By  on March 27, 2006

Some people approaching their 50th birthday might flirt with the idea of winding down their careers and buying a retirement home in Florida. Not Liz Claiborne and Art Ortenberg. In 1976, when they were 46 and 49, respectively, they started a sportswear company called Liz Claiborne Inc. Within 13 years, the publicly traded firm was generating $1.2 billion in volume and $110.3 million in net profits, and had arguably become one of the biggest success stories in the fashion industry.

When they walked away from active management in June 1989, Claiborne and Ortenberg were multimillionaires and ready to build a new career in philanthropy, having established the Liz Claiborne and Art Ortenberg Foundation in 1984. To date, the foundation has provided over $40 million in grants to numerous nature conservation, wildlife and educational projects around the globe.

With homes in Montana, St. Barth’s, Fire Island and Manhattan, the couple doesn’t appear to be pining for their hectic days running a fashion company, which they founded in 1976, and Fortune Magazine named as the second “Most Admired Corporation” in America in its 1986 survey (behind Merck & Co.) during their tenure. (It was one of many times the company would land on the list.)

“We got out at an extraordinarily good time,” said Ortenberg, 79, who was interviewed with Claiborne, 76, at their Fifth Avenue apartment here. Dressed in denim jeans and a white button-down shirt, Ortenberg, the former vice chairman, spoke animatedly about the early days of the company and their conservation projects. Claiborne, who was chairman and chief executive, wearing a gray turtleneck and pants and blue tinted glasses, also said her timing was on the money.

“I couldn’t take it anymore. I was supervising 32 designers and spending my time on the elevator going from one floor to another,” Claiborne said.

“Everybody would say, ‘Let’s run it by Liz,’” said Ortenberg.

“It had gotten so big,” she added.

Today, the Liz Claiborne brand accounts for $1.2 billion in annual sales, or 24 percent of Claiborne’s overall $4.85 billion portfolio, which isn’t exactly chump change. But the brand has been eroded over the past several years as several major stores have cut back or dropped the line. In addition, the corporation has diversified itself so successfully that the Liz Claiborne branded lines have become a less significant part of its overall volume.

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