Allen Sirkin lives for change.
This story first appeared in the April 19, 2012 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.
Over the course of his 30-year career with PVH Corp., Sirkin has been instrumental in helping the company transform from a small dress shirt manufacturer into a $5.89 billion global powerhouse with tentacles that reach into nearly every corner of the global apparel business.
According to PVH chief executive officer Emanuel Chirico, Sirkin “has been instrumental in making us the world’s largest dress shirt company and has taken our dress shirt group to record levels of growth and profitability. Allen has overseen much of our transformation from a one-brand dress shirt company to the source of some of the most famous and best-selling brands of dress shirts in the department store, midtier department and specialty store channels of distribution.”
He was also front and center in the company’s negotiations to acquire the Calvin Klein and Tommy Hilfiger brands.
At PVH’s annual shareholders meeting on June 21, everything will change for him once again. That’s the date that Sirkin, president and chief operating officer of the New York-based company, will retire and embark on the next chapter of his life.
“Everyone comes to the end of their journey,” he said. “I’ve been blessed with a great career and I’m delighted. If you’re sad, you shouldn’t retire. I look at this as just another leg to my trip.”
That trip started in Philadelphia, where Sirkin was born into a family that manufactured men’s suits and sport coats under contract for established brands including College Hall, McGregor and Stanley Blacker.
“When I was growing up, I didn’t think much about what I was going to do,” he said. But after working in the family’s clothing factory during the summers, he knew what he didn’t want to do, and that was work in the family business.
Instead, he opted to enter the Philadelphia Textile Institute working toward a degree in textile management and marketing. “But I still wasn’t sure, so I paused for a while before continuing my education in the masters program at Temple University in industrial management.”
To pay for his college education, Sirkin became a full-time teacher in Philadelphia’s public school system, attending Temple for a semester and then working for a semester. He quickly realized that he wasn’t cut out for a career in teaching either and decided to take the plunge and move to New York.
“I was offered several jobs, including one at Phillips-Van Heusen,” he said, which he had been advised was “a great progressive company and the best one to get started with.”
He took an entry-level job there in 1964 as a merchandising assistant, working under Seymour and Larry Phillips, whose family started the business in the late 1800s. PVH’s roots date back to 1881 when Moses Phillips, a Polish-born pushcart peddler, began selling shirts sewn by his wife, Endel, to coal miners in Pottsville, Pa. Success followed and the company expanded to New York City. At the same time, John Manning van Heusen, a Dutch immigrant, created a new process that fused cloth on a curve, fashioning a “soft-folding” collar that captured the stiff-collar look popular at that time, but with a more comfortable fit. In New York, van Heusen met with Moses’ son, Isaac Phillips, who bought the U.S. patent for the collar, giving birth to the Phillips-Van Heusen alliance.
By the time Sirkin came to PVH, the company had capitalized on its strengths and had grown into one of the country’s leading dress shirt manufacturers.
Still, Sirkin said, “I wasn’t sure what to expect. I had never worked for any company or in the New York apparel industry. It was hard work, but it was a great learning experience.”
For Sirkin, it was only the first chapter in his business career.
“I look at my career like a novel with many chapters,” he said. “It has a beginning, a middle and hopefully a happily-ever-after ending.”
He spent three years at PVH and was promoted about a half-dozen times, he said, eventually being named boys’ wear merchandising manager. Although he liked working for the company, he wasn’t making enough money to support his growing family. “So I made the very difficult decision to leave in search of upward mobility. The industry was growing and there were plenty of opportunities.
“It was the toughest decision I ever made,” he added. “When I joined, PVH was a $50 million company. When I left, it was a $100 million company — and growing.”
He joined Manhattan Industries, another large dress shirt manufacturer, as merchandise manager of sportswear and eventually rose to vice president. “It was a great six years,” he said. “I really grew, learned more and continued to grow. But I felt I needed more exposure than running a sportswear division of a dress shirt company.”
His next stop was McGregor, which was one of the largest sportswear companies in the industry at that time. He went in as vice president of sportswear and was soon elevated to executive vice president of the corporation. “It was financially strapped but to the consumer it was a great brand,” he said. “We managed to hold it together and grew the company to record sales. But it still wasn’t enough.”
He exited McGregor and reentered the kids’ business, joining Rob Roy as head of merchandising. Being in the children’s wear business at that time was fun, he recalled, with a variety of licensing opportunities for such household names as Superman, “Welcome Back, Kotter” and Fonzie. “It was a youthful company, very energetic,” he said. But after a “successful run,” the family-owned company decided to sell. “Myself and the team at the time were unable to buy it, so it was time to move on,” he said.
Next up was Puritan Sportswear. “It was a great opportunity for me to run a sweater company,” he said. “It was a distressed business, but I thought it was fixable.” It also taught Sirkin that he could master a turnaround situation. “We took a company that was underperforming for some time and convinced those who stayed that we could succeed if they executed the vision. And it worked. We actually turned it into the largest and most profitable sweater company in the industry and regained a leadership role.”
Despite the success, Sirkin was ready for his next chapter. “I wanted something a little smaller and less corporate,” he said. “So I went to Pony Apparel to manage a startup. They were in the footwear business and asked me if I would come on board to build a sportswear component to complement the footwear. So I did.” It wasn’t long after he arrived, however, that the company was sold and Sirkin decided it was time to stop bouncing around and look for a little more stability.
It was then that his career came full circle, bringing him back to where it all began — PVH.
“It was time to come back,” he said. “Rather than taking the entrepreneurial road, I wanted to come to a solid company and participate in the long-term growth strategy. He rejoined as president of the company’s designer group, which included dress shirts and sportswear. The year was 1985 — and the apparel industry had changed a lot during his time away from PVH.
“In the years leading to my return, the market was in transition,” he said. “The company had 10,000 specialty store and regional department store accounts when I joined the first time, but when I went back, it had consolidated to basically 125 top national and regional department stores. The specialty store era was ending at that point. And the account list keeps shrinking. The big are getting bigger and it’s happening with great speed. Those 125 stores have become a dozen today.”
Although the industry had changed, the company was still being operated by Seymour and Larry Phillips, and for Sirkin, it was sometimes like “being in a time warp. It felt good, but I saw an opportunity to change.”
By 1991, Van Heusen had become the number-one selling dress shirt in the country after years of lagging behind Arrow, a brand it eventually acquired in 2000, and the Phillips family was reluctant to branch out too much. Sirkin’s idea to expand PVH’s reach was met with resistance and Sirkin said he was a “lonely voice.
“I challenged the company to move beyond Van Heusen and use the skill we had as a dress shirt company to expand our reach and create a diversified portfolio,” he said. “It wasn’t an easy sell. The Phillips family legacy all revolved around Van Heusen. But I believed we had the unique skills to develop an umbrella business. We needed to be in the sportswear business, and create the same model that we had in dress shirts,” Sirkin said, adding that the sportswear market is “15 times the size of the dress shirt market. So we restructured the company and began to acquire brands.”
In 1995, PVH purchased Crystal Brands Inc.’s apparel group, adding the Gant and Izod labels to its stable. Izod remains a key brand in the portfolio today and Gant was “cleaned up and sold,” Sirkin said. “We sold Gant to its European licensee and focused on Izod.”
Even so, Sirkin said, it wasn’t long before PVH realized that it needed to explore markets outside the U.S. “And along came Calvin Klein,” he said. “We recognized that globalization as a strategy for any corporation was important. And we needed vehicles to address that.
“It was a redefining moment for the company.”
The brand’s owners, Calvin Klein himself and his partner Barry Schwartz, took some convincing, however. Sirkin recalled them asking: “Can these people who manage moderate and upper-moderate brands do designer?” Ultimately, PVH won out over VF Corp., snagging the brand in 2003 for $420 million in cash, with additional payouts of as much as $270 million.
“When we bought the company, it was a $2 billion international brand,” Sirkin said. Today, global retail sales are around $8 billion.
But PVH’s growth story wasn’t finished.
“We knew we needed to continue to grow and diversify our portfolio,” he said. “And we had the opportunity to make a run for Tommy [Hilfiger].”
Once again, PVH managed to convince the brand’s owners, the private equity firm Apax Partners, that it was the right choice, and in March 2010, it spent $3 billion to acquire the company. The company had helped fund the acquisition of the Calvin brand.
“We added another international brand and we went from being a $50 million company in 1964 to a $6 billion international corporation today,” Sirkin said. “We look at things differently. Our business model is a combination of selling, wholesale, retail and licensing. So our sales reach through licensing and retail is about $16 billion,” he added of the retail value of all PVH brands and licenses.
Looking back at PVH’s dramatic transformation, Sirkin said it’s been a “remarkable ride, and it’s not over yet. My chapter may be coming to an end, but the company is 131 years old and some of our brands are even older. Many other companies and brands have come and gone, but we have survived and prospered.”
He attributed it in part to “respecting our heritage while embracing change and innovation.” He also singled out former chief executive officer Bruce Klatsky as key to positioning the company where it is today. Klatsky is considered the architect behind the purchase of the Calvin Klein brand. “Bruce was the first non-Phillips person to run the company. And the leader when we bought Calvin,” Sirkin said.
Not long after the Calvin acquisition, Klatsky stepped down as ceo and was succeeded in that role by Mark Weber. His tenure at the top was short-lived and Chirico was elevated to the ceo post in 2006.
Sirkin assumed that his time at PVH would end once Chirico took the corner office. He was 65 years old, had had a long, fruitful career with the company, and was ready to step aside so Chirico could bring a new team on board.
“I view a career like it’s high school,” he said. “You graduate and you go home. And others come up with new innovative ideas.”
To his surprise, Chirico asked Sirkin if he would stick around a few more years.
Chirico called the decision to have Sirkin serve as president and chief operating officer “very natural.” Their management styles are complementary, with Chirico’s expertise in operations and finance, and Sirkin’s in sales, merchandising and marketing.
Sirkin calls Chirico a “great manager” with the skill to execute and the ability to communicate the company’s message to Wall Street. “But it’s not a one-man parade,” he said. “This company is filled with thousands of committed, talented people.”
One of those people is Sirkin’s son, David, president of PVH’s neckwear division.
Allen Sirkin laughs when he says his son was also very unsure what he wanted to do with his life — “like his dad.” After graduating from Philadelphia University with the same degree in textile merchandising and marketing, he came to New York City “looking for guidance,” and started researching the apparel industry. “Having a father in the business is a blessing and a curse,” the elder Sirkin said.
David Sirkin went first to Milliken & Co., followed by Galey & Lord, but his dad advised him to look elsewhere. “The textile industry in America is not where you want to be,” he said. “You probably want to find your way into wholesale.”
The younger Sirkin took the advice, joining Randa Corp., a leading neckwear company. “Then his father screwed things up and bought his number-one competitor, Superba,” Allen Sirkin said with a chuckle. Superba’s ceo, Mervyn Mandelbaum, told Sirkin that his son had been a “ferocious competitor” and asked if he could approach him about joining PVH.
The answer was yes.
In addition to David, Sirkin also has a daughter, Ami, whom he called the “Sirkin with a heart. She’s a special ed teacher.” And through it all, over the past 47 years, has been his wife, Bonnie. “It takes a really great woman, an understanding woman, to work with you and partner with you and allow you to do all the things you need to do to build a career in this industry,” he said. “It has been years and years of hard work and I couldn’t have pulled it off by myself.”
Although he acknowledges that the apparel industry is now “part of my DNA,” he doesn’t expect to remain too deeply involved with it when he retires in June.
“There are things I’d like to do,” he said. “I’m obsessive-compulsive and when I commit to something, there’s not a lot of oxygen left to do other things.”
He’ll play golf, spend time with his four grandchildren and enjoy life. He doesn’t plan on taking another full-time job but will continue to serve on a few boards and may even invest in some business ventures so he has “something to tinker with.”
“I’d like to stay connected to industry, it’s in my blood,” he continued. “So I’ll find ways to contribute, maybe do something from a consulting standpoint if someone wants my input.”
He also expects to be more involved with Philadelphia University, where he’s served on the board for the past 14 years — a role that allows him to indulge his passion in kids and education.
“The cost of education today is obscene,” he said. “So we set up a scholarship fund to help” students in need.
“I believe in paying it forward,” he said. “I’m just a kid from Philadelphia who never dreamed where this would wind up. Many people have mentored me along the way. I can push the boundaries sometimes, but they helped keep me in line.”
He singled out Al Rothman, a merchandise manager at PVH and his first boss, who “let me grow outside my position and helped expose me. He taught me the business and value and integrity as well.”
Bill McKenna, president of Manhattan Industries, also helped keep him on the straight and narrow. “When I challenged the company to teach me, he took the challenge personally and exposed me to what a president does and what the key drivers were in his decision making. That was very helpful when I had my chance to make decisions.”
Sirkin said he’s “never been afraid to take risks. The bigger the challenge, the more I lock in on it. I think it’s OK to fail. They won’t shoot you, they can only fire you,” he said. “And you will live another day.”
It’s this never-say-no attitude that has helped him rise to the top of the game.
He recalls a Christmas card he received in 1964 with a saying that reached deep inside his soul. So much so that he actually had the saying printed on his business cards. “I cut it out, carried it in my wallet for years and felt I should share it with others.
“‘Most of us dislike changes,’” he recited. “We oppose them. Every improvement ever made was made reluctantly. Nothing new is considered practical or possible until someone with broader vision than our own does things that can’t be done, gets better results by methods that won’t work.’”
He set the card down, and added: “I believe I’m an agent for change. Part of my spin all the way through has been to get the teams to embrace change. As a kid, my father used to tell me, ‘You don’t know what you don’t know.’ And that’s true. You shouldn’t be afraid of anybody and you should take the job nobody else would take if you see value in it.”
Over the course of his career, he hasn’t embraced the spotlight, preferring instead to steer things from behind the scenes. “My friends refer to me as ‘The Wiz’ — the guy behind the curtain.”
Sirkin knows that not everything he’s done in his career has been perfect. “What would I do differently?” he asked. “I didn’t have much balance in my life. I’m a committed workaholic, and that comes at a price — family and kids.”
He recalls when the National Father’s Day Council approached him about being one of its Fathers of the Year. “It’s the one award I refused to accept,” he said, saying he didn’t think he was worthy. But after getting the blessing from his children, he took the award.
He admits to being motivated by the “fear of failure or the desire to succeed — they are one in the same.
“The world is full of rams and lambs,” he continued, “and we look to the rams to lead the way.”
Although clearly a ram, Sirkin said his management style is low-key. “I’m a flatliner,” he said. “What you see is what you get and what I say is what I mean. I’m as steady as they come. I’m black or white, in or out, there’s no gray.
So what does he believe will be his legacy at PVH after his 30 years of service?
Sirkin said he hopes he can say that he left the company in a better place than it was before he arrived. “That’s the perfect infinity concept,” he said. “I’m just a bit player in the mosaic of the business.”
He concluded: “I came, I gave it an honest shot and I cared. And I leave still caring.”