Dress preppy, live preppy
J. Crew isn't just a label - it's a way of life. In little more than a decade, the mail-order catalog has sold millions on its clean-cut, laid-back, but fashionable image. The catalogs, which feature clear-skinned twenty-somethings frolicking outdoors, have become a mainstay of college mailboxes and yuppie desk drawers throughout the country. The driving force behind the company's success is the father-daughter team of Arthur Cinader and Emily Cinader Woods. The younger Cinader was named president of J.Crew in 1989, at the tender age of 28. J. Crew Group once operated as a parent company to the Popular Club Plan and Clifford & Wells catalogs, in addition to its namesake catalog.
A big name in the mail order business, the Cinader family's involvement dates back to 1947, when Arthur Cinader's father founded the Popular Club Plan (PCP), a mail-order catalog selling women's apparel, furniture, and kitchen supplies. PCP was somewhat unusual because it employed over 100,000 agents (called secretaries) to sell its goods. Arthur Cinader started J. Crew in 1983 as a woman's apparel catalog, hoping to mimic the success of the competing Talbots and L.L. Bean catalogs. Cinader hired his eldest daughter Emily as an assistant buyer the following year. After banning polyester from the catalog, Emily encouraged the company to sell its own label alone (because of inventory issues, J. Crew had previously offered other brands, like Boston Traders). Arthur began the Clifford & Wills catalog that year. (Clifford & Wills was a fairly dowdy line of clothing aimed at career women.)
Threads in turmoil
Though J. Crew announced increasing sales each year, the late 1980s brought trouble for the company. Two J. Crew executives left the company in 1987 to create their own competing catalog, Tweeds. In addition, a 30 percent hike in U.S. Postal Service rates and a 40 percent increase in the price of newsprint cut deeply into J.Crew profit margins.
Despite the problems, J. Crew pulled itself up by its brown/black pebbled leather bootstraps (available in sizes 5-11), and began an ambitious retail expansion. The company opened its first retail store in New York City in 1989, and opened its second later that year in San Francisco. Stores featured higher-priced goods than catalogs, with limited inventory overlap. Though the stores were successful, and also introduced a new group of customers to the company's catalog business, a bad economy and stiff competition slowed growth. In the early 1990s, J. Crew opened stores in Japan, and signed a licensing agreement with 3 Suisses International, France's second-largest mail order house. In 2001, it plans to expand into the U.K.
Management instability accompanied the company's expansion efforts. In 1993, Robert Bernard, former president of Liz Claiborne International, succeeded COO Arnold Cohen. Bernard resigned in 1996, and chairman and CEO Cinader took over his duties.
Rising to the occasion
The company switched its focus to retailing in 1996, announcing the planned opening of 15 stores a year over the next five years. In a high-profile leveraged buyout, Texas Pacific Group bought 88 percent of the company in 1997 for the sum of $560 million. Cinader Woods retains the other 12 percent, and has the option to purchase another 10 percent of the company. That same year, Emily Woods succeeded her father as J. Crew's chairman and CEO. Though high operating costs have depressed profits in recent years, J. Crew had reported rising sales - until 1998. Emily became Chairman and Chief Designer when the CEO post went to Howard Socol. Not even a year passed, however, before Mark Savary, the former president of Nestle USA's frozen-food unit, replaced Socol.
In the meantime, the PCP and Clifford & Wells operations had dragged down the company's bottom line over the past five years, so the Group sold PCP to catalog firm Fingerhut in 1998 and announced plans in 1999 to liquidate CW in the absence of a buyer. However, J. Crew retail stores - the fastest-growing segment of the company - are all profitable. A blemish marred the company's image later that year, however, when J. Crew and three other retailers agreed to settle a suit regarding sweatshop conditions in the U.S. commonwealth of Saipan, for $1.25 million.
J. Crew: Doesn't wanna wait
The company is known for its unusual catalogs, featuring models cavorting in lovely locations, unusually cropped photography, and oddly-phrased descriptions. In the spring of 1998, J. Crew teamed up with the cast of Dawson's Creek, a television show popular with teenagers. In return for featuring the four main characters of the show in two of its catalogs, Dawson's Creek clothed its clean-cut young cast primarily in J. Crew duds and gave the clothing company an exclusive end credit. The promotion features the actors playing with a Labrador retriever, rowing a boat, and lying on well-kept grass. The Dawson's Creek web site also has a link to J. Crew's site.
While some of J.Crew's departments have endured hard times, the company's web site, JCrew.com, has experienced remarkable success. Bolstered by an aggressive television advertising campaign, the site's sales have consistently surpassed expectations.
J. Crew does not post listings for corporate jobs, but resumes with cover letters can be mailed to the NY Human Resources department, or e-mailed to firstname.lastname@example.org. The company only recruits on college campuses for telemarketing and warehousing staff. Interviews are "very relaxed," and generally involve two or more rounds with HR and then with people from specific departments.
A perfect NY fit
Expect a youthful, high-energy environment as casual as a J. Crew Catalog. "The dress code is fairly casual, and although there are exceptions, people here are very friendly and easy to work with," reports one insider in the Lynchburg, VA office. However, the New York office can be more buttoned up - in clothing and behavior. One contact notes, "as you move north, the Southern hospitality disappears." As for style, one New Yorker says the J. Crew motto is "look great but don't stand out." In terms of people, however, it's quite another story. "I am struck by the amount of ethnic diversity there," one reports, "I expected to see a lot of white upper-class yuppies, and there are a few, but I was pleased to see that it wasn't what I envisioned. From Asians to Latinos, I find us to be quite diverse." Another reports, "The proverbial New York City melting pot boils over into the corporate office."
Plaid-clad and loyal
The downside of any "high-energy" environment is frequent high-stress periods throughout the year. One notes, "You will find pressure to adhere to deadlines." Most say the high pressure is tolerable though, largely because of employee loyalty and a team-oriented attitude. One notes "There is something to be said for a company whose employees have been here for many years. There is a sense of teamwork uncommon at competing companies." That contact continues, "It's not just lip service, but understood as a way of practice. Managerial and Engineering staff reviews are not just centered on maintaining a budgeted cost threshold, but more toward what each person is contributing to the profit line of the company." The pay is "generally above industry standards," though it varies by location. One major perk - all the plaid shirts and chinos you want, at a 40 percent discount.
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