Ed Emma, president and chief operating officer of Jockey International, wants to ensure the company remains a household name for decades to come.
This story first appeared in the May 10, 2010 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.
Like other heritage brands that have struggled with the tough economy over the past two years, Emma said Jockey is focusing on its most important assets: brand integrity as well as its 134-year-old franchise of men’s, women’s and children’s underwear at retail. Ramping up investments in design and marketing are strategies that have clicked for the privately held company, which generates estimated annual wholesale sales in excess of $300 million. Launches that are innovative, solutions-based and give consumers additional perceived value are an essential part of Jockey’s culture. Key examples over the years include specialty underwear developed for the NASA Apollo program in 1963, the seam-free No Panty Line Promise of undies introduced in 2001, the Super Soft underwear program with Modal this spring, and the Smart Fabric program with Outlast Technologies, to be rolled out for spring 2011, a line of underwear and tops that keeps wearers comfortable as temperatures fluctuate. Emma stressed that keeping Jockey away from the promotional frenzy at major stores has also been instrumental in maintaining the brand’s credibility and viability. Now, the Kenosha, Wisc.-based Jockey, which branched out in Europe in the early Thirties and bought its European licenses in 2001, has its sights set on international expansion, particularly in China.
WWD: Does the business climate appear to be lightening up, and what signs do you see that indicate consumer sentiment is better?
Ed Emma: We all use the term cautiously optimistic, but things are definitely lightening up. The GDP [gross domestic product] is up, as are store-for-store sales and the whole [innerwear] industry, about 10 percent. We had a very good month in March. However, everyone is still on edge and wary, both the retailer and the wholesaler, who, like us, are watching their inventories. There are still some worrying signs…national debt is going to be an issue, taxes in different forms will increase and will most likely put a damper on consumer spending. We still have to be careful — it’s not the halcyon days. Consumer confidence is going up, but the question is, will it continue and begin to increase every month, or will some kind of crisis offset it? Everyone is still uncertain.
WWD: What have Jockey’s biggest challenges been since 2008?
E.E.: Fourth quarter of ’08 to ’09 was a very difficult time. I’m sure most companies would say the same thing. It was the new normal. It was hard to go in front of employees and tell them how challenging it was. But we were in a strong position going into the fourth quarters, and I’m proud that when everything hit the fan, we managed our working capital pretty carefully to be leaner, more efficient and preserve investments to continue on key initiatives. I told them, ‘We will win this battle,’ and everyone took the baton and figured out how we could cut costs. We ended up doing better in ’09 than ’08. I’m very proud of my staff.
WWD: Has your business model changed?
E.E.: We’ve always been a long-term-thinking company. We invest heavily in areas to ensure success in the future such as design and marketing to make sure we provide consumers with the best merchandise in the market.
WWD: How does Jockey differentiate itself from the competition?
E.E.: We focus on innovation and newness and want to stay a step ahead as it relates to fashion. We offer value — it’s built into the product. We have not allowed ourselves to get involved in the promotional frenzy. There’s been a lot of pressure to deviate but we have not deviated from our 25 percent off [seasonal sales]. A lot of companies are doing 40 percent off. We feel that’s a mistake.
WWD: Is Jockey expanding its global presence?
E.E.: We got into the international marketplace in Europe in the early Thirties and it became a very strong licensing business. In those days there wasn’t globalization because of tariffs and import hindrances. In the Nineties to 2000, the borders opened up and it became easy for brands to go anywhere in the world. We own subsidiaries in Germany and bought our [European] licenses in 2001. International business is very exciting right now and business is going very well for us in over 120 countries. Jockey is the number-one [primarily men’s underwear] brand in India, New Zealand and South Africa, and we are developing strong partnerships in Vietnam and China. Asia is the number-one area for growth. China is the strongest. Europe is holding its own right now. Western countries including ourselves [the U.S.] are having macro issues, financial issues and consumer-related issues.
WWD: What is Jockey’s strategy for growth over the next several years?
E.E.: Designing and marketing products that will open new categories and niches in the marketplace. Finding solutions that really drive consumer behavior like our Smart Fabric program with Outlast Technologies [initially developed to help make NASA astronauts more comfortable as temperatures fluctuate. See related story, this page.] We are looking for new products that occupy a niche that other products do not.