Meeting the Catalog Master: Bill End

Greenwich, CT–The Hudson Valley Direct Marketing Association’s “Meet the Masters” luncheon on Nov. 8 lived up to its title. A true master, catalog industry veteran Bill End addressed about 70 attendees on a wide number of topics during a question-and-answer session at the Fairview Country Club here.

An uncharacteristically candid End discussed his 15-year career at L.L. Bean, his tenure as president/CEO of Lands’ End, and his founding of Cornerstone Brands. End currently sits on the boards of several companies, including Eddie Bauer, Bass Pro Shops, and IDEXX Laboratories.

End was at L.L. Bean from 1975 to 1990, ultimately becoming executive vice president/chief marketing officer. During those years, sales at the cataloger of outdoor gear, apparel, and home goods grew from $24 million to $650 million. “Brand building is one of the keys regardless of the distribution channel,” End said. “Whether you market via a catalog, a Website, or a retail store, all that is a means of communicating with the customer.”

Once you think you’ve got your company’s brand figured out, he continued, “there’s a temptation to change.” With Bean, “there was a temptation to go into the women’s fashion business. But it wasn’t the right fit for Bean.” Bean did in fact launch a women’s fashion apparel title, Freeport Studio, in 1999—which it closed less than three years later.

Before End joined Bean, the cataloger had never mailed to outside names. “In the first year we rented lists, they all worked for us, so we had a great opportunity to extend the number of lists we were using and to go deeper into the lists,” End recalled. “That was something that really cranked up our sales.” Just the same, End credited former president Leon Gorman, whose “policing [of] all aspects of the business was largely responsible for its success.”

In 1990, End left Bean to become the president/CEO of Lands’ End. In many ways Lands’ End was similar to Bean: Both sold high-quality, basic products with an emphasis on value. “Lands’ End was better at creative and produced great catalog copy,” End said. But at the publicly traded Lands’ End, he had additional pressures. Along with marketing, merchandising, and operations, “you worry about quarterly reports, stockholders, and analysts meetings,” he noted. “It was a different experience.”

When asked about the 2002 sale of Lands’ End to Sears, End commented, “From a liquidity standpoint, it was a great move for [Lands’ End] founder Gary Comer.” But from a customer service standpoint, “the experiment of putting Lands’ End in Sears retail stores has not been a positive one.” Had Sears put Lands’ End in a store-within-a-store concept, the attempted synergies might have been more fruitful. “But I think Sears has done a poor job in executing the concept,” End said, adding that “a retail store could never romance the merchandise they way a print catalog could over a two-page spread.”

In 1995, End and two partners formed Cornerstone Brands, the holding company that includes Garnet Hill, The Territory Ahead, TravelSmith, Smith + Noble, Ballard Designs, and Frontgate. With $60 million in investment capital from Madison Dearborn Partners and JP Morgan Chase, End and his partners set out to find the best catalog brands that were scalable and “able to be cranked up,” through synergies in lists, merchandise, and fulfillment.

The company grew all right. Apparel book The Territory Ahead, for example, had sales of $15 million when Cornerstone bought it in 1997; when Cornerstone was sold to IAC/InterActiveCorp. in 2004, Territory Ahead’s sales were about $75 million. Likewise, sales at clothing and travel accessories mailer TravelSmith climbed from $10 million in 1997 to $100 million at the time of the sale.

But along the way, End admitted, there were missteps, such as the purchases of the Whispering Pines and French Country Living specialty furniture catalogs. Neither title was a great fit with the other Cornerstone properties, and each was subsequently sold back to its original owners.