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Warnaco’s Gromek Gets Creative for Intimates Exec Search

Warnaco Group’s president and ceo said he is seeking an “exceptional” individual to succeed Tom Wyatt as president of Intimate Apparel.

New York — Wanted: top business executive with varied background and creative flair. Experience in bras and panties not a requirement.

Joseph R. Gromek, president and chief executive officer of The Warnaco Group, who is hunting for a successor to Tom Wyatt as president of Warnaco’s intimate apparel division, said Thursday he is seeking an “exceptional” individual who can take Warnaco’s intimate apparel business to a higher level of sales and operating revenues.

“I am looking for someone with a diversified background,’’ said Gromek, president and ceo of Brooks Bros. from 1995 to 2002, who also has worked in merchandising at Saks Fifth Avenue and Lord & Taylor. “Tom Wyatt had a very interesting background in both the wholesale and retail businesses.”

Gromek didn’t rule out top retail executives, saying the ideal candidate may have expertise in other fields such as sportswear, ready-to-wear, accessories or even textiles.

The Warnaco ceo has consistently sought creative talent to lend a fresh eye to a specific business, according to market sources. In April, Frank Tworecke, 57, was named group president of the sportswear division, overseeing three key units: Calvin Klein Jeans, Calvin Klein Underwear and Chaps.

Tworecke was president and chief operating officer of Bob-Ton Stores, and before that, president and chief operating officer of Jos. A. Banks.

Market sources said Gromek might make a choice that is outside the box because he typically does not act defensively, which can lead to a retailer like Tworecke, who didn’t necessarily fit the mold of a divisional president of sportswear and underwear.

Wyatt’s job will be much sought-after, with such desirable labels as JLo Lingerie by Jennifer Lopez and Lejaby Rose involved, industry officials said. There appears to be a short list of executives with backgrounds in intimate apparel, mainly because there are few top businesspeople in such a highly specialized field. One particular difficulty may be the lack of enthusiasm of former Warnaco executives to return. Some have said privately they would not fit into the company’s new culture under Gromek.

According to industry executives and sources, potential contenders from the intimate apparel industry for Wyatt’s post might include:

  • Chuck Nesbit, former president and ceo of Sara Lee Intimate Apparel, chief supply chain officer and a vice president of Sara Lee Corp. Now a consultant for Chico’s.
  • Ellen Rohde, president of department, chain and specialty store brands at the VF Intimates division of VF Corp., and previously vice president of strategic planning and advertising for Lee Jeans.
  • Richard Murray, president of Wacoal America, the U.S. arm of apparel giant Wacoal Japan.
  • Tom Ward, president of Maidenform Inc., maker of foundations by Maidenform, Lilyette and Flexees and a 32-year veteran of the home furnishings industry, who was president and chief operating officer of WestPoint Stevens.
  • Paul Cohen, former president of the licensed Ralph Lauren Intimates at Sara Lee, and former president of J and J Apparel, a private label activewear firm. Most recently, he’s been a consultant for figleaves.com, a Web site selling lingerie, intimate apparel, swimwear and activewear.

Nesbit, speaking from his home in Winston-Salem, N.C., said, “I’m talking to several companies right now. If Gromek calls, I’ll listen.” Nesbit said his contract with Chico’s expires in June.

Murray told WWD, “To be honest, I was very surprised to hear about Tom. I don’t know if I would be a likely candidate for Warnaco. It was hard enough getting the Wacoal business started. They would probably want to get a strong intimate apparel person, because Gromek is from retail.”

Wyatt’s resignation, effective Tuesday, comes at a time when landing a top job at a Fortune 500 company is a coup, let alone keeping it in a highly competitive industry that’s been downsized. “Tom was a big loss for Warnaco’s intimate apparel business,” Cohen said. “He brought excitement and innovation to the business. But it certainly is a great opportunity.”

Rohde did not return phone calls, and Ward said he did not want to comment.

Kirk Palmer, president of Kirk Palmer & Associates, an executive search firm here, said, “Joe [Gromek] just reached out on his own and chose Frank Tworecke himself. Now he’s probably going to look at both the retail and wholesale sides.

“He’ll find someone with all of the business components, someone who has gone through the ranks, and gone through the merchandising and sales sides of the business. But if that person doesn’t have an intimate apparel background, it doesn’t mean he wouldn’t pick that individual. It also doesn’t mean he wouldn’t look at Victoria’s Secret.”

Josie Natori, ceo of Natori Co., said, “I don’t think Gromek will be looking at the usual group of people. It’s more like Gromek is getting his own team.”

“Why am I not surprised this happened?” said a former president of a core Warnaco business, who asked not to be identified. “I think Tom wanted that top job as ceo last year, and it didn’t happen.”

Wyatt, 49, had been widely considered for the top ceo spot at Warnaco that went to Gromek in April 2003. Wyatt, a 30-year intimate apparel and retail veteran who joined the company in May 2002, has a résumé that includes executive vice president of strategic planning at Saks Inc. and chairman and ceo of Birmingham-based Parisian Department Stores from 1998 to 1999, as well as a 23-year career at VF Corp., where he served as president of Vanity Fair Intimates.

Gromek told WWD that Wyatt “made the decision” to resign because he “didn’t want to relocate his family up here.” However, he added, “We are somewhat disappointed with the progress of our U.S. [intimates] business.”

The core business is anchored with national bra brands Olga and Warner’s, which, according to Wyatt in a 2003 interview, generated combined wholesale revenues of $250 million. In fiscal 2003, Warnaco, a diversified company, generated wholesale sales of $1.37 billion. Wholesale revenues of the intimate apparel division totaled $573 million, down from $614 million the prior year.

In a phone interview Tuesday, Wyatt said: “I’m very much a family man. I’ve been married for 29 years and I’m infatuated with my wife. I just couldn’t go on like this, commuting each Sunday to New York and returning every Friday to Birmingham. Physically, it’s taken its toll on me, and I was getting depressed. It was a tough decision, but it was the thing to do.”

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