WASHINGTON — The American Apparel & Footwear Association on Monday named Rick Helfenbein president and chief executive officer, effective Feb. 15.
Helfenbein, who has served as president of the Luen Thai USA for 16 years, will also be stepping down from that position, according to an AAFA spokeswoman.
He has also been chairman of the lobbying and trade organization for the past two years and will succeed Juanita Duggan, who is leaving to become president and ceo of the National Federation of Independent Business on Feb. 8.
“It is a great honor for me to have been selected to lead AAFA,” Helfenbein said. “Having worked in the industry my entire career, I understand the important issues that we face and will continue the fight to expand and protect opportunities for all our member companies.”
Helfenbein has served on the AAFA board since 2008. Stephen Lamar, executive vice president at AAFA, and Nate Herman, vice president of international trade, are both expected to remain and no other changes were made on the AAFA staff.
During his tenure as chairman, a post generally held by an executive of an AAFA member company, Helfenbein helped secure several legislative victories, including the passage of the Generalized System of Preference Update legislation, the first significant change to the GSP program in 40 years that will allow travel goods to be eligible for consideration for duty-free treatment from certain developing countries.
The AAFA has also been a leading anticounterfeiting advocate and has pushed the U.S. government to increase pressure on Alibaba Group to institute reforms in its procedures for the removal of counterfeits on its Taobao e-commerce platform and other sites, and to curtail the sale of bogus consumer goods.
“When the opportunity came to select a new ceo for AAFA, we wanted a seamless transition and chose someone who could build on the momentum we’ve created,” said Rob DeMartini, incoming chair of AAFA, who is president and ceo of New Balance. “Rick’s leadership, passion, and dedication to AAFA is clear, and that made his appointment an easy and strong choice.”
Helfenbein brings 40 years of experience and private sector credentials to the job at AAFA. For the past 16 years, he has directed the U.S. operations for Hong Kong-based apparel and footwear giant Luen Thai USA. At Luen Thai, Helfenbein helped the company grow into what is considered the largest publicly traded apparel, accessories, and footwear manufacturing company on the Hong Kong Stock Exchange.
When he started with the company in late 1999, it was generating annual sales of about $330 million, with three factories and a few good customers in the U.S. Helfenbein said in an interview with WWD in August that 15 years later the company grew to nearly $1.3 billion, making a broad array of products in countries around the globe.
Luen Thai went public in 2004 and used the funds to make acquisitions.
The U.S. is the largest export market for Luen Thai, representing 50.8 percent of total revenue in 2014, with sales that were up slightly to $621.6 million.
Helfenbein’s appointment at AAFA comes at a critical time for global sourcing, with Congress expected to begin considering TPP and possibly vote on the trade deal this year. Trade ministers reached a deal in October on TPP, which includes the U.S., Australia, Japan, Mexico, Canada,Vietnam, Malaysia, Peru, Singapore, Chile, Brunei and New Zealand. The governments must all sign the deal, which is expected in early February, and then send it to their legislatures for approval.
“As a board member, former chairman and active member of AAFA, I know the caliber of the work at AAFA,” Helfenbein said. “I look forward to working closely with the AAFA team to enhance our leadership position on trade issues, protect our members’ intellectual property, and to be the number one trade organization for our industry, where members can discuss and act on our most important issues.”
Helfenbein holds a Bachelor of Science degree in economics from The Wharton School and participates annually in the Consortium for Operational Excellence in Retailing at Wharton and Harvard. He lectures frequently on the subjects of supply chain and international trade at industry events and business schools including Wharton, Harvard, Cornell and Columbia.