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How VF Corp. turns acquisitions, including North Face, Vans and Timberland, into blockbuster brands. The world’s biggest buyer of zippers.

SATURDAY, FEBRUARY 23, 2013

Forever in Blue Jeans

By ALEXANDER EULE | MORE ARTICLES BY AUTHOR

How VF Corp. turns acquisitions, including North Face, Vans and Timberland, into blockbuster brands. The world’s biggest buyer of zippers.

Eric Wiseman was rising up the ranks of apparel giant VF Corp. in the summer of 2004 when the company acquired Vans, the famed maker of skateboarding shoes. As the top executive for VF’s outdoor-sports segment, Wiseman suddenly had a whole new customer base to understand.

That August, he headed to Asbury Park, N.J., for the Warped Tour, a punk-rock music festival backed by Vans and newly owned by VF. The apparel-industry veteran would have preferred jazz, but he reveled in the five band stages and the raucous crowd. VF had a big hit on its hands.

A decade later, Wiseman, 57, is chairman and chief executive officer of VF (ticker: VFC), and the Warped Tour—still under VF’s umbrella—is the longest-running touring festival in the U.S. The concerts are more than an artistic endeavor; Vans’ annual sales have quadrupled to $1.4 billion since the VF acquisition, and profitability has soared.

Wiseman’s entire wardrobe is built around VF’s 30 brands.

While a lot of executives would have disposed of a noncore asset like the music festival, retaining the Warped Tour gets to the crux of Wiseman’s strategy. He helps brands maintain their identity by removing day-to-day hurdles and lowering their cost of goods. VF’s scale enables both.

It’s the main reason that 30 distinct brands are thriving under VF. The company, which was largely a jeans manufacturer 20 years ago, now owns lifestyle brands such as Vans, The North Face, Nautica, and Timberland, in addition to Wrangler and Lee. In total, VF ships 1.17 million pieces of apparel every day. “When you buy things on the scale that we buy them, you get better prices,” Wiseman says. The company is the world’s largest purchaser of zippers.

VF generated a record $10.9 billion in sales last year, marking 15% growth in an industry that expanded just 4%, according to research firm NPD Group. And profit margins are at an all-time high. Earnings grew 22% in 2012, to $1.09 billion.

VF’s brand platform is so respected that Wall Street immediately cheers when the company announces an acquisition—the opposite reaction to most deals. Twenty months ago, Wiseman led VF into its biggest-ever purchase, buying Timberland for $2.3 billion; VF shares shot up 10% the day the deal was announced.

“We liberate the front end of the business,” Wiseman says. He tells brand presidents to focus on gaining market share. “What we don’t want you to do is worry about legal contracts, changes coming in health care, or whether your distribution centers are going to get things shipped.”

Last month, VF shares rose 3% after the company expressed an interest in Billabong, the Australian surfing company. That deal is still in the due-diligence phase, and VF has competition from another bidder.

But Billabong has plenty of reasons to choose VF. “To the extent Billabong is buying zippers, we buy them cheaper.” Wiseman says. “To the extent they buy denim, we buy it cheaper. To the extent they buy buttons, we buy them cheaper. So we immediately re-cost their entire product line through our lens, and product cost comes down before you do anything else.”

WISEMAN GREW UP IN Malvern, Pa., a small town outside of Philadelphia. The middle of three children, he says loyalty is in his DNA. “If you have brothers and sisters, you have each other’s backs against mom and dad,” he says. “That’s the way good teams work.”

It doesn’t take long to realize that Wiseman is fiercely loyal to his brands and his colleagues. Asked to name a current favorite product, he sounds more like a protective father than a businessman. “I won’t let that go in print, because I’ll have one brand pitted against another,” he says.

When Wiseman met with Barron’s in January, he was wearing jeans from 7 For All Mankind, a VF brand, along with a plaid Nautica shirt, a Nautica watch, and a Nautica belt. His attire is generally the same, workday or weekend: jeans. “I wear a tie less than 10 times a year,” he says.

He spends about half the year on the road, often visiting brand offices, which purposely are kept separate from VF’s Greensboro, N.C., headquarters. He travels with extra luggage to ensure he’ll have the right gear when he meets with brand managers.

And he wants employees to be similarly loyal. The expectations? “Wear our product,” Wiseman says. “I would question how you thought if you walked in here with a pair of Levi’s. I would have to question your sanity.”

Since Wiseman arrived at VF in 1995, no one in the top ranks of the company, or the operating committee, as it’s called, has left VF for another job. “We wouldn’t do that to each other,” Wiseman says. “You won’t see me leaving VF Corporation other than in retirement. Oh. there is another option. I could get fired.”

That seems highly unlikely. Since Wiseman became CEO in 2008, VF shares have soared 132%, to a recent $159. The S&P 500 is up just 2% during the same period.

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WISEMAN PICKED UP most of his apparel expertise in sales and branding roles at Hanes, which he joined in 1979. In 1991, the company was bought by Sara Lee, which sent Wiseman to Sydney to work with several of its apparel brands. After his four-year visa expired, Wiseman returned to the U.S. but saw little opportunity to grow at Sara Lee. Instead, he sent a letter introducing himself to Mackey McDonald, a senior executive at VF who was soon to become the company’s CEO.

The two had never met, but Wiseman came recommended by a senior Sara Lee executive. McDonald, who was already thinking about his own successor at VF, hired Wiseman within a few weeks and assigned him to run VF’s JanSport division in Appleton, Wis. The backpack company was one of VF’s smaller brands, but that didn’t matter to Wiseman, who quickly impressed everyone he worked with.

“He had a lot of sales in his background,” recalls Bob Shearer, a longtime VF employee who’s now the company’s chief financial officer. “And sometimes there’s a little friction between sales and marketing and finance folks. But what I found with Eric early on was that he had a very balanced approach. He knew it wasn’t selling more product just for the sake of selling more product. It was about putting numbers on the bottom line.”

Those numbers are still adding up. VF has improved Timberland’s operating profit margins by about two percentage points, to 10%, since the acquisition, and the company thinks Timberland margins could hit 15% by 2015. In 2012, VF’s overall margins were 13.5%.

THE TIMBERLAND DEAL has made VF an even bigger player in the outdoor market, a clear Wiseman objective. Outdoor and action gear now make up 54% of company’s sales. The segment is more profitable than the rest of the company, and the focus on performance removes a lot of the fashion risk that hangs over other apparel firms. “We don’t have as much color,” Wiseman says. “And we don’t turn styles as often.”

The outdoor strategy got its jump start in 2000, when VF acquired The North Face for $25 million. A niche mountain-gear player at the time, North Face has seen sales grow at a 19% annual clip since, to about $2 billion in 2012.

The Vans and North Face success surely will be instructive for Timberland. VF is letting the brand be itself, with some gentle coaching and back-office support. Like Vans and North Face, Timberland came with its own lifestyle, in this case, sustainability and the environment. Timberland is still headquartered in Stratham, N.H., and company execs don’t even report directly to Wiseman. It takes a certain faith, some might say imprudence, to spend $2.3 billion of shareholder money without taking total control of your new prize.

“Eric is a very confident individual, and therefore he doesn’t feel like he has to exert his authority all the time,” says McDonald, Wiseman’s former boss.

That’s not to say he doesn’t get into details. Wiseman has been to China two or three times a year over the past two decades, he says. On a recent trip, his team found a 20-year-old in Shanghai willing to show off the closet in his parents’ walk-up apartment.

“I’ve been in a lot of closets in China,” Wiseman says. “You try to spot trends, and you try to find where they shop and how often they shop.”

VF has launched five brands in China to date, including The North Face and Timberland. The company expects sales there to nearly triple, to $1.2 billion, by 2017.

Wiseman’s own closet is large, he jokes—a requirement of his CEO post. He has 90 pairs of jeans at his Greensboro house and 50 pairs of shoes from Timberland, Vans, North Face, and Reef.

Wiseman didn’t grow up in North Carolina, but the state has his career roots. He attended college at Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem. And after stints in Cleveland, Cincinnati, and San Diego, he returned to North Carolina to attend business school, also at Wake Forest. There were more moves, including the four years in Australia, before Wiseman landed back in North Carolina.

Four years ago, Wiseman began teaming up with Greensboro Partnership, the city’s Chamber of Commerce and economic development group, to work on a marketing message for the city of 275,000. (VF is the largest business in Greensboro.)

Wiseman and his wife, Susan, spent a Saturday afternoon walking the city’s retail district, all 20 blocks, going into every store. “He wanders off a lot by himself, and engages people in conversation,” says Pat Danahy, CEO and president of Greensboro Partnership. “There’s no pretense about him at all. He gets the feel for what’s there, and then he’s just very quick getting to what needs to be done.”

The Greensboro group recently introduced a new tag line, under Wiseman’s guidance: “Opportunity thrives here. So can you.”

THE CEO IS PLENTY busy looking for new opportunities for VF, as well. In 2010, Wiseman launched VF’s innovation fund. The company has since spent about $12 million on 97 projects, including a technology for waterproofing jeans. The jeans initially are being sold under the Wrangler brand in India, where commuters travel by scooter and bike, even during the monsoon season.

“One of the worst things in the world is to have on a soaked pair of jeans, particularly if you are on your way to work,” Wiseman says. “It’s miserable.”

During his interview with Barron’s, Wiseman pulled a pair of the jeans off his desk, and in a scene straight out of an infomercial, took his water bottle and soaked the pants. The liquid immediately beaded up, the reaction you’d expect from plastic, not denim.

Wiseman smiled when asked about the prospect of bringing the technology to North Face, Timberland, and the rest of his portfolio. It’s like sharing among siblings—the kind that would make a father beam with pride.

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About bambooinnovator
Kee Koon Boon (“KB”) is the co-founder and director of HERO Investment Management which provides specialized fund management and investment advisory services to the ARCHEA Asia HERO Innovators Fund (www.heroinnovator.com), the only Asian SMID-cap tech-focused fund in the industry. KB is an internationally featured investor rooted in the principles of value investing for over a decade as a fund manager and analyst in the Asian capital markets who started his career at a boutique hedge fund in Singapore where he was with the firm since 2002 and was also part of the core investment committee in significantly outperforming the index in the 10-year-plus-old flagship Asian fund. He was also the portfolio manager for Asia-Pacific equities at Korea’s largest mutual fund company. Prior to setting up the H.E.R.O. Innovators Fund, KB was the Chief Investment Officer & CEO of a Singapore Registered Fund Management Company (RFMC) where he is responsible for listed Asian equity investments. KB had taught accounting at the Singapore Management University (SMU) as a faculty member and also pioneered the 15-week course on Accounting Fraud in Asia as an official module at SMU. KB remains grateful and honored to be invited by Singapore’s financial regulator Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS) to present to their top management team about implementing a world’s first fact-based forward-looking fraud detection framework to bring about benefits for the capital markets in Singapore and for the public and investment community. KB also served the community in sharing his insights in writing articles about value investing and corporate governance in the media that include Business Times, Straits Times, Jakarta Post, Manual of Ideas, Investopedia, TedXWallStreet. He had also presented in top investment, banking and finance conferences in America, Italy, Sydney, Cape Town, HK, China. He has trained CEOs, entrepreneurs, CFOs, management executives in business strategy & business model innovation in Singapore, HK and China.

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