Colton and Bernard: An Anatomy of a Double Suicide

The act, which one of their longtime friends described as “operatic,” stunned those who knew them and intrigued even those who didn’t.

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Colton and Bernard kept offices — with desks side by side and Apple computers atop — on the eighth floor of the circa-1904 Flood Building, one of the few downtown structures to survive San Francisco’s historic 1906 earthquake and fire storm, and which also now houses the flagship for San Francisco-based Gap Inc. The building, in the midst of the city’s bustling Union Square retail district, is where novelist Dashiell Hammett, while working for the Pinkerton Detective Agency in the Twenties, wrote the “The Maltese Falcon.”

Their client list over the years covered high-profile firms such as LVMH Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton, Ermenegildo Zegna, St. John, Marc by Marc Jacobs, Zac Posen, Joseph Abboud, VF Corp., The Generra Co., Greif Cos. and Sportswear International. For some clients, their highly detailed work included market research, perception studies and retail reports, while others used them for executive search.

Mackey McDonald, former chairman and chief executive of VF Corp., was a longtime client. He utilized their market research as he shifted VF from a manufacturing mentality to a marketing one. Colton Bernard did a retail study for a Zac Posen secondary line, and worked on Zegna Sport, which involved three years of research to make sure the correct product was going into the right doors.

Colton Bernard also was instrumental in the development of the Marc by Marc Jacobs sportswear business, making some key executive hires and conducting consumer research to determine which markets and demographics to target. The line was projected to do $10 million in the first year and generated a reported $30 million.

“I knew them for more than 40 years,” said Norman Fryman, a longtime industry executive. “As an officer of several apparel companies, I relied on them to find exceptional talent and they were instrumental in placing bright young people in jobs that led to major careers. They developed what they termed ‘perception studies’ and I commissioned them [when he was ceo of Greif Cos.] to discover what our customers really thought of us and how we could make our company better and more responsive.”

It was a business based on relationships. Colton, president and ceo, and Bernard, executive vice president and chief marketing officer, would recruit executives for high-level positions and stay friendly with them, offering their market research and other services in an effort to further that executive’s success.

“They were small guys, in a certain way on the periphery. But I always thought what they said made sense. Harry was way ahead of the curve. He understood the movement, the motion of fashion, the trends,” said Leo Isotalo, who first knew Colton and Bernard in the mid-Seventies while working in the private label apparel business in Manhattan. Later, Isotalo, as a corporate vice president with Levi Strauss in San Francisco, struck up a friendship with the partners and after retiring in 1989, worked with them on a few brand development projects from 1994 to 2003.

“While sometimes voluminous, their reports were extremely well-written,” said Isotalo, who considered the couple friends.

“They would create amazingly comprehensive road maps to developing business strategies,” said Brad Smith, former senior vice president of Colton Bernard, who worked with the partners 10-and-a-half years. “They would hand clients the presentation and walk them through it.” Smith said Bernard’s mind “was so circular, but everything tied together. He could distill the facts of the situation quicker than anyone I’d ever met. Everybody wanted to talk to him.”

Robert Wichser, principal at The Yucaipa Cos., said about his prior experience with Colton Bernard: “At Joseph Abboud, they worked on three or four different projects. They would assist me in assessing the market and the retail landscape and would do focus groups for general trends.”

“They were real proud of their work,” said Edward Jones 3rd, chairman of Jones-Texas Inc., and a colleague and former neighbor. “They expected big fees. You had to pay the expenses to get them to the meeting. I was always dueling with Harry, always philosophizing. We had great discussions.”

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