotel that has become somewhat formulaic.

Chairman Ralph Lauren summed up the company’s major achievements followed by a round of innocuous questions from a handful of colorful company stockholders.

Even Lauren looked resigned to face a routine Q&A, summing up the magnitude of Polo’s 35 years in business and its dramatic growth since going public — doubling its volume to $10 billion and increasing global distribution to 65 countries, when he pointed to Harry Korba, a Yonkers, N.Y., resident who has at each meeting offered a variety of detailed commentary on Polo’s business practices, and offered him the floor.

As he has in the past, Korba asked how many times Polo’s board had met during the fiscal year. Four times, same as ever. He complimented Joyce Brown, president of the Fashion Institute of Technology, who joined the Polo board last year, for buying company stock, and he asked Lauren how big his expense account was for the year. Lauren said it decreased from around $84,000 for the 2001 fiscal year to about $41,057 in 2002.

Korba was followed by another shareholder, who has also attended previous meetings and who again expressed his objection that Polo, facing restrictions based on its current department store distribution for linens, has not reached an agreement to sell its home collections to specialty retailers like Linens ‘n Things or Bed Bath & Beyond. He opened his commentary with: “First, I’d like to mention that the Danish pastry is the best I’ve ever tasted.”

Despite the sense of déjà vu, the company’s 35th anniversary was an occasion for Lauren to briefly expand on its significance, considering Polo has grown dramatically into a $10 billion apparel company, despite the initial perception by Wall Street analysts that it was already a mature company when it went public in 1997.

“Every time I come to this meeting, I always wonder what you’re thinking and what you expect me to say,” Lauren said. “This year is a very special year, not only because of the number, but also because it concludes one era and begins another. This company is as strong as I’ve ever known it in 35 years and today has a very sophisticated management system covering every part of the world of home furnishings, women’s and men’s. We are in the business of branding and the business of growing a company. Where are we going? We’re going straight ahead.”

Following the critical acclaim of his recent men’s and women’s collections, nominations for the Council of Fashion Designers of America’s men’s and women’s Designer of the Year awards and projected double-digit growth with Polo’s expansions in Europe and Asia, the year has been so sweet, Lauren said, that the company is seriously looking at new potential acquisitions.

Its Club Monaco division has recently signed a 15-year lease to move its uptown Manhattan flagship to 6 West 57th Street to replace the space at 699 Fifth Avenue at the St. Regis, which was sold to Gucci Group’s Boucheron division.

One business Lauren’s got his eye on, he jibed, is Dylan’s Candy Bar, the candy emporium opened by his daughter and Jeff Rubin recently on Manhattan’s Upper East Side.

“I speak to her everyday and try to convince her to sell the company to me,” Lauren said. “She’s too busy chewing on candy and I can’t get an answer. Seriously, Dylan’s business is one we may well get involved with. I’m proud of her and I think her business has great potential.”