fashion-features
fashion-features

Boneparth: The Man Inside the Suit

In an interview, Jones Apparel Group ceo Peter Boneparth talks about his path to fashion and the acquisition of Barneys New York

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NEW YORK — Nobody at Jones Apparel Group, or anywhere else for that matter, picks up the phone and hears, “Please hold for Peter Boneparth.”

It’s one of the chief executive officer’s pet peeves.

“When [someone] calls you and then their assistant asks you to hold, they’re saying implicitly, ‘My time is more valuable than yours,’ which is just beyond obnoxious,” said Boneparth.

The attitude is vintage Boneparth. The ceo, who also returns calls and e-mails within half an hour, is meticulous in manner and appearance, leaving nothing out of place on his lean, athletic frame. He’s straightforward to the point of bluntness at times, and speaks with the precision of the lawyer he once was.

Yet not everything is as it appears with the Jones ceo, who over the last few years has made a splash in the fashion world with a series of moves that have caught the industry by surprise. And that’s just the way Boneparth plans it. Despite his buttoned-up appearance and apparent coolness, he always wants to zig when others expect him to zag.

The trait was nowhere more evident than last year, when Boneparth, 45, orchestrated Jones’ purchase of Barneys New York. The move bought a perplexed chorus of “huhs?” from the fashion elite, who wondered what a staid apparel manufacturer like Jones knew about the world of luxe. Now designers are about to find out, as Boneparth makes his debut on the New York fashion scene as owner of one of its premier stores.

The ceo isn’t exactly a Barneys kind of guy, though. He takes the train to work from Long Island and the subway around town. When asked once by a fellow executive if he had a driver, meaning a town car, he mistakenly answered in the affirmative, referring instead to the golf club.

Boneparth the executive can also be misunderstood.

“The prominent perception of me is I’m swashbuckling, risk-taking...I’m the antithesis of what has been portrayed,” he said. “Much of it started because of the Lauren thing. It was this wild young kid taking on Polo.”
“The Lauren thing” is the row Jones and Polo Ralph Lauren got into over the Lauren by Ralph Lauren better license, which culminated in mid-2003 with Jones giving the license back to Polo, launching a rival line and suing Polo. But it was as much the way the suit was filed that earned Boneparth his reputation.

During negotiations for a purchase agreement that would have ended the dispute, Boneparth left the room only to return and tell Polo’s president and chief operating officer, Roger Farah, that Jones had just filed suit in the matter. The Polo executives present were surprised, but ready with a counter suit, filed later that day.

Rather than Boneparth going toe-to-toe with fashion icon Lauren, the ceo has always stressed that his moves were part of a strategy carefully crafted with Jones’ board.

Jones founder and chairman Sidney Kimmel stood behind the newly minted ceo.

“I have the highest level of confidence in Peter Boneparth, whom I fully supported to be my successor as ceo,” said Kimmel in a statement at the time. “I am extremely confident that we will continue to build Jones Apparel Group into an even more dynamic powerhouse.”

The kind of dramatic bets Boneparth has used to grow the powerhouse Jones are familiar territory for him. After all, it was just such a bold move that brought him into the glitzy world of fashion, where he has grown increasingly comfortable, even though he’ll never be a garmento and isn’t kissy-kissy with designers.

“I tend to take the path least traveled,” admitted Boneparth.

He always has. Bypassing the big city lights, the Long Island native turned southward when it came time for college and earned a bachelor’s degree from the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, and a law degree from the University of Virginia. Returning to New York, he went on to practice corporate securities law at Shea and Gould, before venturing into investment banking at Mabon Securities Corp. and later Rodman and Renshaw.

“I guess people would sum that up as saying I believe in the big fish in a small pond theory and that, up until probably Jones, it’s an adequate description,” said Boneparth, noting he once turned down a job at Goldman Sachs to work at a smaller firm where he could have more of an impact.
After a decade on Wall Street, however, Boneparth became dissatisfied with the life of an investment banker. His children were very young at the time, and he didn’t have enough control over his schedule.

“Eventually, I just didn’t want to be one of those people who had to fly off all the time and miss things,” said Boneparth, who is always intent while listening and speaking, though he will idly trace the outline of his ear or pick at a stray thread or hair. “My family’s really the cornerstone of everything I do other than work.” That’s also apparent when he speaks of his wife, who is his adviser and the only girlfriend he’s ever had as an adult.

In addition to a young family, Boneparth had a theory he wanted to test. The apparel industry in the Nineties was entering a phase of consolidation, though people weren’t necessarily talking about it, and Boneparth saw opportunity.

He left the familiar world of investment banking in 1997 to become president of Norton McNaughton, an embattled manufacturer of moderately priced apparel. “Some people told me I was really pretty crazy because it was maybe irretrievably broken,” he said.

“It sounds like I was this big risk-taker, but at the end of the day, my analysis was, there’s really not that much risk,” he said. “When you’re awake at night and staring at the ceiling in the what-can-go-wrong scenario — I’m a lawyer, [my wife] was a graduate of business school.” Accordingly, a failure in fashion wouldn’t put the Boneparths out on the street.

The question never was, “What if I’m not successful?” he said, but “What if I hate it?”

In the end, however, the proclivity to take such chances has deep roots.

“With my dad, I learned a lot the hard way,” said Boneparth. “He made a lot of mistakes, unfortunately. He was the ultimate risk-taker.”

Despite blue laws on Long Island prohibiting it, Boneparth’s father always kept his retail furniture business open on Sundays. As a result, he was repeatedly arrested before the laws were changed. It became part of the Boneparth family’s weekend ritual.
“He literally used to go to work, do a lot of business, get arrested,” said Boneparth, who worked with his father. “We’d say we’d be home for dinner, we gotta bail dad out, and he’d go to work the next day.”

But moxie wasn’t enough to keep the family business afloat. Always lacking cash, the business went under during the Eighties. It was a lesson not lost on the son, who speaks very fondly of his parents and the support they have given him.

“We lived very nicely growing up,” remembered Boneparth. “My father was a great provider. We didn’t want for anything and then, boom, it was basically over. The lack of planning, the lack of understanding macro factors has greatly influenced my thinking as a business person.”

Boneparth also picked up his level-headed temperament from his parents, taking a little from each.

“My dad is a very gregarious, very outgoing, almost a manic-depressive, high-low guy, and my mother’s really quite the opposite, and I’ve sort of tried to get a blend of that,” he said.

Along the way, Boneparth picked up an underdog mentality.

“I operate best when things aren’t as good because when things are really good, the expectation level gets so high, and inevitably you’re going to disappoint,” he said.

Certainly, a move into apparel manufacturing when worldwide production was dramatically shifting to Asia, and both the vendor and retail sides of the business were consolidating gave Boneparth a steady stream of challenges. But not all of them involved factories overseas and sales figures.

With his clipped way with words and at times brutally straightforward manner, Boneparth found himself a suit in fashion — a world that is often distrustful of suits.

“How does a guy, how does a kid come into a business without really preestablished contacts, never run a ‘garment center business,’ and gain the trust and confidence of not only your own people, but certainly the customer and suppliers?” he said.

Gathering together the troops and abusing office supplies isn’t the most obvious way to ingratiate one’s self in a new environment, but that was part of the fashion freshman’s approach.
“Peter’s mantra is about teamwork and cohesiveness,” said Lynne Coté, group ceo of women’s moderate sportswear at Jones, whom Boneparth hired at Norton and is a trusted confidante.

“He addressed the staff at Norton, when he first came into the garment business, holding pencils,” she said. He took one pencil and snapped it in half and then challenged his staff to break 10 pencils at once to demonstrate the strengths of working as a team.

“I have seen him use this example over and over. It is the core of what he is about,” said Coté.

Boneparth found his new surroundings to be “very insular and fairly myopic.”

“I found it fascinating...how little sophistication there was on the overall strategic viewpoint, it was obviously always just about the next line and pushing product out the door,” he said. “Wall Street gave me a real ability to analyze from a different perspective.”

At Norton, Boneparth quickly became chief operating officer, hastened the move to offshore sourcing, cut expenses to the bone, and started acquiring.

Things fell into place from there. He became chairman of Norton in 2001, sold the company to Jones later that year and finally succeeded Kimmel as ceo in 2002. The $4.38 billion Jones includes labels such as Anne Klein and Jones New York, as well as, now Barneys, which added sales of $440 million.

He presides over Jones from a corner perch on the 20th floor of 1411 Broadway. The office has an L-shaped desk overflowing with pictures of his wife, two teenage daughters and 10-year-old son. On the wall there is a painting that serves as a tableau of his life in fashion. It was commissioned by Coté, and looks like an old-fashioned advertisement, reading, “Seventh Avenue Clothiers.” Scattered throughout the painting, which revolves around a dress form, are garment center mainstays: a measuring tape, a needle and thread, as well as the New York skyline and references to brands Boneparth has worked with, including Anne Klein and Jones New York — Barneys will be added later.

“I’m here, I’ve been making this walk on Seventh Avenue for a long time now. I really feel like a couple of years ago I really crossed that bridge,” he said, referring to the notion that he is still an outsider in fashion.
“One of the things I’m proudest of is — some of the division presidents around here are always stunned — they actually ask me what I think now, which is fun,” he said. Powered by some unseen kinetic energy, Boneparth’s sentences can sometimes start off in one direction only to jump back, start anew and turn once or twice before the meaning, which is inevitably quite clear, appears.

Still not a merchant, the ceo said he has insight into the “price-value relationship” and can see if a line is overly broad or if a jacket is priced too high. While he will never make color decisions, that’s fine, he said, because his job is not about picking colors or choosing skirt lengths.

Being ceo of Jones ultimately means being boss to almost 18,000 employees and caretaker to investors, who own more than $4 billion worth of the company’s stock. It’s a responsibility he takes very seriously, which can make him seem stiff at times.

It’s also a responsibility that, with the help of e-mails via BlackBerry, follows him wherever he goes. It can also be trying, such as when he had to tell investors last month that fourth-quarter profits would come in at least 25 percent below projections.

“You feel like you let people down invariably,” he said. “I have a great job, I get paid a lot to do this, and I take the good with the bad.” In 2003, the ceo received a $2 million salary, a $2 million bonus, restricted stock awards and other compensation.

Issuing the warning, Boneparth said, was part of the job.

“It’s like the quarterback of a football team,” he said. “You get too much credit when the team wins, and you probably get too much blame when the team loses.”

Sports metaphors pop up regularly when Boneparth talks about business. He played collegiate soccer and runs about 20 miles a week, whether he’s in New York or traveling in China.

“I truly do try to get some exercise in every day,” he said. “It’s enormously important for me in terms of stress relief.”
Boneparth is also an extremely good amateur golfer, describing himself as a “bad eight” in terms of handicap. On the golf course, he is very competitive and determined to make every shot  count, but can also laugh when one doesn’t turn out, said Jack Gross, ceo of Jones’ Gloria Vanderbilt division.

In addition to it being a competitive outlet and stress reliever, Boneparth described golf as “a very, very good business facilitator.”

“It’s funny, the designers will tell you I’m not kissy-face, but I do a lot of that kind of entertaining with accounts,” said Boneparth. “You learn an awful lot about somebody on the golf course. A lot of relationships are built and maintained on golf courses.”

“That’s what makes him a good ceo — he has that winning athletic competitive nature,” said Gross.

And, since his family is ultimately what is most important to him, Boneparth also uses sports to spend time with them. Both of his daughters, who are in high school, aspire to play soccer in college like their dad, and the sport consumes much of their family’s vacation time.

The ceo-soccer dad also passes on many of the industry’s glitzy events to accommodate his family and the sport.

“I’m not prepared to miss the soccer game or the back-to-school night,” he said. “Sometimes it requires moving mountains, but why have kids if you can’t spend time with them?”

Boneparth used to coach his daughters in soccer and still helps coach his 10-year-old son’s Little League baseball team.

“Sports teaches you about teamwork, teaches you about discipline,” said Boneparth. “It obviously teaches you about competition.”

This is another area where sports experience translates into the business world.

“The whole world has gotten hypercompetitive,” he said. “It’s almost survival in many ways. You gotta be on your game.”

That competitive spirit must be tempered by grace in winning, though.

“Being competitive and not having sportsmanship, that’s like the definition of a schmuck,” said Boneparth.
Running counter to New York sports convention, Boneparth is a Jets-Yankees fan. And this, seen in context with his move into fashion and the deal for Barneys, shouldn’t be surprising.

“I have been a contrarian in how I’ve run my life, there’s no question,” he said, looking somewhat trapped with arms and legs both tightly crossed and his foot pushing against the coffee table.

At another point during a pair of hour-long interviews, Boneparth relaxed with his armed splayed out over the back and arm of the couch, noting, “I’m an unusually normal guy,” and laughing at his play on words.

He also opens up and smiles more when talking about his family and sports and when the conversation turns to work quickly retreats into corporate speak, saying things like “price-value relationship.”

In these and other respects, there are two distinct sides to the ceo.

“Maybe there are two personas, maybe the outside persona is that I’m very serious and direct,” he said.

“I am what I am,” he said. “It sounds like a Dr. Seuss character. I have been able to achieve a lot by being very straightforward. There’s very little razzle-dazzle, very little glitz. I tell people what I think. Sometimes that is misinterpreted. Straightforward is probably interpreted as lack of emotion.”

On the other side, though, one of the benchmarks of a good day is a good laugh, he said.

Balance is a touchstone for Boneparth.

“That’s why I come across as being very bland or direct or whatever it is,” he said. “I try not to get too high or too low.”
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