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THE GO-TO GUY

For a workhorse like Bruce Fetter, going on holiday is a trying proposition. After all, what if he's far away from headquarters when something key breaks?<P>Murphy's Law went into effect, in fact, when Fetter, St. John's chief operating officer since...

For a workhorse like Bruce Fetter, going on holiday is a trying proposition. After all, what if he’s far away from headquarters when something key breaks?

Murphy’s Law went into effect, in fact, when Fetter, St. John’s chief operating officer since June 1999, and his family went on vacation last October. It was during that time that H.W. Mullins announced his resignation as chief executive officer — only nine months after his arrival. “Sure, I was surprised by the sudden departure,” recalled Fetter. “Everyone was. And here I was on vacation.”

Following Mullins’ departure, Robert Gray s named Kelly Gray and Fetter co-presidents. The elder Gray also postponed his January 2002 retirement to groom the duo.

The promotion, Fetter confessed, was not a shock. “Of course, I was pleased and hopeful,” he said. “I’ve been here long enough to be front and center on a lot of things.”

It had only been 18 months since Fetter landed the role of executive vice president and operating chief. He arrived at St. John in early 1997 as vice president of distribution, schooled in areas that would eventually apply to his long road at the knit house: vice president of logistics for Bob’s Stores, a division of the Melville Corp., since 1994, and 17 years at Mervyn’s and Dayton Hudson in the supply chain management and retail division.

Fetter recalled being glad about joining St. John, in part because he was able to return with his wife and two children to the idyllic area where he grew up. He graduated in 1976 with a bachelor of science degree in business from the University of Southern California. When Fetter assumed the co-presidency, Gray told WWD that Fetter is “an excellent administrator who is becoming a very good production man.”

Certainly, it’s those strengths that complement Kelly Gray’s creative flair. Whereas the second-generation of the founding family concentrates on the ad campaign, merchandising, product development and retail environments, Fetter is more left-brained. “I’m the operating side, IT, human resources, real estate and construction, production,” he said. “Both of us are amenable to overlapping. Each of us gets involved in what the other is doing. Her strengths tend to be my weaknesses and vice versa.”

It’s a partnership that began well before Mullins arrived. His departure, as Fetter pointed out, only “pushed it to the forefront.”

After the promotion, Fetter upped his responsibilities over the financial and real estate areas, former domains of Robert Gray, then Mullins. For her part, Kelly Gray also added several more concerns to her checklist. Then again, noted Fetter, that’s inevitable with the expansion plans into accessories and new retail markets.

The two communicate frequently, be it in the halls of St. John’s campus or while traveling to Canada or Asia in search of new opportunities. Fetter’s office is next to Robert Gray’s, who continues to mentor the pair in preparation for the day when his presence there is only as a visitor.

“We probably see each other every day, whether it’s over lunch or a quick meeting. Obviously it’s a very close group. They’ve given me the opportunity to be a part of it,” Fetter added, noting he hasn’t felt like an outsider in this tight-knit family.

Most days, he has lunch with one or all of the Grays. Still, he admitted he hasn’t been able to figure out how they manage what seems to be near-telepathic communication. Fetter often finds that news has spread from one Gray to the other two before he manages to personally inform them all. “They communicate so frequently and are so close, one of my challenges is communicating news to them all at the same time,” he said. “It’s certainly not a problem, but it is an interesting situation.”