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Richard Cohen’s Big Plans for Robert Talbott

Richard Cohen plans to double the business at Robert Talbott within three to five years.

LAS VEGAS — Richard Cohen plans to double the business at Robert Talbott within three to five years.

Cohen, who made his mark building the Ermenegildo Zegna North America business into a powerhouse men’s luxury label, last week announced that he had taken a partnership stake in Robert Talbott Inc., and will serve as president and CEO of the California-based label.

He had been consulting with Talbott since last July.

Company owner and chairman Robb Talbott, son of founders Robert and Audrey Talbott, has decided to remove himself from the day-to-day running of the business to concentrate on his successful wine-making business, Talbott Vineyards. Talbott will continue as chairman of the apparel company.

Cohen’s initial goals include launching an expanded women’s collection within 18 months, exploring the international market, starting with Asia and then moving into “Anglo-Saxon Europe,” and launching an in-store shop program while also looking into additional Robert Talbott stores.

In an exclusive interview with DNR during the MAGIC trade show here last week, Cohen said that when Robb Talbott offered him the opportunity to be a partner, he was excited about the prospects for the business and signed on to take the position.

“I think the opportunity for Robert Talbott is huge,” he said. “It’s an untapped brand, its name is pure, it hasn’t been licensed, and there are opportunities both domestically and internationally.”

Cohen said the company “makes fabulous shirts and ties, and is getting into sportswear. It has its own retail stores and I’m intrigued by the women’s business. There’s tremendous potential here and I believe we can take it to the next level.”

Noting that it’s a brand that “is not broken,” Cohen said he believes he can double the size of the business by 2012 or earlier. He declined to provide a current volume figure for the Carmel, Calif.–based brand.

Talbott is known for its high-quality dress shirts and neckwear, and recently branched out into sportswear. Its women’s division, Audrey Talbott, represents 10 percent of the company’s sales. Robert Talbott also operates four company-owned retail stores.

The Audrey Talbott line currently produces shirts, scarves and shearling coats, and “is a great name,” Cohen said.

On the retail front, Cohen sees opportunity for additional stores in the U.S. as well as shops in key retail accounts. Launching a consumer advertising campaign is also in the cards, he said. “Our goal is to communicate a lot more than we’ve done.”

He continued: “There are very few American luxury brands, and we should hold our heads high against our Italian friends. It will be fun competing against them.”

Cohen said that to compete against “the big boys,” Talbott will present a “more succinct” message and will strive to “tell a story with a unique point of view.”

Hagen Peyser, vice-president of sales for Robert Talbott, said growth at the company has been “a slow evolution” with an unwavering focus on “being the best that we could be. We’ve accelerated that growth since Richard came on board.”

Cohen said he considers himself ahead of the curve since he was able to gain an intimate knowledge of the business during his year in a consulting role. “I can hit the ground running,” he said. “The team we have in place is terrific and has a very clear vision of what this brand is.”

He said he will work to provide “a contemporary edge” to the Talbott product. “Being traditional doesn’t mean old man,” he said. “I think we can satisfy men 30 and up, not just 60 and up. I’m pretty confident we can do that.”

Cohen said eventually he may add staff in areas where the company wants to expand, but there are no plans for that in the immediate future. “I believe one of my strengths is molding teams,” he said.

Although the brand is carried primarily in independent specialty stores as well as Nordstrom—Saks Fifth Avenue started carrying the men’s wear this fall—Cohen is hoping to expand Talbott’s reach. “We want to maintain our specialty-store aura, but when you do business with Nordstrom, Saks and, hopefully, Neiman’s, it pushes your brand to the next level.”

Cohen said plans call for retaining the company’s manufacturing facilities in Monterey, Calif., and the “goal is to sell one million ties out of there.” Currently, Talbott produces about 600,000 pieces of neckwear in that facility.

He said one of the strengths of the company is that, because it manufactures in America, it is able to turn around product more quickly than many of its luxury competitors.

Since Audrey Talbott died three years ago, the company has been operating under the direction of Robb Talbott and Jerome Politzer.

In a statement, Talbott said he was “deeply indebted” to Politzer, “who has, throughout the course of this past year, so successfully filled the position of Robert Talbott Inc. president and CEO. Jerome has more than achieved all of the goals that I had laid out for him.”

Cohen, who grew the Zegna business in North America from $13 million when he joined in 1986 to $200 million when he left 16 years later, said he had “worked for a few different families in my career and it’s nice to be back with a family business with integrity, like the Zegnas.”

Cohen had also worked for a short time as head of St. John Knits, a luxury women’s firm. He left that post about 18 months ago after a rocky tenure and has been consulting since then. In addition to Talbott, Cohen has worked with Nat Nast, a position he will retain. “It’s another family-owned company with great product,” he said.

He said he will relocate to Carmel, although his family is currently living in Newport Beach, Calif. “In order to run this company and drive it to the next level, I have to live there,” he said, noting that residing in Carmel is hardly an inconvenience.

Because Talbott is a private company, Cohen said, there are “no investment bankers to answer to. It’s just Robb and myself and a great team. We won’t have outside pressure to perform in five minutes.”

Cohen said he expects Robert Talbott to be “the last thing I do before I retire. I no longer wish to work for other people. I want to work for other people and myself.”