Willis & Geiger up for sale

Nov 01, 1998 10:30 PM  By

Less than four years after acquiring apparel manufacturer Willis & Geiger and transforming it into a catalog, Lands’ End has put the division up for sale. “Willis & Geiger is a great brand with a wonderful history, but the catalog’s growth didn’t meet our expectations,” says Charlotte LaComb, spokeswoman for Lands’ End. “We’re going to spend our time, energy, and money on our core business.”

The $12.3 million Willis & Geiger was a small fish in Lands’ End’s big-$1.26 billion-pond. “Willis & Geiger never reached the critical mass to make a meaningful contribution,” says Ken Gassman, retail analyst at Richmond, VA, investment firm Davenport & Co. “The Willis & Geiger customer was too high-end for Lands’ End.” Whereas Lands’ End’s core book sells $180 parkas, Madison, WI-based Willis & Geiger sells $679 trench coats. “Lands’ End needs to concentrate on leveraging its brand name and targeting its core customer when it comes to its specialty businesses,” Gassman says.

In an industry that seems to thrive on acquiring companies rather than spinning them off, Lands’ End is an exception. For instance, having bought outdoor apparel wholesaler MontBell America in 1994, Lands’ End turned around and sold it to Outdoor Industry Group in January 1996. And in early 1997, the company sold its majority interest in The Territory Ahead, which it had acquired in 1993, back to owner Bruce Willard, who then sold it to multititle cataloger Cornerstone Group.

But along with international sales, Lands’ End’s specialty spin-offs, such as the Coming Home linens book and the Beyond Buttondowns men’s apparel title, accounted for the Dodgeville, WI-based company’s 13% rise in revenue last year. In contrast, sales of Lands’ End’s core casual apparel declined 3%, to $669 million for the year ending Jan. 31.

As for potential buyers of Willis & Geiger, Lands’ End is keeping quiet, but an obvious choice would be Cornerstone Group. Not only did Cornerstone buy The Territory Ahead, but Cornerstone chief William End was instrumental in buying Willis & Geiger when he was Lands’ End’s CEO. At press time, Portland, ME-based Cornerstone was in a quiet period following its registration for an initial public offering, but managing director Don Steiner said, “We respect Willis & Geiger, and I’m sure we’d be willing to talk to them.”-SO