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From Liz to Kenneth: Cole Names Jill Granoff As CEO to Drive Growth

Aiming to get back on the growth track, Kenneth Cole Productions Inc. has poached Liz Claiborne Inc.'s Jill Granoff as chief executive officer.

Aiming to get back on the growth track, Kenneth Cole Productions Inc. has poached Liz Claiborne Inc.’s Jill Granoff as chief executive officer.

This story first appeared in the April 16, 2008 issue of WWD.  Subscribe Today.

Granoff, Claiborne’s executive vice president, direct brands, will take over day-to-day responsibilities for the 25-year-old Cole brand from Kenneth Cole, who will relinquish his career-long ceo title but will continue as chairman and chief creative officer.

“My strength is that of the creative force, whose background is in product and wholesale, while Jill is an operator who understands brand building,

processes and retail,” Cole told WWD. “We will work well together.”

Before joining Claiborne as group president of e-commerce in 2006, Granoff served as president and chief operating officer of Victoria’s Secret Beauty. During her tenure, sales doubled from $500 million to nearly $1 billion. Prior to that, she worked at the Estée Lauder Cos. Inc. and served as a management consultant specializing in strategic planning and organization development.

Granoff will work closely with Cole, leveraging her experience with the founders of Juicy, Lucky, Victoria’s Secret and Estée Lauder.

As she did at Victoria’s Secret, Granoff arrives at Kenneth Cole when the company is an estimated $500 million business that she thinks has the potential to double in size. “The brand is bigger than the business,” said Granoff. “There’s a huge opportunity to recognize, particularly with retail and e-commerce.”

But Granoff has her work cut out for her at Cole, which has been trying to elevate itself the last few years. The designer took his women’s and men’s wear lines off the runway after February 2006, and though there were plans to return the last two seasons to fete its 25th anniversary, the firm decided the collection was not yet “runway-ready,” a spokeswoman said at the time.

Last year the company’s profits fell 73.5 percent to $7.1 million, on revenues that dropped 4.8 percent to $510.7 million. The firm closed several stores last year, leaving it with 44 full-priced doors and 42 company outlets. The company has also lost a few key executives: Kenneth Cole New York brand president Joshua Schulman quit in April for the top job at Jimmy Choo, and chief operating officer Joel Newman stepped down last summer after a year and a half at the firm.

“On the heels of our 25th anniversary, a new era begins,” Cole said. “We’ve come a long way, and it’s been painful at times. We’ve had to take a step back, sometimes more than one, along the way, but we think it will yield us more steps forward. The brand needed to be heightened, though in some regards we transitioned too quickly and elevated certain prices higher than they should have been. Jill needs to understand where we are and where we want to go, and create the process to get us there — keep us more focused.”

Effective May 5, Granoff will report to Cole and join the company’s board.

Granoff’s departure is a blow to Claiborne. Under ceo William L. McComb, she was the lone group president promoted last year to executive vice president. Granoff was given responsibility for direct brands, including Juicy Couture and Lucky Brand Jeans, in which the struggling company had banked its future. She earned $1.4 million in 2007 at Claiborne, but said the lure of being the ceo of a public company was too good to pass up.

“While it would be premature to say Jill’s work is done, in the nine months as executive vice president of direct brands, she did a great job establishing highly focused monobrand companies,” McComb said. “Beyond bringing in great people, which was a shared agenda, Jill has been known for bringing a rigor and operational effectiveness that doesn’t walk out the door when she leaves for Kenneth Cole. A year ago I really needed someone in that job to create what we created, but now it’s all on the presidents. If anything, increasingly Jill saw the job as less encompassing as these brands became stronger. I wish she could have stayed longer, but you can’t hold back a great talent.”

McComb said he will not replace Granoff as executive vice president of direct brands, but instead next week will carve up her responsibilities among other executives at the firm.

Granoff pointed out that she left the brands “in an excellent place,” with in-depth three-year strategic plans, contracts renewed with the founders of Juicy and Lucky, a new president at Lucky, and being close to naming a president at Juicy. “I feel very good about the state those brands are in, and I very much believe in Bill,” she said. “It’s not about what I’m leaving as much as where I’m going.”