By  on November 5, 2007

NEW YORK — Terry Lay, a former VF Corp. executive, is coming out of retirement to head Haggar Clothing Co., one of the largest casual pant makers in the country, where he’ll be tasked with cleaning up the brand’s mid-tier core, adding upmarket licenses and pursuing international business. 

“I wasn’t looking to get back into [men’s wear],” said Lay, who climbed the ranks at VF during his 34-year career there and retired in 2005. “But they found me, and I have a lot of respect for the brand and its potential to fill the void in the growing middle-market men’s wear arena.” 

Lay, who started his position Oct. 29, is Haggar’s second CEO since an investment group led by Infinity Associates took the Dallas-based pant maker private in 2005. He replaces Jim Lewis, the former Claiborne group president, who had headed the company since the takeover. Industry insiders say Lewis’ departure isn’t surprising, citing the company’s challenged business with its main retail partners, J.C. Penney and Kohl’s. Officially, the company said Lewis’ exit was planned, and that he was only expected to run the company for two years. 

Lay, 59, is a seasoned player in the moderate tier. In addition to running VF’s outdoor division, he headed the company’s $2.7 billion jeans business, which included the global operations of both the Lee and Wrangler brands. “I’m very familiar with [Haggar’s] tier distribution and brand strategy,” said Lay. “I’ve run brands on an end-to-end basis—that’s my assignment here.” 

Lay’s top priority is to leverage—some say repair—Haggar’s business with Penney’s and Kohl’s. “Strength for any growth plan begins at the center,” he said. In the last year Haggar overhauled its product and marketing with an eye to durability and quality, like using guaranteed unbreakable zippers and long-lasting seams in its apparel. Now, in addition to focusing on innovation, Lay plans to bring more product to market faster. That means scrutinizing the supply chain as well as the company’s fulfillment program. “We’ve spent the last two years analyzing our consumer,” he said of the company’s market research and resulting campaign targeting the boomer guy. “Now we need to drive product to market with smaller interim releases [between seasons]. key.” 

Lay also plans to export the heritage brand to Europe and Asia—familiar territory to the new CEO, who oversaw VF’s international jeans business—as well as grow the Haggar’s licensing program. The company currently makes pants for Kenneth Cole and Claiborne. “We will be looking at more tiers of distribution, whether it’s male or female or a specific target,” he explained. “Where do we see the white space?” 

The careers of Terry Lay and the principals of Infinity Associates, Marsden Cason and Bill Simon, intersect. Cason and Simon ran the active apparel brand The North Face from 1988 until the mid-’90s under the aegis of their private equity firm Odyssey Holding. That brand was sold to VF Corp. in 2000, and three years later Lay was tapped to manage all of VF’s outdoor brands, including The North Face.

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