Bernd Beetz

One of the beauty industry’s top executives known for his razor-sharp focus and hard-charging ways is back, and he’s moving into fashion.

NEW YORK — Bernd Beetz, one of the beauty industry’s top executives known for his razor-sharp focus and hard-charging ways, is back and he’s moving into fashion.

This story first appeared in the July 18, 2013 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.

Beetz was named chairman of St. John Knits, and also made an investment in the Irvine, Calif.-based company. Beetz told WWD that the opportunity to invest and take a leadership role in St. John came to him via Fosun International, a Chinese company, which also invested in the firm.

“I am very close to the Fosun group, and I have been friends with Patrick Zhong [Fosun International senior managing director] for a long time,” Beetz said. “We were looking for a project that we can do together and found that this is a fantastic opportunity for us.”

RELATED STORY: Glenn McMahon to Exit St. John >>

Beetz declined to disclose his stake, or that of Fosun, but said that Vestar Capital Partners continues to be the majority investor in St. John. “I am very happy that we found this partnership with Vestar,” he added. “We can combine our skills to really advance the brand.”

Beetz will take an active role in developing the next chapter of the American brand, for which he sees “the potential of enormous global reach.”

He noted that between Vestar, Fosun and him, there are different skill sets that will serve the future of St. John well. “I know a little bit about branding; I know a little bit about organizational building,” Beetz said, downplaying his own expertise. “Fosun brings in knowledge about the Chinese market, and I will form a strong team and do the right thing to really advance a great brand.”

Prior to Beetz, Ralph Toledano held the chairman title at St. John but left the board last year when he joined Puig.

The St. John proposition appealed to Beetz for many reasons.

“It’s a fantastic brand that is deeply rooted in product, fiber and in manufacturing,” Beetz said. “It’s a real quality American icon, and I think I can contribute to the brand building — finding the right chief executive officer, enforcing the team because there’s already a lot of talent in the company. This is a brand with a lot of substance and a lot of things that can be accelerated. The opportunity to become a partner of Vestar and Fosun Group was also really attractive.”

As reported earlier this week, St. John Knits chief executive officer Glenn McMahon resigned and is leaving at the end of this month, and Beetz is spearheading the search to succeed him.

“For right now, my responsibility is to find the right ceo, and to coach the ceo,” Beetz said. “Developing talent and enhancing talent and bringing them to their best potential — these are things I am good at and really enjoy.”

He disclosed that there is a short list, and an appointment could come soon.

St. John is not the only apparel venture Beetz, who will now be based in both New York and California, is invested in. Earlier this year, he also said that he had made an investment into the growing business of Croatian-born, Paris-based designer Damir Doma, though he declined to disclose the size of the stake he took.

An avid sportsman and driven executive with deep experience in the luxury tier, Beetz is best known in the beauty industry for leading the revival of the celebrity fragrance industry. Early in his 11-year tenure as ceo at Coty Inc., he took what at the time was seen as a risky move and signed Jennifer Lopez to a fragrance contract. Coty launched Glow by JLO in 2002, and the franchise has since netted at least 18 fragrances sold in 25 countries and roughly $2 billion in cumulative retail sales. The move came to inspire a new culture at Coty of calculated risk taking and relentless focus. As one banker who knows Beetz well once said, “He comes from P&G, he’s German and he excels at every sport that he’s ever played. He’s not type A. He’s A-plus. He expects from everyone what he expects from himself.”

While fragrance sales were humming along, Beetz also spearheaded Coty’s expansion into higher-margin beauty categories, such as skin care and cosmetics. To that end, Beetz oversaw a string of large-scale acquisitions — most notably OPI Products Inc. and Philosophy Inc. — to deliberately nudge the business away from fragrance.

Those who have worked with him said he is known for his appetite for big deals: One of his most successful purchases was Coty’s $800 million acquisition in 2005 of Unilever’s prestige fragrance division, Unilever Cosmetics International, which added the Calvin Klein fragrance license to the mix. It has since become Coty’s biggest brand.

Some of the acquisitions have performed better than others — Wall Street has recently criticized the firm’s large writedown tied to Philosophy — but a portfolio shift was seen as necessary to ready Coty for an initial public offering. Coty shares began trading in June, nearly a year after Beetz stepped down from his ceo post and one month after he left his role on the board as non-executive director.

Beetz — who was born in Heidelberg, Germany and fluently speaks German, English, French and Italian — was determined to catapult Coty from a small fragrance house into a leading global beauty firm. During his tenure, he grew sales nearly threefold to $4.1 billion in 2012 from $1.4 billion in 2001. Beetz also established Coty’s philanthropic mission: He helped launch the U.S. arm of DKMS, the nonprofit bone marrow donation registry started by former Coty chairman Peter Harf.

Beetz’s résumé also includes stints as president and ceo of Parfums Christian Dior, a division of LVMH Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton, and several senior positions at P&G.

Beetz still serves on the board of Douglas and Archetypes Inc.

“Bernd is a seasoned organization builder and brings an extraordinary level of leadership to the company,” said Jim Kelley, a founding partner of Vestar Capital Partners. Kelley cited “the recent investment by Fosun International and our continued interest in global expansion,” as representing a pivotal time for bringing Beetz into the company.

Fosun’s Zhong added, “We have long admired Bernd Beetz and are happy to have him as our new chairman of the St. John board. The brand’s potential is enormous and there is no one better suited to help us exploit that potential than Bernd.”

That is likely to include global expansion, freestanding stores and new classifications, though Beetz said it was still too early to discuss specifics.

“My approach is always the same,” he said. “I want to really understand the fundamentals, and based on a good understanding of the equity, you strengthen the brand and go for globalization. Certainly, China is a market that we will look at.

“Everybody will take advantage of the fact that I come in with a fresh pair of eyes,” he added.

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