By  on July 22, 2014

Giovanni Feroce, the Iraqi War Army veteran and former Rhode Island state senator who spent four years as chief executive officer of jewelry firm Alex and Ani, has moved onto his next venture, and it’s one with a military lineage.

Through his investment firm, GF Asset Management, Feroce acquired a majority stake in the Benrus brand from M.Z. Berger & Co., which maintains a minority interest, and intends not only to put it back in the watch business but introduce it as a lifestyle brand with men’s and women’s sportswear, footwear, accessories and fragrances. And, counting on military-style precision, he expects to have the pieces in place for a wholesale business in time for holiday selling as well as a two-story, 3,500-square-foot store in Charleston, S.C., the first of a planned group of stores, during the fall.

“In general, I’m a fan of stuff that does something, like you see today with brands like Under Armour,” he told WWD from the firm’s offices in Providence, R.I. “Our design team has a materials background and they’re focusing on items that perform special functions and provide real utility. The watches will be about $300 and we’ll have jeans in the $100 to $300 range and T-shirts at $40 to $50 — attainable products with bridge pricing. We can see adding a tier above — we’re using ‘Benrus Black’ for cologne — and possibly, in time, a tier below that, at least for conversation purposes, I refer to as ‘Benrus Blue.’”

Feroce, who left Alex and Ani in March, will kick off his efforts by reviving two of the brand’s icons — the Sky Chief watch favored by World War II pilots and the H-6 model watch designed to withstand the rigors of the jungles of Vietnam. The company’s name — a combination of the first and last names of Benjamin Lazarus, the middle brother of three that founded the company in 1921 — will appear in upper-case letters and always in combination with the word “military,” also in upper case.

Feroce, who also has investments in a point-of-sale software firm, a publishing company and other ventures, might in time turn to outside investors to bolster his efforts, particularly if retail ventures come together as he hopes.

While initially going to outside contractors, including some in nearby Massachusetts and the more distant California, he’s looking to build his own manufacturing structure beginning in a year or so.

“If I choose to get additional funding to put fuel in the gas tank, those plans would move up,” he said. “Anything that can be made in America and be competitive will be made in America.”

He envisions a staff of about 50 in Providence by the end of the year, growing to about 100 in time, but believes that number could move to 250 to 300 with the additions of his own manufacturing and a retail network.

M.Z. Berger will be responsible for producing Benrus watches and will continue to make and market the Benrus backpacks it brought to the market several years ago. Financial terms of the acquisition weren’t disclosed.

Much of his thinking about business is reminiscent of ideas he learned and then taught to others in the Army, from which the graduate of Reserve Officers’ Training Corps retired as a major after serving as an interagency ground operations officer under Gen. Tommy Franks, then head of U.S. Central Command in the Middle East.

“It’s really all about planning, systems and standards,” he said. “In the military you can’t have a breakdown at any point in the system and business is really the same way.”

Perhaps with that in mind, Feroce assigned responsibility as chief operating officer of Benrus to David Medeiros, a fellow alumnus of the University of Rhode Island and ROTC and current assistant adjutant general of the Rhode Island National Guard. Medeiros, promoted to brigadier general in 2012, had worked as chief operating officer of GF Asset Management prior to the switch.

“One of the very cool things about Benrus,” Feroce noted, “is that we can look around at the rest of the retail community and the fashion world with pride and say, ‘In part, you’re here because of us. Because if we didn’t make it through World War II, there’s no Fifth Avenue to speak of.”

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