Live From the Annual DMA Catalog Council Dinner: Peterman Taking a Slower, Wiser Ride

New York–Cataloging icon John Peterman has told his rise and fall story many times since his J. Peterman Company went bankrupt and folded in 1999. Two years after the company closed, Peterman told of the bittersweet saga in his book, “Peterman Rides Again.” Then last year, perhaps having become sick of recounting the J. Peterman story countless times to promote the book, Peterman exercised the rights to the original company’s name and relaunched the J. Peterman catalog and Website.

At the 10th Annual Direct Marketing Association Catalog Council Dinner here, Peterman, the evening’s guest speaker, discussed not only what he’s learned over the years during his successes and failures, but he also outlined how his new J. Peterman Company won’t fail again.

Whereas his original company got too big for its britches, “bringing in high-priced executives,” and expanding too quickly into retail without enough capital to support a broad 1997 plan of 60 stores in five years, the new company is going to take it much slower than the 12-year roller coaster ride of its predecessor.

As the first company neared its peak in 1995, “I had no perspective — I was involved in anything,” Peterman said during his speech. “Then the 1995 postal rate increase and paper increase hit, then we had a cash-flow crisis, then the boat began to sink. We had MBAs running all over the company saying it was too late. The ship was going down and there was nothing we could do.”

As he put together plans for the new company — “no one ever poured cement on my dreams” — Peterman adhered more closely to his four mottos for success: passion, energy, learning, and persistence. “You need passion because it gives you energy,” he said.

Add patience, and you have the model of the new company. “I’m going to build the catalog back slowly,” he said, refusing to reveal the size of the new business. Unlike the first J. Peterman Co., the new outfit has no stores, but is involved in licensing deals with retailers. “I’m taking advantage of the name recognition, even though it’s still about getting good product out there,” he added. “If the product sucks, it ain’t gonna sell.”

As for his goals for the new company, “I will control our growth and will never get to where the other company was,” Peterman said. “I want to keep it very focused. The first company forced growth of the catalog. Now, consumers will force me to grow the catalog. It’ll get bigger — but will be profitable.”

Oh, and aside from the name, Peterman added, there’s one other constant from the old company: John O’Hurley, the actor who portrayed “J. Peterman” on TV’s “Seinfeld” during the 1990s — a character that John Peterman once told Catalog Age was “an asshole”–actually befriended the real Peterman in the decade since he first took on the role. Peterman says he believes the O’Hurley character neither helped nor hurt the old catalog’s sales. But O’Hurley will indeed help the new company: He’s an investor in the new J. Peterman Co.

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