J. Peterman Co. Rides Again

The quirky catalog that put the duster coat on the map has risen from the dust

By now John Peterman’s rise and fall in the catalog industry has been well documented. The entrepreneur started his offbeat catalog of high-ticket apparel and accessories in 1987, grew it to a $50 million mail order and Web business with 13 stores, only to file for bankruptcy in 1999 and sell the company to retailer Paul Harris Stores (which filed for bankruptcy protection itself this past October).

But you will have Peterman to kick around again: he’s already back in the mailbox. In January, Peterman bought back The J. Peterman Co., including the intellectual rights, trademarks, some inventory, the product development files for 4,000-5,000 SKUs, and a 1 million-name house file from the Paul Harris liquidator.

In February, Peterman mailed a four-page 11″ × 15″ newspaper-format catalog called The J. Peterman Times to 60,000 names from the customer list. The publication announced his return to the business and offered eight products from the old J. Peterman catalog, as well as autographed copies of his autobiography, Peterman Rides Again.

Moreover, Lexington, KY-based Peterman said that he will relaunch a full-scale catalog at the end of May with the same “Owners Manual” title as the old business, after mailing two more of the low-cost newspaper catalogs. He may continue mailing the newspapers between catalog mailings.

“I want to control the creative, the brand, and the merchandise, and build it all back,” Peterman says. “Then I may look at licensing out the catalog to a company that would provide the infrastructure and service while I’d provide the product and creative.”

Peterman is being backed by several investors, including actor John O’Hurley, who portrayed Peterman on the hit TV series Seinfeld. Peterman has rehired artist Bob Hagel, who crafted the catalog’s signature illustrations, and his former senior writer Bill McCullam. “I plan to bring some of the other writers back as we develop,” he says.

Why relaunch a company that went under the first go-round? Well, Peterman says he’s learned from his mistakes. Aggressive expansion into retail contributed to J. Peterman Co.’s downfall, he admits, as did launching a hard-goods catalog. The spin-off was aimed at the same audience as the core book, “and our customers had only X number of Peterman dollars. So we wound up splitting the money between the two books and didn’t gain revenue overall,” he says.

But the primary lessons learned, Peterman says, are that “big isn’t necessarily better, and to stay focused on the brand rather than on other things” such as rapid growth.

Peterman says he’s unfazed by the uneasy economic times in which he’s launching the company: “I started the original company on Black Monday in 1987 and it grew anyway. If you’re doing something interesting that customers want, they’ll buy it.”

“He probably has some pent-up demand with that house file,” observes consultant Katie Muldoon, president of Sugarloaf Key, FL-based Muldoon & Baer. “People still want fantasy, and that’s what he did so well with. In fact, I’m an old customer of J. Peterman, and I look forward to seeing what he has to offer. So if he has 1 million of those customers, that will be a major advantage.”