Boston Proper Makes It “Sexy”

Apr 23, 2007 5:45 PM  By

Michael Tiernan built Boston Proper, a cataloger specializing in “sexy fashion” for women, into a nearly $100 million brand through the power of storytelling. That was one of the themes of his speech at the 13th annual Networking Dinner for the Catalog and Multichannel Marketing Council, held in New York on April 19.

“In the past 30 years we’ve pushed the envelope, although we were careful never to cross the line,” Tiernan, president/CEO of Boca Raton, FL-based Boston Proper, told attendees. But telling a sexy story wasn’t the only key to the business’s growth. “Success is about treating each customer as if they are the only person on earth.”

Tiernan started the company at 1978 with Mark, Fore & Strike, a retailer of preppy apparel. Later it added the Charles Keath gifts and home accessories catalog. Tiernan purchased the Boston Proper name out of bankruptcy in 1990 for $125,000 from the Saudi International Bank.

“We bought the names and little else,” Tiernan recalled. The company—then known as the Mark Group—had three titles and the business was fueled for growth. By 1996, the Mark, Fore, & Strike title alone was a $50 million business.

In 2001, Cindy Fields, the former president/CEO of the Victoria’s Secret catalog, was added to the cataloger’s board of directors and also served as a consultant for Boston Proper. And it was Fields who was an early champion of Boston Proper operating as a stand-alone brand.

By 200, the Mark Group had reached $130 million in sales but “was barely profitable,” Tiernan admitted.

“We figured if we could go up in price point and market ‘sexy fashion’ to baby boomers we’d really have something,” he said. Tiernan and chief financial officer Skip Hartzell\ soon refined Boston Proper’s merchandise selection. The company also divested Mark, Fore & Strike in 2002 and Charles Keath in 2003. By 2004 the company had changed its name to Boston Proper.

Even as the company narrowed its focus on the Boston Proper brand, it continues to create spin-offs within that brand. It mails two specialty catalogs, Boston Proper Travel and Boston Proper Sport, and has a third specialty book—whose product category Tiernan wouldn’t divulge–on the way. The specialty catalogs, Tiernan said, “really help extend the reach of the brand.”

Although Boston Proper went online in 1998, it was with barely more than an electronic order form. “Only in the last year and half have we really figured out the Web,” Tiernan said, adding that Internet orders account for more than half of the company’s sales. He cited the effectiveness of Boston Proper’s affiliate marketing and e-mail campaigns in particular.

E-commerce success notwithstanding, Tiernan believes Boston Proper can do more. “If the Internet train is traveling from New York to San Francisco, right now, we’re barely in New Jersey,” Tiernan joked. “Believe me, the train is just leaving the station.”

In addition to crediting Fields, who saw the power and promise of a stand-alone Boston Proper brand, Tiernan praised the late fulfillment consultant Tom Day for his contribution to the company’s success. Day had advised Boston Proper on the need to lower its cost per order. In 2006 the cost per order was $0.78, $0.20 lower than it had been in 2004.

“If you want to do something right,” Tiernan said, “seek out the people who have done it before.”

Today the $90-million-plus Boston Proper is growing 20% annually and has no debt. Tiernan still believes that Boston Proper stores are viable, but he wouldn’t give specifics. “If you eventually count the retail stores, this could be a $1 billion brand,” he told attendees during a question-and-answer session.

Also during the Q&A session, Tiernan deftly side-stepped a question regarding whether the company—one of the few remaining independent apparel brands of size—would be an attractive acquisition candidate. “No comment,” he said, which brought laughter from the audience.

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Mark, Fore & Strike Sold