Donald Fisher



Born: 1928
San Francisco, California
Founder and chairman of the board, Gap, Inc.

For the Gap's Donald Fisher, a key concept has always been "value." The company's definition of that word has changed over the years. When the Gap first opened in 1969, value meant a wide variety of blue jeans, particularly Levi's, in one store. Later, value meant low prices for casual clothes. Finally, in their most successful years, Fisher and the Gap defined value as well-made, stylish clothes at reasonable prices. In 1991, Fisher told a group of apparel manufacturers that his company was dedicated to providing "what the consumers want, when they want it."

"You could have a great high-priced garment that's the best quality in the world and still be offering great value to the customer. You could have something that's very cheap and made out of terrible quality fabric and you wouldn't be offering value to the customer. I think what we've done is married the price … and the quality."

Unexpected Career

Donald George Fisher was born in 1928 in San Francisco, California. Both his father and grandfather developed real estate in the city, and Fisher followed them into that business. First, however, he attended the University of California, Berkeley, where he graduated in 1950 after studying business and finance. In college, he was an All-American swimmer and star water-polo player. After college, Fisher worked with his father in real estate, then served as president of the Fisher Property Investment Company. He also married Doris Feigenbaum, with whom he eventually had three sons, Robert, William, and John.

Fisher raised his family in his hometown, where he developed property. Although not a particularly tall man, Fisher had trouble in San Francisco finding blue jeans long enough to fit his thirty-four-inch legs. He and his wife decided to invest $100,000 to open their own store dedicated to jeans, and the Gap was born in 1969. The company grew quickly, opening two hundred stores in several years. It also took on the added responsibility of designing its own clothes. By some accounts, offering these "private label" brands, with such names as Foxtails and Durango, helped the Gap survive some difficult years in the late 1970s. By 1983, the Gap had more than five hundred stores, and Fisher added a new division, Banana Republic.

Despite his success, Fisher was considered better at finding locations for the stores and building them than he was at running a clothing business. By the early 1980s, the company was struggling, and Fisher talked to several retail experts about how to spark new growth. In 1983, he hired Millard "Mickey" Drexler to run day-to-day operations for the Gap stores, while Fisher focused on Banana Republic and the corporation's overall operations. Drexler, Fisher later told Fortune, was the only person he found who could execute his vision. "I wanted to be different," Fisher said, "I wanted to cut out the middleman."

An avid art collector, Donald Fisher hung some of his purchases at the Cap's San Francisco headquarters. These included works by such twentieth-century American masters as Alexander Calder (1898-1976) and Roy Liechtenstein (1923-1997).

Changing Roles

Although Fisher was chairman and chief executive officer (CEO) of Gap, Inc., he eventually gave Drexler more freedom to run the entire company. In 1987, an unnamed retail expert told Fortune, "It takes a very special chairman to put his ego behind him and let a hero come in and take over." Fisher, however, had shown this kind of modesty throughout his life. Even as his wealth grew, Fisher stayed in the same home he had built in the 1950s, and he was known to ask for tap water while making business deals in restaurants.

Mickey Drexler: The Casual Leader

"I find clothing very complicated to buy. It shouldn't be that complicated. It should be simple," Gap chief executive office (CEO) Mickey Drexler said in a 1998 interview with Fortune. At the Gap, Drexler brought simplicity to his customers by offering just one brand and sticking to such basics as blue jeans, khakis, and T-shirts. Drexler is a simple man himself, preferring to wear casual clothes to work. And like his boss, Donald Fisher, Drexler avoids publicity. His focus has always been on the Gap and helping it grow.

Millard "Mickey" Drexler was born on August 17, 1944, in New York City. Always interested in business, he spent his summers during college working for a department store chain. After earning a master's of business administration (MBA) degree at Boston University, Drexler took a job at Bloomingdale's, a fashionable New York store. After jobs at several other stores, Drexler was named president at Ann Taylor, which sells women's clothing. The company was struggling at the time, but Drexler quickly turned it around.

With his success at Ann Taylor, Drexler caught the attention of the Gap's Fisher. Drexler's changes at the Gap turned it into a retail-clothing giant. Drexler took charge of deciding what clothes to sell, and he often visited the stores to ask salespeople what customers liked. Working on hunches, not market research, Drexler proposed the GapKids line when he had trouble finding good clothes for his own son. In 1994, Drexler saw the rise of discount stores and opened Old Navy, the Gap's division for budget clothes. In 1995, Fisher rewarded Drexler by naming him president and CEO of the Gap. Fisher said in a press statement, "Due largely to his efforts, The Gap … has become one of the most recognizable consumer names in the world."

By 2000, however, the Gap had lost some ground to competitors, and some business analysts blamed Drexler. People began to say he was too involved in every detail of the company and too easily changed his mind. Still, Drexler kept the confidence of the Gap's board of directors. One of them, Apple Computer, Inc. (see entry) president Steve Jobs, said in Business Week that Drexler was a creative person: "he's not a robot—he's a human being with moods. When he sees something he doesn't like, he says so."

Although Drexler chose the merchandise and perfected the design of the stores, Fisher remained active on the manufacturing end. He dealt with clothing manufacturers from around the world and pushed the use of computers so designers in New York could easily share ideas with the corporate offices in San Francisco. He and Drexler also worked hard to keep the company's debt low. The company's growth also gave the Gap an advantage over its competition. In 1992, Fisher told California Business, "We do have the ability to buy things at better prices because of our size.… There's nobody that's in every mall, doing what we do."

In 1995, Fisher stepped down as CEO of the Gap, keeping only the title of chairman. Drexler then took charge of the entire corporation. By then, the Fishers were billionaires, and the Gap's founder was already spending more time with interests outside the company. An active Republican, Fisher had served on a U.S. government advisory council on international trade since the 1980s, and he contributed money to many political candidates. During the 1990s, Fisher remained active in real estate, using some of his Gap profits to buy hotels and bid on developments in San Francisco. In the city, he helped start the San Francisco Partnership, to promote business growth there. Fisher and his family also bought 235,000 acres of California timberland.

In addition, Fisher was involved in public service, serving on the board of trustees at Princeton University, where his sons went to school. In 2001, he was appointed to the California State Board of Education. He had shown an earlier interest in public education in San Francisco. In 1998, Fisher convinced city officials to hire the Edison Corporation of New York to run a local elementary school. Fisher also donated millions of dollars to schools run by Edison, a private company. Fisher's ties to Edison were criticized because his son John was an investor in the company. Fisher's charitable foundation also received favorable prices on Edison stock. Despite those concerns, a California education official praised Fisher's appointment to the state board of education. In the San Francisco Chronicle, Diana Michel said Fisher had "strong ties to business and a really good understanding of the most recent changes at the state level in terms of bringing standards to schools."

Some of Fisher's other activities have also drawn criticism. Environmentalists have attacked the Fisher family's cutting of redwood trees on its timberlands. In San Francisco, critics say Fisher has used his wealth to unfairly influence city politics, leading to favorable deals for the Gap. According to a 1998 report in the San Francisco Bay Guardian, Fisher's influence led the city to sell a prime piece of land along the waterfront to the Gap at an incredibly low price. Fisher has also been the target of protests because of the Gap's ties to foreign factories referred to as "sweatshops."

Despite these criticisms, Fisher won the respect of politicians and business leaders for his success at the Gap, and the vision he showed in picking Drexler to rejuvenate the company during its difficult times.

For More Information

Periodicals

Asimov, Nanette. "Business Influence for State's Schools." San Francisco Chronicle (March 16, 1991).

Creswell, Julie. "Confessions of a Fashion Victim: Gap." Fortune (December 10, 2001): p. 48.

"Donald Fisher." California Business (May 1992): p. 23.

"Gap: Missing That 01′ Mickey Magic." Business Week (October 29, 2001): p. 86.

Larson, Kristin. "Curing What Ails the Gap." Women's Wear Daily (October 2, 2001): p. 72.

Mitchell, Russell. "The Gap." Business Week (March 9, 1992).

Munk, Nina. "Gap Gets It." Fortune (August 3, 1998): p. 68.

Palmieri, Jean. "Drexler Getting CEO Post at Gap; Fisher to Remain as Chairman." Daily News Record (September 13, 1995): p. 1.

Smith, Sarah. "The Billionaires: The Supermen of Specialty Stores." Fortune (October 12, 1987): p. 142.

"Sweatshop Watch." [On-line] http://www.sweatshopwatch.org (accessed on August 15, 2002).

Zoll, Daniel. "The Fisher King." San Francisco Bay Guardian (August 12, 1998).

Web Sites

Gap, Inc. [On-line] http://www.gapinc.com (accessed on August 15, 2002).



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