The New Breed of Innovators

Jun 01, 2001 9:30 PM  By

A former editor of the Harvard Business Review, Theodore Levitt, said, “Creativity is thinking up new things. Innovation is doing new things.”

It’s not that tough to dream up a new concept, strategy, or technique. Implementing the idea is much more demanding — especially today, when it seems that all the niches have been tapped, all the marketing techniques exploited, and all the technologies already invented.

Nonetheless, the 12 individuals profiled here prove that Richard Sears, Montgomery Ward, and Leon Bean didn’t have a monopoly on cataloging innovation. Whether they’ve fine-tuned a merchandise strategy to appeal to a misunderstood market, or expanded a business via a counterintuitive acquisition strategy, or excelled in a new channel, these innovators are helping the industry to evolve today. And we predict you’ll be seeing more of them in the future too.

The Style Setter

Hilary Billings, chairman/chief marketing officer/founder, Red Envelope

Age: 37

Education: BA, Brown University

Why an innovator: As a merchant with Williams-Sonoma from 1992 to 1997, Billings was largely responsible for the meteoric rise of the Pottery Barn catalog. Now she is in the process of making cataloger/online marketer Red Envelope an established gifts brand. Launched as 911Gifts in 1998, the San Francisco-based gifts marketer sells an array of eclectic gifts tailored both to upscale buyers and to buyers with high-ticket tastes but somewhat more modest budgets.

Track record: Director of Pottery Barn catalog, 1992-95; vice president of product development and design for Williams-Sonoma stores and catalog, 1995-97.

Current role: Leads Red Envelope’s marketing, merchandising, and creative services teams in developing the brand “toward the vision we set out with almost two years ago,” Billings says. The company began online, launching a print catalog in early 2000. “We never saw the Internet as the only channel,” she says.

Philosophy: “If you have a vision and a passion to create something different and better, do it. You may have to fight every step of the way to make it happen, but in the end it will be worth it.”

Mentors: In addition to her parents, Red Envelope president/chief operating officer Tom Bazzone. “Tom took over before the launch in the late summer of 1999 so that I could go on maternity leave,” Billings says. “He built a new technology platform, moved us to a new fulfillment center, built a new call center, and got our new site up before Christmas — all in less than three months!”

How she would like to be remembered: “As someone who took risks, broke many old-age catalog rules, and proved that true innovation could reinvigorate the industry.”

Career high point: Helping to finish the relaunch of the Pottery Barn catalog in 1992. “It seemed like a huge risk at the time,” Billings recalls. But with that book, Pottery Barn turned its focus away from tabletop items and toward home decor and furnishings. The Pottery Barn brand has been Williams-Sonoma’s star performer ever since.

What others say: “Hilary understands what’s stylish — but also what’s within the reach of most Americans,” says Red Envelope CEO Martin McClanan. “You can find a lot of people who are cutting-edge style mavens, and people who are pretty good at mass market. But it’s hard to find popular style. And that’s the magic that helped make her successful at Pottery Barn and here.”

‘There is no such thing as a competitor, just opportunities for business partnerships’
#8212; Tom Shipley, founder, T. Shipley

The Prince of Promotions

Tom Shipley, CEO/co-owner/founder, T. Shipley

Age: 39

Education: BS, MS, University of Central Florida.

Why an innovator: Since launching business gifts and accessories marketer T. Shipley in January 1999 with 50,000-book mailing and the launch of the Website, Shipley has recognized the potential of entering into joint promotions and cobranded catalogs with larger, more established players such as Spiegel. By means of such ventures, the Maitland, FL-based cataloger is gunning for $10 million in sales in just its third year in business.

Track record: Before founding the catalog, Shipley founded Operations Management Group, an operations and marketing consulting firm.

Current role: Handles planning, business development, financial analysis, and facilitating process and program improvements.

Right-hand man: Shipley gives due credit to vice president of marketing Shawn Mielke, 33, whom he hired in spring 2000. Mielke, who had previously worked at catalogers Seta Corp., Fingerhut Cos., and Montgomery Ward Direct, “gets it,” Shipley says. “He is excited and engaged in the brainstorming process but takes a straightforward, analytical approach to evaluating the business opportunities. Ultimately, there are limited company resources, and Shawn lets the numbers drive the right decision.”

Biggest challenge: Last year, the company’s advisers and investors recommended that Shipley not mail a holiday catalog, lay off most of the employees, and put the company on “life support” until additional capital could be raised. “But you can’t build a great company without taking a calculated risk,” Shipley says. “So we came together as a team, focused on our core business, mailed a significant holiday catalog, and successfully grew our way out of it” with the capital it had.

Philosophy: “There is no such thing as a competitor, just opportunities for business partnerships.”

Mentor: Catalog consultant Mary Vonnegut, who has worked as a marketing executive for such catalogers as Hanover Direct and Ross-Simons.

Ambition: “To grow T. Shipley into its destiny while achieving balance between the company, my family, and running marathons.”

How he would most like to be remembered: “As the person who identified one of the great niche market opportunities — business gifts and business accessories — and successfully built one of the great direct marketing companies.”

The PR Whiz

Bill Ihle, senior vice president of corporate relations, Bear Creek Corp.

Age: 45

Education: California State University at Chico

Why an innovator: Helped bring the company’s catalogs — particularly food gifts mailer Harry and David and gardening title Jackson & Perkins — into the public eye by way of national TV spots and creative promotional campaigns. Before Ihle joined the company in 1997, Medford, OR-based Bear Creek had last been featured on television in 1954 on the Today Show. Since 1997, his efforts have reached more than 300 million TV viewers.

Track record: Spokesperson for California governor George Duekmejian; director of public relations for two health care companies; and a vice president for Carter, Hawley, Hale department stores (now Broadway Stores).

Current role: Public relations, governmental, and internal relations. In addition to spreading the word to the public, Ihle helps keep employees up to date as well. “We publish a 40-page company magazine, Bear Creek, twice a year, and we have Bear Creek Television broadcast to our employees daily,” he says.

Career high point: Introducing Jackson & Perkins’s Diana, Princess of Wales Rose in 1998. The product and the campaign “let us break through the brand and make it more visible and relevant to younger customers,” Ihle says. How effective was the promotional push? The rose “sold out two years in a row.”

Philosophy: “I just love what I do and have a great time at it.”

Mentor: C.K. McClatchy, the chairman/publisher of McClatchy Newspapers. “His philosophy was that it’s nice to be important, but it’s more important to be nice.”

What others say: “Bill’s a creative thinker, and he understands how to communicate to others what is interesting about our products and services,” says Bear Creek president Nancy Tait. “His work has definitely increased sales, and we have a larger customer base because of his work.”

The Merch Maven

Mindy Meads, executive vice president of merchandising and design, Lands’ End

Age: “40-something”

Education: University of Illinois

Why an innovator: Largely credited with reinvigorating the casual apparel marketer’s sales by updating its merchandise line without sacrificing the quality or the classic styling for which the company has long been known. “We had a lot of success with bringing in style — not high fashion, but items such as capris, three-quarter sleeves, stretch materials, reversible jackets, and driving moccasins,” Meads says.

Track record: Started as a buyer at Macy’s New York in 1978; was senior vice president of women’s apparel when she left 12 years later. After a year in product development at The Limited, joined Dodgeville, WI-based Lands’ End in 1991 as head of women’s apparel under then-executive vice president of merchandising Dave Dyer. “After five years, I left for an opportunity at Gymboree, but I returned in fall 1998 when Dave Dyer came back to run Lands’ End,” Meads says.

Current role: “I lead the entire merchandising effort and work with the vice president of creative to determine how our merchandise will be presented.”

Philosophy: “Stay focused on the customer.”

Mentors: “Art Reiner, the CEO of Macy’s New York, who taught me the fundamental merchandising skills. Dave Dyer has also been a key part of my career.”

Career high point: “Any time a new product takes off. For instance, we went after tankinis a couple of years ago, and they were a hit.”

What others say: “Upon returning to Lands’ End, the first person I called to ask back was Mindy Meads,” says Lands’ End president Dyer. “Mindy is an outstanding merchant, leader, and business partner. She thoroughly understands both the Lands’ End customer and direct marketing — a unique combination.”

‘When you overthink a concept, you can ruin it’
— Patty Lee, president of merchandising, J. Jill Group

The Savvy Scientist

Mike Bieker, owner/founder of Phlebotic, a manufacturer of specialized lab supplies and parent company of cataloger MarketLab

Age: 34

Education: Indiana University

Why an innovator: Tapped into an underserved niche — phlebology (the research and treatment of blood and blood vessels) laboratory supplies. Formed Phlebotic in 1994 to manufacture specialized medical and research supplies. In 1997, in part to market Phlebotic’s products and in part to benefit from the 60%-80% margins of merchandise such as miscroscope arm rests and phlebotomy chairs, launched MarketLab. About 30% of MarketLab’s products are manufactured by Phlebotic. Bieker expects to have $6 million in sales this year, up from $3.5 million in 2000.

Track record: Spent six years as a field sales rep for lab supplies distributor Fisher Scientific before founding Phlebotic.

Philosophy: “Whatever you do, make it fun and exciting. Whether it’s creating a catalog, celebrating a sales milestone, or going to a trade show, stop and think creatively how you could hype every little thing along the way.”

Industry influences: Richard Thalheimer, founder of The Sharper Image, and Steve and Lori Leveen, founders of Levenger, all of whom carved out particular niches. “A true innovator and legendary cataloger doesn’t wait around for manufacturers to come up with all the ideas,” Bieker says.

How he would like to be remembered: “As an innovator who looked at the traditional way things had been done for years and years and came up with a better idea for doing them. I want to be looked at as someone who changed the current distribution model, but who also liked to have fun along the way and do exciting things.”

Career high: “I’ve had a lot of good moments, but my greatest moment is yet to come. We have a five-year plan to reach $100 million in annual sales by 2006.”

What others say: “Mike has all five talents — market knowledge, product creativity, circulation knowledge, catalog creativity, and management ability — that it takes to successfully conceive, create, operate manage and grow a company,” says catalog investment banker Don Libey of Philadelphia-based Libey-Concordia. “He is a universal cataloger.”

The Turnaround Queen

Patty Lee, president of merchandising, J. Jill Group

Education: College of the Holy Cross, Worchester, MA

Age: 37

Why an innovator: When promoted to director of merchandising for the J. Jill catalog in 1994, saw the opportunity to transform a tiny title targeting the more mature baby boomers into a brand of “in between,” dress-down business/dress-up casual apparel for a broader segment of women. Lee also made the brand, fit, and quality consistent by bringing product design inhouse. The merchandise transformation revitalized Quincy, MA-based J. Jill — sales soared from $13 million in 1994 to approximately $246 million in 2000, a 70% compound annual growth rate.

Track record: Started in marketing in 1985 at Johnny Appleseed’s, a women’s apparel cataloger/retailer, where she progressed into merchandising positions. In 1990 joined J. Jill (then known as DM Management, which published women’s apparel catalogs Nicole Summers and Carroll Reed as well as J. Jill) as a buyer. Promoted to director of merchandising of the J. Jill catalog, 1994. Promoted to current position, March 1999.

Motto: “Trust your instincts.” Lee says her decision to change the focus of J. Jill was based on experience — and a gut feeling, rather than market surveys or research. “When you overthink a concept, you can ruin it,” says Lee.

Merchandising philosophy: “My vision was to make J. Jill aspirational — I wanted women to connect with the women in the photos. Women lead such busy lives today that they need an escape,” says Lee.

Career high point: “The day our first J. Jill store opened in November 1999, because the simple concepts — escapism and naturalism — I had first talked about with the catalog in 1994 came to life in the store.” (Today J. Jill has 26 stores nationwide.)

What others say: “Patty is by far once of the most intense, hardest-working merchandisers,” says J. Jill CEO Gordon Cooke. “She has a tremendous eye for design. Her real contribution is to spot merchandise styles and collections on which we totally hang our hat. I would consider her brilliant in that aspect.”

‘Don’t let yourself get outworked by anyone else’
— Sam Gradess, cofounder, Alloy

The Cool Kids

(pictured from left) Matt Diamond, cofounder/CEO of Alloy; Sam Gradess, cofounder/chief financial officer of Alloy; Jim Johnson, cofounder/president/chief operation officer of Alloy

Ages: 32 (Diamond), 35 (Gradess), and 33 (Johnson)

Education: University of North Carolina and Harvard Business School (Diamond); University of Virginia (Gradess); Hamilton College (Johnson)

Why they’re innovators: Teen apparel marketer Alloy kept its focus on integrating its online and offline businesses during the dot-com explosion of the late 1990s, when pure-plays were expected to eclipse the print catalog business. That strategy paid off when many dot-coms went under in 2000. At the same time, the company took advantage of the prospecting and branding potential of other businesses by acquiring 17th Street Productions, a publisher of books for teens.

Track record: The three met in Japan in the mid-1990s, where Diamond and Johnson were working with General Electric, and Gradess was working for Goldman Sachs. They started New York-based Alloy in 1996, during Diamond’s last semester of business school. Gradess, who was initially an investor in the start-up, quit his job at Goldman Sachs and joined Alloy in 1997.

Current roles: Diamond handles the strategic and corporate development, marketing, and sales, while Gradess oversees finances. As for Johnson, he handles anything from merchandising to technology to overseeing the content and intellectual property areas and distribution of our book company.

Biggest challenge in career: “Remaining rational while everyone was so excited about everything dot-com,” Diamond says. “We focused on our online and offline businesses, as opposed to being just a pure-play. It wasn’t the sexiest thing in the world back then, but it worked.”

Philosophies: “Nothing is easy. The best way to accomplish something is by working hard, learning from your mistakes, and moving on” — Diamond.

“Don’t let yourself get outworked by anyone else.” — Gradess.

“Be very fast and very good and the first to come up with and market ideas and do things differently.” — Johnson.

Mentor: Both Diamond and Johnson cite General Electric CEO Jack Welch. “He sets the tone for excellence in business,” Johnson says.

Career high point: For Diamond, it was “our profitable fourth quarter, ended Jan. 31, 2001.” For Gradess it was “seeing the first significant jump in orders in November 1997 after we launched our first national print catalog,”and taking Alloy public “in a very accelerated manner” in May 1999.

What others say: “Matt, Sam, and Jim have a handle on their market,” says Kathleen Heaney, analyst with New York-based financial firm BlueStone Capital Partners. “They’ve been successful in offering the right products in a timely fashion to their audience of primarily teen girls. And they’re conservative. They’re growing the business steadily rather than growing it just for the sake of growing it. And in the end, slow and steady wins the race.”

The Cutting-Edge Kid

Terri S. Alpert, founder/CEO, Professional Cutlery Direct (PCD)

Age: 38

Education: Brown University

Why an innovator: In part by focusing intently on providing stellar customer service, Alpert has grown her catalog, which sells high-end kitchenware and culinary tools for culinary enthusiasts, tremendously, especially during the past five years, to annual sales of about $11 million. According to Inc. magazine, North Branford, CT-based PCD’s annual growth rate from 1995 through 1999 was a staggering 1,313%. Alpert also developed a proprietary line of catalog management software, which it markets through spin-off company PCD Technologies. “I wasn’t about to buy some expensive software when I had no idea what my future needs would be,” Alpert says. “In many respects, we have a better mousetrap, but most important, we have flexibility and the ability to control our own development priorities.”

Track record: Was an information technology manager with Wall Street firm Morgan Stanley before founding PCD in 1993 with an initial $8,000 investment.

Philosophy: Provide outstanding customer service. Everyone in the shop is trained to answer the phones and take customer orders, Alpert included. Once a PCD customer has been waiting in the phone queue for 45 seconds, horns will blare in the warehouse, while bells will chime in the company’s executive offices.

Inspiration: The catalog pioneers, such as Richard Sears. “Everything since then has been a small tweak,” Alpert says. “These players convinced consumers to take the leap of faith and buy something from a picture and a few words. Let’s not underestimate the significance of this.”

What others say: “Terri’s a quick study. She’s bright, driven, and passionate about the brand and positioning,” says Phil Minix, executive vice president/general manager of catalog consultancy J. Schmid & Associates. “She’s clearly a hard worker. And she’s willing to listen to others when she doesn’t know an answer.”

The Culinary Crusader

Maurice “Mo” Frechette, catalog director and co-owner, Zingerman’s

Age: 31

Education: University of Michigan

Why an innovator: Grew the annual sales of the Ann Arbor, MI-based food cataloger from $100,000 to $1.5 million in eight years, thanks largely to quirky creative and enterprising conversion efforts. “We grew the business without having to advertise or changing the catalog in any way,” Frechette says. “We acquired customers by word of mouth and through converting gift recipients into buyers. Lots of people said what we were doing couldn’t be done — that a $38 coffee cake wouldn’t sell, or that people in Manhattan aren’t going to buy our breads. But it turns out that the majority of our bread sales are to customers in Manhattan.”

Track record: Worked for Zingerman’s for a year before leaving in 1993 to teach English in Slovakia. Upon return in 1994, took over direction of the company’s catalog, which had launched in 1992.

Current role: Sources product, directs the catalog, cowrites copy for the catalog and Website, and even handles some phone orders.

Biggest challenge: “Every holiday season is a challenge for mail order,” Frechette says.

Mentor: Jude Walton, his partner. “Jude can understand what employees are feeling, such as frustration, in day-to-day situations, and she can get them involved, get them to work, and make them feel better.”

What others say: “Mo has a good understanding of the catalog’s audience and of its product,” says Allen Rosenberg, partner/executive vice president of New York-based catalog marketing consultancy Marke Communications.

The Makeover Master

Danielle Savin, vice president of direct marketing, Frederick’s of Hollywood

Age: 36

Education: University of California at San Diego

Why a leader: Since joining the lingerie cataloger/retailer in October 1999, has cut expenses radically. Initiatives included having the company buy its own paper, which saved 20%; cancelling a $1 million contract with a design firm and bringing creative inhouse for the fall/holiday 2000 book; and slashing circulation 24%. “I went back seven years and examined our mail plan.” Savin says. “Everything was a mess. Our expenses were out of control. We had stopped prospecting and wondered why the house file was atrophying.” Frederick’s in-the-mail costs have dropped from 59 cents to 50 cents. At the same time, response has improved. For Valentine’s Day, the company was expecting a response rate of 2.7%, but got a 3.2% response. For spring, so far Frederick’s has seen a 10% increase in catalog sales on flat circulation.

Track record: Account manager for a San Diego marketing and PR agency before joining Road Runner Sports as creative manager in 1993; director of marketing for women’s apparel cataloger California Style (formerly La Costa Products), 1997-99.

Biggest challenge: Nine months after Savin joined Frederick’s, the company filed for bankruptcy; it stopped mailing during summer 2000. That’s when Savin started cutting costs and gave the catalog a fresh look, in part by making layouts less dense.

Motto: “Nothing is impossible!”

Mentor: John Pitzen, the former chief financial officer at California Style, now the general manager at Wine Country Gift Baskets. “He taught me to be bold with my forecasting and predictions, which is atypical for a CFO,” Savin says.

What others say: “Danielle is one of those people who understands the business of cataloging and what the customer wants,” says Gina Valentino, a former colleague at Road Runner Sports and now the customer development director at Spiegel. “She’s rooted in the numbers and makes decisions based upon results. She takes calculated risks, and can make tough decisions.”

“Danielle has a bottom-line mentality,” adds John Pitzen. “She not afraid to test. And she’s computer savvy enough to look at the numbers and decipher what they mean to the bottom line.”

‘A good CEO needs to anticipate where the next disaster is looming and eradicate it’
— Stephen Kahn, CEO, Delia’s

The Teen Dream

Stephen I. Kahn, chairman of the board/CEO, cofounder, Delia’s

Age: 35

Education: Under-graduate, Yale University; MBA, Columbia University; MA, Oxford University.

Why an innovator: One of the first, if not the first, to target teens via catalog. Kahn hatched the idea of a catalog selling clothing for teen girls with Yale roommate Chris Edgar in 1993. Buoyed by the success of the book, Kahn built and spun off online subsidiary iTurf in May 1999, at the height of the dot-com boom, raising $106.2 million. The subsequent dot-com bust and stock market plunge (iTurf’s share price plummeted from $13.25 in November 1999 to $1.81 in August 2000) contributed to Kahn’s decision to remerge Delia’s and iTurf in December 2000. “Corporate change is always a difficult thing,” Kahn says, “but the strategic decision to recombine Delia’s and iTurf and focus on our core multichannel business was clearly the right one.” In the meantime, Delia’s continues its steady retail rollout with plans to open 10 more stores to its current 31 and four outlets this year.

Track record: Prior to Delia’s, worked in the merchant banking group at Paine Webber.

Career highs: “First was discovering that I actually had a market with customers in it, which was after the first fall 1994 Delia’s catalog hit,” Kahn says. “Second was my aunt, Gerri Karetsky, giving me $500,000 over lunch after every venture capitalist and industry player turned down my business plan in the spring of 1995. Third was the Delia’s initial public offering in December 1996. Fourth was the iTurf IPO in May 1999.”

Philosophy: “There is always something you can do better. And the guy who works and thinks the hardest will eventually win. I also think that any good idea can be actualized with enough capital and a smart management team. I don’t like to lose, and I like the people around me to feel like winners. I have always thought of my employees as partners in the business and recognize that they spend more time at Delia’s than with their families. I think a good CEO needs to anticipate where the next disaster is looming either internally or externally and eradicate it.”

Mentor: His father. “He emphasized the idea of finding happiness in work and in love in order to have a good life. He stressed education and ideas and exposed me to the power of history, culture, and capitalism.”

What others say: “They’re a good brand,” says Matt Diamond, CEO of Alloy and a Delia’s competitor “Teens know the brand, and in many ways Delia’s pioneered direct mail for teens. Before Delia’s, kids weren’t buying by direct mail. Then Delia’s began circulating its catalog and introduced the whole phenomena.”

The Acquiring Mind

Fred Young, chairman/CEO, Black Box Corp.

Age: 45

Education: BS, finance and accounting, Clarkson University, Potsdam, NY

Why an innovator: Spearheads an acquisition strategy not unlike a traditional roll-up approach: acquire several small companies in a cottage industry and drive cost savings through better purchasing levels. Chairman/CEO of connectivity products cataloger Black Box since 1998, Young has been the key driver behind the company’s aggressive acquisition strategy. In three years, the Pittsburgh-based marketer has bought no fewer than 60 distributors — mostly small regional players. The company’s sales have grown from $311 million in 1998 to $500 million last year. Black Box’s strategy is based on the philosophy that its core business has “always been in networking and providing service to customers,” says David Manthey, research analyst for Milwaukee-based investment banking firm Robert W. Baird & Co. “So when Fred approaches these wiring companies, they definitely see eye to eye. And a lot of these companies have grown 15%-30% since Black Box bought them.”

Track record: Was a financial analyst with General Electric and a financial accounting manager with IBM, before serving as chief financial officer at Genigraphics Corp., 1982-87. Chief financial officer at Genicom, 1988-91. Joined Black Box in 1991 as vice president/chief financial officer; named chief operating officer, 1996.

Current role: In addition to overseeing the company’s strategic direction, Young is a dealmaker. “Strategically,” he said in a recent statement, “our aggressive expansion of technical services for the infrastructure marketplace continues to drive our success.”

What others say: “Everything that’s transpired under the acquisition strategy has been done under Fred’s direction,” Manthey says. “Most companies that have been acquired by Black Box say that although they had been approached by other companies before Black Box, nobody quite gets it like Fred does.”

The Web Wizard

Lee Lorenzen, president/CEO, Altura Software and Catalog City

Age: 42

Education: BS, computer science, Southern Methodist University, 1981

Why an innovator: In 1997 founded Monterey, CA-based Internet catalog mall Catalog City, providing catalog companies with another way to sell goods and acquire customers on the Web. Also developed the universal shopping cart technology that lets users place orders directly from the mall while each individual catalog company handles fulfillment. In 1999 Catalog City’s top-line merchandise sales were $12.7 million, and revenue (from commissions on sales and mall development fees) was $2.1 million. In 2000 top-line merchandise sales were $27 million, and revenue was $5.1 million.

Track record: While still in college, created a sales-tracking program for the apparel industry, which was purchased by apparel company Haggar. After graduation worked for software company Digital Research. After turning down a job offer from Bill Gates at Microsoft, Lorenzen cofounded Ventura Software in 1985. In 1990, he sold the $50 million company to Xerox to start Altura Software.

Career high: Developing AMOS (Altura Merchant Operating System) in 1997 after refining a plan to unroll a database publishing program for the mail order industry. AMOS is the merchant operating system that links the back end of multiple merchants with the front end, via a single shopping cart, of portals and online malls such as Catalog City, AOL, Yahoo!, and Shop Lycos.

Philosophy: “E-commerce is like a marathon; unseasoned runners who were first out of the gates and sprinted are now panting on the sidelines, and people who had practiced and run a steady race are now excelling.”

Credit where credit’s due: Lorenzen says Amazon.com’s concept of offering products across different categories while keeping navigation and checkout the same gave him the idea for Catalog City. And since Lorenzen didn’t want to deal with fulfillment and distribution, he came up with a solution that allows catalogers to handle the back-end.

What others say: “Now that venture capital is scarce, people are realizing the necessity of partnering and Web alliances, but Lee has always used this to leverage credibility with customers online and bring more customers to established marketers,” says Bill Williams, president/chief operating officer of Yamanouchi Consumer, the parent company of Bear Creek Corp. “Also, I believe that Lee will take the concept of the Internet mall global, allowing catalogers without scale to have an international presence.”

The Youthquaker

John E. Zawacki, president/CEO of multititle mailer Blair Corp.

Age: 52

Education: Thiel College

Why an innovator: In 2000, the venerable general merchandise cataloger grew its top line 10% and its bottom line 38%, in part because of Zawacki’s efforts to attract younger customers. With an average customer age of 65, “we realized we had to find a way to bring that younger demographic into the fold,” Zawacki says. Blair launched four catalogs last year: Crossing Pointe and 220 Hickory, which sells apparel for women 40-60 years old; Scandia Woods, which sells casual men’s apparel to baby boomers; and Blair Custom Wear, a business-to-business catalog selling apparel that can be custom-embroidered for corporate sales. Zawacki came up with the idea of developing a well-priced line of women’s apparel for the working woman back in 1985, with a catalog called The Notebook. It lasted but two years. “The problem was that there weren’t enough younger women ordering direct at the time,” he says. “We tried it again 15 years later, with Crossing Pointe, 220 Hickory, and men’s title Scandia Woods,” and the strategy is taking off.

Career high: “We were primarily a letter-style mailer for the first 85 years of our business. The idea of getting started in catalogs almost from scratch six years ago shows that we have the ability to move quickly.”

Mentor: “My father, who taught me honesty, integrity, fairness, respect, and the value of an honest day’s work, and that nothing is more important than family.”

What’s in a name? Zawacki is just the fourth president in the history of the 91-year-old, Warren, PA-based cataloger. And he’s only the second president without the Blair surname.

What others say: Jim Adams, managing director at Boston-based investment bank Ulin & Holland, says, “Led by Zawacki, Blair had an excellent year given the uncertainty that exists in today’s catalog industry which underscores the brand’s appeal to its customers” he says. “Zawacki’s plan of taking Blair to a younger audience is an ideal way to build upon last year’s strong top- and bottom-line numbers.


Written and reported by Moira Cotlier, Mark Del Franco, Shayn Ferriolo, Ellen Hansen, Sabrina Horne, and Paul Miller. Special thanks to Diane Cyr.