Lawrence S. Phillips, former chairman and chief executive officer of Phillips-Van Heusen Corp., who was known as an inspirational and dynamic leader, died Friday at his home in Delray Beach, Fla. He was 88.
This story first appeared in the September 14, 2015 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.
Phillips had been ill for some time and suffered a stroke last week.
After graduating from Princeton University in 1948, Phillips entered the family men’s shirt business, which was founded by his great-grandfather in 1881 and began working in various positions. When his father, Seymour, was promoted to board chairman in 1967, Phillips succeeded him as president and ceo. Phillips served as president until his father’s death in 1987, when he succeeded him again as chairman of the board.
Phillips relinquished his chairman’s post in 1994 and sold the family’s remaining 11 percent stake in the company the following year. The company went public on the New York Stock Exchange in 1920 (then known as Phillips-Jones Co., which later became Phillips-Van Heusen Corp. and in 2011, PVH Corp.)
During Phillips’ seven-year tenure as chairman, PVH’s annual sales doubled to more than $1 billion. The company’s associates also doubled to more than 13,000 people, and PVH became the largest shirt manufacturer in the U.S.
Phillips was the fourth generation to lead PVH. His Polish great-grandparents, Moses and Ida, started the company by selling hand-sewn shirts from a pushcart to miners in Pottsville, Pa. When Phillips retired from PVH in 1995, he said, “It is not easy to step back from a company that has been one’s life. But I do so confident that the business founded by my great-grandfather is in good hands.”
Phillips was remembered for his kindness and dynamic leadership, and the numerous ways in which he substantially expanded the business.
“Larry Phillips was a giant in the apparel industry,” said Emanuel Chirico, chairman and ceo of PVH. “Under his leadership, Phillips-Van Heusen Corp. was transformed into the world’s largest dress shirt company and one of the leaders in the men’s wear industry. While driving the business forward, Larry always maintained a focus on the well-being of the company’s associates. He also oversaw, in 1991, the company’s adoption of one of the industry’s first codes of conduct to protect the workers in its supply chain. Larry’s and the Phillips family’s philanthropic support for New York charities is legendary. This spirit of giving back to our communities and taking care of our associates continues to live on at PVH; it is part of Larry’s impressive legacy,” Chirico said.
Laurence C. Leeds, Jr., chairman of Buckingham Capital, knew Phillips from their prep school days at the Lawrenceville School and went on to compete against him in the business when Leeds was chairman and ceo of Manhattan Industries. “He was an obsessive and ferocious competitor,” said Leeds Sunday. “He learned at his father’s knee. His father was a brilliant and fine human being and a great chief executive. Larry and I competed ferociously. We had good times and bad times, but overall he did a pretty good job building that company.”
Kenneth L. Wyse, president of licensing at PVH Corp., added, “He revolutionized the outlet store industry and the concept of giving the consumer something that was affordable, fashionable and useful. He was brilliant, dynamic, inspirational, kind and a gentlemanly leader, who gave a sense of quality and family to the company. He made you feel that no matter what you were doing, that you were important to him and to the corporation.”
Wyse noted how Phillips frequently used handwritten notes to express appreciation to his managers and staffers.
“It’s something that no one is doing anymore. He took the time by his own graciousness to motivate you. To me, he really helped to shape my career at PVH,” said Wyse. At the same time, Phillips was “a man of such great wealth, but he was extremely simple,” recalled Wyse.
In the mid-eighties, Phillips saved the company from a hostile takeover from the Hunt Bros., which wanted to sell off the pieces. Wyse recalled that Phillips said his family didn’t build the business to give it away.
Mark Weber, former ceo of PVH who later became ceo of Donna Karan International, worked with Phillips for 23 years and recalled his communication skills and how he expanded the business way beyond shirts.
“First of all, Larry was a great communicator. He was one of the greatest speechmakers I ever heard. He was a natural — relaxed and always interesting. It was difficult to be the next speaker after Larry,” said Weber. He noted that Phillips’ father was the patriarch of the company and was elegant, articulate and a gentleman. “Larry followed his father at a time when the company needed to expand. He led the charge in differentiating the company beyond shirts,” said Weber.
During Phillips’ tenure the company purchased tailored clothing companies, sweater companies and retail companies (Hamburgers’ and Harris & Frank). According to Weber, Phillips dramatically transformed the company by getting into the outlet business. He explained that PVH needed to have a place to sell the seconds, and they opened a store in Reading, Pa., to sell close-outs, and the business started skyrocketing.
“Larry had a vision that the future of the business was in outlets. He opened a thousand of them. Our shirt business became so secure that the company eventually bought the Arrow Shirt Co. from Cluett Peabody & Co.,” he said.
In 1995, when Phillips retired from the PVH board, he turned over the reins of the company to Bruce J. Klatsky, who became chairman and ceo. Today, PVH is run by Chirico.
Throughout its 134-year history, PVH has evolved from a primarily North American men’s wear business into a diversified global company with over $8 billion in 2014 revenues through a combination of strategic acquisitions and growing their diversified brands across wholesale, retail, e-commerce and licensing channels. Its businesses today include Calvin Klein, Tommy Hilfiger and Warnaco, as well as Van Heusen, Izod, Arrow, Speedo, Warner’s and Olga.
Phillips sat on the boards of Petsmart in Phoenix and the Fashion Institute of Technology. He also served as the chairman of American Jewish World Service, the New York international relief organization, which he founded.
Upon moving to Delray Beach, Fla., in 1993, Phillips became a driving philanthropic force in the Jewish Federation of South Palm Beach County.
Phillips was cremated with his ashes spread in Florida. A memorial service is planned at a later date.
Phillips is survived by his children, Laura and David, his grandchildren Maya, Tara, Sasha and Joey, and his sister, Carol Green.