NEW YORK — Hal Upbin is ready to hand over the reins.

Come January, Upbin will forgo his title of chairman and his corner office here at Kellwood Co.; close up and sell his home near the company’s headquarters in St. Louis, and spend more time traveling with family and relaxing in Florida with his wife, Shari.

“Running a company and having a life are conflicts,” Upbin said. “I have a lot of catching up to do.”

But maybe not completely.

Upbin has promised to stay on board at Kellwood as a consultant on special projects until 2009. While he insists that he will not be spending the same amount of time on the business as he used to, it’s no wonder Kellwood executives want Upbin to stay on as long as possible. He’s been with Kellwood for 17 years and under his leadership, its revenues have grown to $2.1 billion from $1.4 billion in 1995. In May, Upbin handed his chief executive officer’s title over to Robert C. Skinner Jr.

Upbin, 66, began his career at Kellwood in 1988 when American Recreation, where he was president, was acquired by the company. At that time, Kellwood was a $1 billion firm, mostly running private label businesses. Upbin moved up the ranks quickly, by 1990 overseeing Kellwood’s acquisition program as vice president, corporate development. He began splitting his time between his New York office and the one in St. Louis. Today, Upbin said he spends about 60 percent of his time working out of New York and 40 percent in St. Louis.

“They all know me,” he said of the American Airlines staff. “I’ve done that New York to St. Louis flight so many times and I’m sure I’m well over my frequent-flier miles allowance.”

In 1995, he was appointed president and chief operating officer and made ceo in 1997. He took on the additional role of chairman in 1999.

“I’ve seen such a major transformation in this company,” he said. “When I started, the focus here was it being an operating company. Now it’s a company offering all services and we’ve learned that the sharing of resources between brands is an absolute essential to having a successful business.”

This story first appeared in the October 5, 2005 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.

During his time at Kellwood, Upbin has made quite an impact. He moved it from a holding company to a true operating one. In 1996, he launched his “Vision 2000” initiative, which detailed changes to bring standardized infrastructures across all Kellwood divisions. Within that plan, he developed an information systems base and integrated business systems. He announced openings of warehousing and distribution channels to allow the company to bring in new businesses. He improved the financial process and worked with staff for more efficient supplier management.

As far as acquisitions and licensing agreements are concerned, Upbin diversified Kellwood’s portfolio by launching several popular labels, like Calvin Klein women’s better sportswear and the moderately priced O Oscar collection with Oscar de la Renta. In 1999, it acquired Koret Inc. and Fritzi California brands. The company partnered with plus-size supermodel Emme to create a clothing line in 2000. Over the years, Upbin led Kellwood into many acquisitions in new markets, such as with the Gerber children’s wear line, Izod women’s wear and Auburn Hosiery Mills Inc. In 2004, Kellwood acquired the Phat Farm and Baby Phat brands from Russell Simmons, moving Kellwood into a whole new market of young hip-hop loving consumers.

“There was a time when I declined to get into urbanwear,” he explained. “But we see Phat Farm and Baby Phat as a young male and female way of dressing, not so much as urban. Baby Phat has been extremely successful and it will only get better. Phat Farm is going through some changes to fit the men’s market, but all in all, the brands have been tracking what we expected them to.”

Simmons opened up to selling his company when he saw what Kellwood and Upbin could do to grow his brands.

“He has been a mentor and a friend,” Simmons said. “I’m happy for him. Hal has served the industry like a hero.”

Lee Capps, chief operating officer and chief financial officer at Kellwood, has worked with Upbin for years, through his time at Kellwood and at American Recreation.

“Nine times out of 10, Hal allows the group to come to a decision, even if he thinks we will make a mistake. He allows those mistakes to be made,” Capps said. “He has a great sense and ability to understand different strategies. That’s a skill I don’t see in a lot of people.

“He uses a combination of mentoring and hard love to help people progress in their careers,” Capps continued. “He will let you know if he doesn’t see you heading in the right direction, but he has this ability to see potential in something. He has excellent judgment that way.”

Over the past couple of years, Upbin has been working on spending more time with retailers in order to understand their needs. Celia Clancy, vice president of strategy for apparel and home product development for Wal-Mart, one of Kellwood’s largest customers, noted Upbin’s expertise.

“He always did such a great job listening to our concerns,” Clancy, who left Wal-Mart last week to join Cerberus Capital Management, a private equity firm based here, said. “When I joined Wal-Mart in 1997, we had to make some changes in the way we were doing business. Hal was always very supportive of those changes and never tried to get in the way. He was willing to work with us to make sure things worked on both sides.”

Liz Sweney, executive vice president for women’s apparel at J.C. Penney Co. Inc., worked for Upbin for almost seven years at Kellwood in its Sag Harbor division and private label operations.

“Hal’s a great listener and always willing to give great advice,” she said. “He has terrific patience and makes wise, thoughtful decisions. He has great respect for people and great integrity. I have lot of respect for him.”

Kevin Mansell has been working with Kellwood since he became president of Kohl’s Corp. seven years ago.

“Hal’s been a very strong partner of Kohl’s, but I also sense he is strong partners with retailers everywhere,” Mansell said. “He took a company that was small and suffering to make it very large. He’s very strategic and involved in the business, but also allows his people to drive the business. He really allows division heads to run their division as if it was their own company.”

As Upbin prepares to leave the company, he said he sees a lot more in Kellwood’s future.

“There are so many more opportunities out there,” he said. “There should be much more international presence for us, more involvement in retail. Our quest for lifestyle brands will also continue. But there’s also increasing challenges. Competition is much harder at retail today … It’s pushing us to be more creative, offer sharper prices and better value. There’s tremendous pressure.”

But that pressure is being handed down to Skinner.

“I’m going to make sure he earns his money consulting for Kellwood,” Skinner joked. “In all seriousness, Hal is great at decision-making, he’s flexible and great at managing a tremendous amount of diversity. He’s very good with all types of people and I’ve learned from that. He’s allowing the next generation to step in and that’s the best and most unselfish thing a leader can do.”

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