7401 Boone Avenue North
Wilsons The Leather Experts Inc. is the leading specialty retailer of men's and women's leather outerwear, apparel, and accessories in the United States. The company distinguishes itself from many of its competitors by designing and contracting out the manufacturing of most of the apparel and accessories sold in the stores. The company's roots go back to the fur trading days of early 20th-century Minneapolis, Minnesota.
From Fur Trading to Leather Goods
Berman Brothers Fur Co. was established in 1899 by David, Ephraim, and Alexander Berman. The company was one of the largest hide and raw fur dealers in the upper Midwest in the early part of the century and sold its goods in Europe, the United States, and Canada. Lael Berman, granddaughter of David Berman, wrote in a Corporate Report Minnesota article in 1976, "The company had survived the fur crash of the '20s and the Depression of the '30s, but by the '40s my father and uncle realized they had to get into something else if they wanted to stay in business."
The next generation of Bermans were faced with increased competition from small-town fur dealers as transportation improved. Instead of traveling to urban areas such as Minneapolis with skinned and stretched hides, trappers could sell whole animals to dealers who came directly to them and then marketed both the meat and the skin. In addition, long-haired furs such as wolf, skunk, raccoon, and red fox had gone out of style and prices for those skins bottomed out.
With the profitability of the fur-dealing business on the decline for urban dealers like Berman Brothers, Nathan and Morris Berman shifted to leather goods. They bought wild game hides, such as antelope, and contracted out the tanning and manufacturing of gloves, jackets, and moccasins. When declining sales forced some of their leather manufacturers to shut down, the company picked up that end of the business as well. In the process the company was renamed Berman Buckskin.
The backbone of the business for about the next 20 years, according to Nathan Berman in a 1969 Minneapolis Tribune article, was buckskin fringed jackets and shirts. In the 1950s the bulk of the business was wholesale. The fur trade had included frequent trips throughout North and South Dakota, Montana, and Wyoming: souvenir shops and western-attire shops in those areas were among the first to distribute their leather goods. A display truck helped bump up business, and the brothers picked up wholesale accounts throughout the West and Midwest.
In 1963, the company moved its growing retail operation and factory to a five-story, circa 1896, building located at First Street and Hennepin Avenue--a historic Minneapolis district in the midst of urban renewal--and prospered in the Age of Aquarius. The "hippie" look became chic in the 1960s, and Berman Buckskin cashed in on the fashion trend. Everyone from long-haired college students to straight-looking downtown businessmen came to the store. Dennis Cassano wrote, "A cowbell jangles in your ear as you open the door to a store lined with steer horns and deer antlers, with fur pelts draping the beams, and leather vests and dresses hanging from old wagon wheels suspended from the ceiling."
Retail Expansion Begins, 1960s--70s
While deer hunters still brought in skins for processing and the company still frequented state fairs and sports shows, future growth was clearly tied to the retail end of the business. Retail sales increased from 4 to 25 percent of business from 1967 to 1969. Lyle Berman, Nathan's son, was instrumental in the transition from wholesale to retail.
Lyle Berman joined the family business in 1964 after graduating from the University of Minnesota and for a time served as the only salesman in the retail operation. Banking on its success with young customers, the company opened a store in Madison, Wisconsin, but it failed within its first few years, primarily due to location. The Bermans then turned their sights to high traffic shopping centers and enclosed malls.
By 1976, Berman Buckskin employed some 300 people and operated 19 stores in four states--Minnesota, Wisconsin, Iowa, and Illinois. About 1.5 million 40-page retail catalogs were mailed annually. Sales were near $14 million, up from around $3 million in 1969. The company carried complementary items such as denim shirts and turquoise and silver jewelry in addition to a broad assortment of leather goods including coats, jackets, vests, gloves, purses, briefcases, wineholders, and pouches. The wholesale business had been phased out, and Bermans had cut back on the manufacturing end of the business.
The Family Business Changes Hands
In 1979, W. R. Grace & Company, a New York-based multibillion-dollar specialty chemical company, bought the Berman family business. Lyle Berman stayed on as president of the 27-store chain and accelerated the expansion. When Grace began to divest some of its properties in the late 1980s, Berman led the management team in a $99.3 million leveraged buyout of the 163 stores.
In November 1988, or only 18 months after the purchase, Berman resold the company for $230 million to a subsidiary of Melville Corporation, a huge New York-based retailer. "One of the most satisfying days of my career was after we sold the company for a second time," Berman said in a March 1990 Corporate Report Minnesota article by Terry Fiedler. "Because management participated in the buyout, I was able to hand 40 to 45 long-time employees checks from anywhere from $100,000 to $1 million."
Berman, who was also a championship-level poker player, did not stay away from the leather business for long. As part of Ante Corporation, a blind pool investment company, he used his solid reputation in the leather retailing business and longtime personal contacts to forge a merger with G-III Apparel Ltd., a New York importer and manufacturer of leather apparel.
Merger with Wilsons
Wilsons House of Suede, Inc., the Melville subsidiary, was founded as a family business in the late 1940s and made the move to mass marketing in the 1960s. Melville acquired the 42-store chain in 1982. Leather apparel was a highly fragmented industry, and during the late 1980s, Melville expanded its market share through opening or acquiring 30 to 60 stores per year. The company also added small regional chains, Leather Loft and Tannery West, to its holdings. When Melville purchased Bermans The Leather Experts, Inc. in 1988 it was merged with Wilsons and became the largest retailer of leather coats and accessories in the U.S. Over 500 traditional stores were operated under the new name Wilsons The Leather Experts Inc.
Melville purchased another regional chain, Snyder Leather, in 1992. Sales for the year reached $509.2 million, and net income was $23.5 million. Georgetown Leather Design was added in 1993. A total of 631 stores were in operation at the end of the year, but changes in the leather industry began to slow growth.
Technical advances in leather processing and increased foreign manufacturing resulted in the introduction of a higher-quality low-priced product. Mass merchandisers began carrying more leather items in the early 1990s. A weak consumer market and changing fashion trends yielded a comparable-store sales decline for Wilsons from 1993 to 1995. The company added large-format--4,000 to 6,000 square-foot--stores with a wider selection and price range in 1995, but toward year-end Melville announced that it would sell off the Wilsons chain as part of a major restructuring.
A New Deal by Lyle Berman
During the early 1990s, Lyle Berman took his poker playing expertise into the management end of the gaming industry. Grand Casinos Inc. was established as an Indian casino management company and grew into one of the largest gambling concerns in the U.S. Berman sold $32 million worth of his Grand Casinos stock in February 1996 and bought back his old company from Melville in May. An investor/management group which included Berman and G-III CEO Morris Goldfarb and Wilsons CEO Joel N. Waller and president David L. Rogers bought the chain for $67.8 million in cash and debt plus a series of warrants.
Wilsons announced plans for a $42 million IPO in October 1996. Sales for the year improved, but restructuring related writeoffs of about $182 million kept the company in the red for 1996--the company had closed 156 stores prior to the sale. Despite the store closings Wilsons maintained an estimated 18 percent share of the $2 billion leather clothing market and 2.8 percent of the $3.9 billion leather accessories market as it entered 1997.
Wilsons brought out a reduced IPO in May 1997 and netted $9.2 million. The 1.1 million shares represented 10 percent of the company down from the 28 percent announced in 1996. The company tacked on an option to buy additional shares in the future. According to Jill J. Barshay, in a May 29, 1997 Star Tribune article, the unusual move was made to lure investors to the offering during a difficult market environment.
Poised for the Future
As of February 1, 1997, Wilsons operated shops in 45 states, the District of Columbia, and England. The 450 traditional mall-based stores, which averaged about 2,000 square feet, operated in the U.S. The Wilsons The Leather Experts stores offered a broad range of consumer products, while Tannery West and Georgetown Leather Design were more upscale. Two of the company's 11 airport stores, which emphasized leather accessories, were located in England. From October through December, Wilsons operated full-size temporary stores out of vacant mall sites and holiday kiosks primarily located in malls with a traditional store in operation.
Wilsons continued to face a highly competitive market. According to the company J.C. Penney was its most significant competitor. While many major department stores, specialty retailers, mass merchandisers, and discounters carried leather goods, Wilsons set itself apart through its brand names. Over 80 percent of Wilsons' products were sold under proprietary brand names which included Wilsons The Leather Experts, Tannery West, Berman Buckskin, Georgetown Leather Design, Adventure Bound, Open Road, Maxima, and M. Julian.
While vertical integration allowed the company to stay on top of fashion trends, Wilsons' profitability was more tightly linked to factors such as availability and price of leather. In addition, more than 60 percent of its leather apparel was made by contract manufacturers located in The People's Republic of China, a nation which was subject to fluxes in its trade relationship with the United States.
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