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New CEO Jerome Griffith wants Lands’ End to return to its roots — with a few updates

May 14, 2017

DODGEVILLE — Before Jerome Griffith was tapped to be the new CEO of apparel and home goods retailer Lands’ End, he had never stepped foot in Wisconsin.

An ardent traveler and Harley- Davidson rider who has visited 79 countries, Griffith had been to every state except Wisconsin and Alaska.

When he got here, though, it felt like home for Griffith, who grew up on a dairy farm in Pennsylvania’s Amish country and milked 150 head of Holsteins, “every morning, every afternoon.”

Seeing the rural landscape around Lands’ End’s Dodgeville headquarters, with “the rolling hills, barns and silos and cows, it looked a lot like home,” he said.

Griffith took over as chief executive of Lands’ End on March 6 and addressed his first shareholders meeting on Thursday. Though the company has struggled with sales declines for the past 10 quarters and has written down the non-cash value of Lands’ End’s brand for the past two years, Griffith was upbeat about its prospects.

Griffith told about 60 company leaders and stockholders gathered at the Comer Center recreation complex — named after Lands’ End founder Gary Comer — he is “extremely excited” about Lands’ End’s future. “The elements of success are here,” he said.

He called Lands’ End a “heritage brand with a great value proposition” and said he will deliver products that are “brand appropriate.”

Stockholders Nicholas and Mary Dominick, of Brookfield, said they were pleased with what they heard.

“It looks like he’s going to change things around, go back to what Lands’ End stands for,” Nicholas Dominick said.

Griffith seems “very confident,” added Mary Dominick. “Seems like he’s going in the right direction.”

Griffith, 59, was an executive with fashion brands Esprit and Tommy Hilfiger, and most recently, served as CEO for Tumi Holdings, a high-end luggage company bought by Samsonite International for $1.8 billion in 2016.

His message, though, differed from that of Federica Marchionni, the former president of Dolce & Gabbana USA who tried to turn Lands’ End’s clothing more fashion-forward and youthful in her 19 months as CEO that ended last September. Executive vice presidents Joseph Boitano and James Gooch followed as interim co-CEOs until Griffith took the helm.

While Marchionni worked primarily from New York, Griffith and his wife, Elke, have moved to Madison. They bought a condo near the Hilldale Shopping Center and are living in an apartment nearby until it is ready. The couple have two adult daughters.

In an interview after the shareholders meeting, Griffith talked about his plans for Lands’ End.

Q. Lands’ End is an iconic company for southwest Wisconsin and economically, it’s a huge presence. With all of the changes over the past few years, including splitting from Sears Holdings — its parent company from 2002 to 2014 — does this company have a future?

A. If I didn’t think it did, I wouldn’t have come. When Tumi was sold, I was retiring. On my second day on the job at Tumi, there was a cash call from a bank (requesting payment); the company was valued at, literally, nothing. Almost eight years later, the company sold for $1.8 billion.

I like Lands’ End; it’s a great brand name, and I knew David Dyer (Lands’ End CEO from 1998 to 2003). I read about Gary Comer, read about the business principles ... and I came here and met some of the people.

Financially, the company has not performed well over the last several years. I think that may be due to mixed leadership, changing direction constantly, and not embracing who our customer is.

Since the last CEO left, (company leaders have) banded together. They’ve started to grow the customer file, they’ve done a good job managing the cash. The company (does) over $1 billion in e-commerce (a year). Many, many retailers out there would love to have a company like that. I’m pretty excited and bullish about what direction we can take the company in. But it’s not going to go very far away from what it’s known for: great quality, very good value and service-oriented.

Q. What problems do you see?

A. I think the issue with the company is that it’s living in the 1990s. The company has failed to evolve properly to meet the requirements of today’s retail world. Our industry is being incredibly disrupted because many customers have been changing where they shop. The losers have been regional malls and department stores. The winners are the e-commerce companies. Well, we’re an e-commerce company. Hey, why aren’t we winning? We have not been embracing our customer like we should.

The first thing is to put together a brand vision and the pillars of the foundation. The thing we need to think about is: What innovation do we bring to our customer? Not some other customer that we don’t have.

Our customer service is in personally handling phone calls. That’s important. But so is one-click checkout. So is having a responsive, mobile website. So is ease of returning merchandise. Things that are important today — the company hasn’t jumped ahead and embraced that. We’ve got to run and catch up, and then move forward.

Q. Who is the Lands’ End customer?

A. In many cases, it’s everyone. They are normal people, they like casual living. They like to be stylish but are not trend-setters. They love to relax, they love family and the outdoors. We need to make products that appeal to that customer.

We’re an American brand — we’re a casual, relaxed, lifestyle brand.

Q. In your conference call with analysts for the last fiscal quarter, you talked about possibly opening more stores.

A. I think that’s extremely important.

Q. That’s an interesting concept because so many clothing retailers are closing stores. But here in Wisconsin, Duluth Trading is opening stores all over the place.

A. Well, take a look at your e-commerce companies. Amazon wants to open stores. Warby Parker (an eyeglasses retailer) is opening stores.

We have a double challenge: We need to continue to grow our e-commerce business — 87 percent of everything we sell is done by clicking. And we have a $200 million-a-year retail business, mostly in Sears but many Sears stores are closing. Our customer likes to shop. The customer that shops online and in the store buys (more than) only online.

We have 11 stores that we own and operate, and we make money on them. So I believe we have an opportunity to open stores in the appropriate places where customers already are. We’re putting together a strategy now. We’ll start testing this in 2018, probably.

Q. Duluth Trading is opening stores very quickly, 10 to 12 this fiscal year. Could Lands’ End do that?

A. Anything is possible.

Q. Jobs here are a major factor. Where do you see that going?

A. If I can get the company going in the right direction, I see us being able to maintain our status as a large employer in the state of Wisconsin. I think it’s important for us to maintain our “employer of choice” status, which I think we’ve lost a bit. We have great things for our employees, including the Comer Center that’s open to families and the local population, but you know what employees really want? They want to work for a successful company.

We’re in the Forbes’ Top 50 Best Midsize Employers list that just came out. That’s great but maybe we could be in the top 10, because at a point in time, we were.

We have to keep our technology up-to-date, go back to being a market innovator, and being a company with a bright future. I believe the way that we treat people here is as good, if not better, than much of our competition. It’s a nice place to work with nice people.