Byline: Wendy Hessen

NEW YORK — Dorothy Roberts, chairman of the Echo Design Group and matriarch of the family that has run Echo for three generations, is revved up. Too excited to settle into the comfy sofa in her sun-drenched corner office, she perches on the edge of a chair instead, talking all the while.
She has just come from an annual event: “The State of Echo” meeting, this one held for employees at the company’s 38,000-square-foot distribution center in Lyndhurst, N.J., and traffic held up her return to the firm’s headquarters on East 40th Street in Manhattan. It is also, coincidentally, the 77th anniversary of the company’s founding, by her parents Edgar C. and Theresa Hyman.
“There is a lot going on here, and you don’t realize it until you hear it all put into one speech,” laughed Roberts, as she skimmed the presentation given earlier to employees by her son Steven, who is co-president of the firm.
She runs through a dizzying list of products — print scarves, wraps, cold weather items, umbrellas, gloves, bed linens, wallpaper, decorative fabrics, and brands including Echo, Polo/Ralph Lauren, Laura Ashley and private label projects.
Echo has gradually evolved beyond its roots as solely a print scarf company into a rarity in the accessories industry: what Steven Roberts describes as a “multi-brand, multi-product” firm.
For the namesake Echo label, there are scarves, wraps, cold weather, umbrellas, rainwear, men’s ties and a growing roster of Echo home accessories that ranges from bed linens, decorative fabrics and wallpaper to paper products.
Besides Echo, the company produces scarves, wraps and cold-weather items under license for several Polo/Ralph Lauren divisions and Laura Ashley. The firm also creates custom pieces for museums around the country, including the Smithsonian Institution, the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Museum of Modern Art here, and the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston.
Whether with branded, licensed or private label product, the company’s distribution channels extend into nearly every retail tier, from high-end specialty stores to mainstream department stores to chains, catalogs and big-box home stores, both in the U.S. and in a growing number of international points of sale.
And there is more to come. So much more that Steven Roberts said he expects Echo’s volume to swell about 25 percent annually in the next six years, effectively doubling its sales in three years and then doubling them again three years later. Currently, sales at the privately held company are roughly $50 million.
“We can’t do it all internally,” he said, estimating that only 10 to 15 percent of that growth will come from inside the company, with the balance from licenses, acquisitions or joint ventures. “We have two goals,” he said. “To be a more important accessories brand and to take our Echo brand and expand it further into the accessories and home arenas.”
Gloves, a classification that has been sorely lacking in creativity at the store level, has gotten a bit of a boost with the introduction this fall of the first Echo and Ralph Lauren lines. In 2001, those lines will be greatly expanded, a move that Roberts claimed “will revolutionize the glove area.”
He pointed to handbags, hats, socks and legwear as targeted accessories classifications and china and giftware as key home categories. At press time, Roberts indicated that the firm was close to finalizing deals in several categories, but he declined to elaborate except to say: “Whatever we do has to be both strategically and financially right.” He added, “We won’t grow so fast that we can’t retain our core quality and values.”
Echo Collection will debut in upper-end specialty stores and “A” department store doors, for holiday and spring 2001. The higher-priced line of scarves and wraps — wholesaling from roughly $50 to $140, versus $35 to $95 in the core Echo line — features heavy silk twill and charmeuse with hand-rolled hems, photographic designs on satin, embroidered organza, pashmina and cashmere knits.
A national advertising campaign is being finalized, as are plans for an Echo Web site. Both are to be unveiled next spring.
Runway by Echo, being developed for fall 2001, will offer trend-driven novelty looks and key items at an opening price point. A second, as-yet-untitled home design coffee table book published by Harry Abrams will also debut in stores next fall.
All this expansion means that the company will soon outgrow its 26,000-square-foot showroom and office space. The firm plans to take over another floor and complete renovations in time for the August 2001 accessories market. The new space will include a digital studio that will catalog all of the firm’s print archives.
With so many products to offer, and given the firm’s steely-eyed focus on brand equity, a new Echo retail concept would be a likely next step. Though none of the Roberts family members would confirm whether any new retail strategy is in the offing, there is the first Echo brand store, opened last year in Hong Kong’s Harbour City Mall. That store offers scarves, rainwear, umbrellas and cold-weather merchandise and has a look that could easily become a prototype for Echo stores around the U.S.
Dorothy Roberts, celebrating her 50th year at Echo, said its the speed of change now that is most remarkable to her. “It’s mind-boggling,” she said, “but it’s either in your blood or it isn’t. I enjoy working with my children and with young people.”
With that, she moved on to the next item on the agenda, a four-day meeting of the Committee of 200 in Washington, D.C., an elite group of female business owners who meet periodically to exchange ideas. Proving that Echo is never far from her thoughts, Roberts said she planned to head south a day early.
“I want to take a look at the stores first.”