NEW YORK — Mark Weber, former chief executive officer of LVMH Inc. and former chairman and ceo of Donna Karan International, is a storyteller at heart.
In his new book, “Always in Fashion,” (McGraw-Hill Education, $28), the gregarious executive recounts his climb to the top of the fashion industry, and many of the hurdles and frustrations he overcame along the way. “I am first and foremost a creative person. I learned early on, however, that creativity without business knowledge and skills is limiting. And I was willing to work hard, very hard,” he writes.
Having grown up in Brooklyn and being the first in his family to go to college, Weber said he was inspired to write a business book because people — whether it be a young person who stopped him when he was filling up his sports car with gas or a maître d’ at a restaurant he frequents — have asked him what it takes to get ahead in business, and what the secrets of his success were. (He even recaps 45 lessons in the back of the book.)
Weber started at the then Phillips Van Heusen Corp. as an assistant designer fresh out of Brooklyn College (with his long hair, he was advised that the fashion industry would appreciate his personal style and fashion sense), and rose through the ranks, becoming vice president and general merchandise manager of the dress shirt company in 1981. As group president of PVH’s sportswear operations, he led the acquisition of the Gant and Izod brands and oversaw their brand positioning. He struck deals with celebrities such as Regis Philbin and Donald Trump, and walked away from a deal with Monet. In 1998, he was elevated to president and chief operating officer of PVH and was a key figure in its acquisition of Calvin Klein and its successful integration into the group. He was named ceo of PVH in 2005.
Then came the big setback. Weber describes how he felt when he was unceremoniously fired as ceo after working at PVH for 33 years, and what it took to search for a new position. He writes how Donna Karan was against hiring him at first because he didn’t have a luxury background and how he was eventually able to win her over. “Even though I could easily have retired and never work another day in my life, I didn’t want to do that,” he writes. He became ceo of Karan’s company and LVMH Inc. in 2006 and began a second act. On Jan. 1, Weber retired from Donna Karan and LVMH and is working as a consultant to M3/Relativity. He’s also embarking on a book tour, speaking at the 92nd Street Y on Jan. 26, with engagements at LIM College and the Fashion Institute of Technology, among others.
Here, Weber talks about his career, the book and more.
WWD: Why did you decide to write a book?
Mark Weber: I’ve never made it easy for my children to ask me questions. That doesn’t mean I don’t want to answer them. I make them work hard for the answers. About a year ago, I was sitting with my sons and my new daughter-in-law, and they asked me a question, and I gave them a story. My son said, “You ought to write a book. People would be interested in your stories.” I said to my son, “You get me a deal and I will write a book.” The next week, we were in the offices of McGraw-Hill. They had published my first book (“Dress Casually For Success… For Men”) so my son figured I would be on their list of authors.
WWD: What do you attribute to your success?
M.W.: I had a drive to be successful. I grew up in Brooklyn with very little direction. I had seen successful people. I’d been exposed to them. I had friends who came from the other side of the tracks. Their parents may have been the same age as my parents, but they always looked younger. That had an impact on me. I grew up in the city projects. I just knew from watching TV and the movies.
WWD: What do you hope to impart to college graduates starting their career?
M.W.: I wrote the book in a young voice. I was writing it as if I were a 23-year-old starting out in business. As you read it, it grows more mature as the deals get more mature, and the attitude gets more mature. This is so it would appeal to not only young people getting out of school, but executives at any level who are thinking of purchasing companies, and what they should think about. I wanted to give young people practical tips on how to get ahead and how to package yourself. At the same time, the book matures and starts talking from a presidential level about acquisitions, and how to interview people.
WWD: Where did you get all the confidence?
M.W.: When I was young, I was attractive, a good-looking guy in a stylish sense. I had a nice smile and I knew how to talk to people. As I grew up, I realized that could only take you so far. I realized right away when I came to PVH, these were smart people who had come from a different world than I’d come from. I believed emulating them and having a tremendous desire to learn would be a formula that would work for me.
WWD: What was it about Bruce Klatsky (former ceo of PVH, with whom he worked closely for more than 30 years) that impressed you?
M.W.: That guy is smart. He either knew it up front, or he’d learn it at a [more] incredible pace than I ever saw anyone else do. I was more interested in the creative side, he was more the business side. Over the years, he learned more about what I did, and I learned more about what he did. And we would talk about the fact that we were interchangeable, although we came from different sides of the business sector.
On the first day, he looked at me and said, “I’m going to be president of the company some day and I need to surround myself with people. You’re going to work with me, and we’re going to make this happen.” He was mature beyond his years. And I fell out of a tree. I knew nothing about life, other than how to smile and be pleasant.
WWD: Did you think when you were passed over for a promotion at PVH that you handled it the wrong way?
M.W.: Cursing out the president of the company on the phone? Yes, I would say that wasn’t the way I would do it today. Cursing out the president, executive vice president and senior vice president all on the phone call — and I was just a designer at the time — I should say I learned a lesson. I was fearless then. I always felt that if I was doing great, and the company was successful, I could behave any way I want, and that’s not the case.
WWD: What was the highlight of your career?
M.W.: Coming up at PVH, there was a lack of style. I saw it and I knew how to navigate through it. I was creatively gifted in a company that needed fashion. My claim to fame was looking closely at the way things were done and changing them, or finding new ways to do that. In the chapter, “Once in My Life I was Brilliant,” I saw textiles being purchased from middlemen, both in the U.S. and internationally, and I said, “Why aren’t we importing directly from Asia?” That was a major change that allowed us to have the advantage in what textiles cost around the world, raw. Once you understood the textile cost and component of the total garment, you knew what you would pay for the manufacturing part of the garment. It allowed us to drill down and know exactly what every component of the garment was costing, and our cost structure changed dramatically, and it changed the tenor of the company.
WWD: Why didn’t it work out as ceo of PVH?
M.W.: That’s a hell of a question. I talk about that at great length. I started as a clerk, I took 25 different assignments. I was acting ceo for six months and then actually ceo for eight months. I wasn’t their kind of guy. The day I was let go, they took up the earnings for the company in that year and announced there was no wrong-doing. That was the way it was. I admired the way they handled it. It was very courageous. I didn’t do anything wrong. If you were to hear the questions they were asking me, it became clear they didn’t know my background. For me and the board, it was never a match made in heaven.
WWD: How is your relationship with Donna Karan, the woman?
M.W.: It’s always been very good. My job is to run a business, and her job is to create product. By the time I arrived at LVMH, they needed a confident, capable and experienced person to deal with a very complex business, which I refer to as the American model. I don’t know if I’m smart, but I know I’m well-trained. That’s what I brought to the company. The stability and experience, and my desire to do only what LVMH needed of me. I had no personal, financial or political goals. I was pure of heart.
WWD: You mention that when you got to Karan, you found out they had been flying the goods in and not using boats, an expensive undertaking.
M.W.: When I come to a company or a new division, I never ask about what went wrong. I don’t focus on what happened. I dig in and learn through my technique. What they did, why they did it, I’m not curious. I’m more interested in, “What do you mean you don’t put anything on a boat?” That’s what mattered to me. Shipping by boat saved a ton of money and brought discipline to the company.
WWD: What were your biggest contributions to Karan’s company?
M.W.: First of all, stability. Before I came, they had three ceos in six years. I was in my ninth year of what was originally an understanding of a three-year term. I brought a business sense and a business calm to a very dramatic industry in women’s wear. We have a huge global network and a huge licensing network. I brought calm, procedure, rules and discipline to a very dramatic, diverse industry. Having said that, we made our financial goals every year I was there. I brought them a steady hand, an expertise that heretofore did not exist.
WWD: What are you doing with M3/Relativity?
M.W.: Right now I’m using my experience to advise and help companies prosper and grow, and to warn them of the pitfalls. I’m on their advisory board.
WWD: Are you looking for another full-time position?
M.W.: Part of me hopes that my ego doesn’t push me to run another big company. Yet I don’t know where the future will take me. I’m not looking for anything. The only things I’ve pursued are companies that I believe need some help. I’ve reached out to a number of them, suggesting that perhaps, on a consulting basis, I can help get them where they want to go.
WWD: What do your kids think of the book?
M.W.: This book has really meant something to them. They saw me in my house writing and editing it. I think it’s a pretty good piece of work. The lessons are real, and it’s really my life. Even nicer than that, during the period from March through July [when I was writing the book], whenever my wife and I would go out to dinner on the weekend, I would read her a chapter. One, she was reliving it with me, and two, she was in awe of what I was doing. She was looking at me the way she looked at me when we first met. All of a sudden, she’s super in love with me again. Writing this book and reading it to her was one of the great accomplishments of my life.