CEO Bill McComb Gives the Back Story on Fifth & Pacific

CEO Bill McComb gives the back story new lead image

On Wednesday Liz Claiborne Inc.’s Bill McComb appeared on CNBC’s “Squawk Box” to announce the company’s eagerly awaited new name: Fifth & Pacific Companies. McComb, who stepped in as CEO five years ago, has guided Liz through significant restructuring since then, including the sale of the Liz Claiborne name brand to JCPenney last fall, which triggered the biggest surge in the company’s stock price since 1987. Fifth & Pacific, he explained in a video on the company’s web site, captures the Malibu-meets-Manhattan aesthetic of the company’s three marquee labels (Kate Spade, Lucky Brand and Juicy Couture) while also nodding to what McComb sees as big global opportunities for those brands, especially in Asia. He gave The High Low the back story behind the new name—which takes full effect mid-May, when the company will begin trading as FNP on the New York Stock Exchange—and his [thoughts on] Fifth & Pacific’s future.

The High Low:  Your stock price got another boost from today’s announcement. What’s the buzz on Fifth & Pacific so far?

Bill McComb: It’s been outstanding. It’s one thing to change the name of a company—but when you add the logo and the colors and it all starts to operate as an identity, people really start to react to it and get a feeling for it. The feedback has been all positive, especially on the employee side—even longtime veterans of the company who may have been a little suspicious of the change. This name is a really fresh and interesting intersection of the three brands that we are about as a company—it just makes sense. And we’ve had an outpouring of congratulatory calls from investors, analysts and customers.

THL: How did you keep this announcement under wraps?

BM: It’s one of the best-kept secrets I’ve ever been part of professionally. There were four of us on the management team who knew, my Board of Directors, a small team of consultants, and that’s it.

THL:  How long did you work on the name?

BM: We put together the whole thing, soup to nuts, in just under 12 weeks. We had the name by November 15, shortly after finalizing the deal with JCPenney, and then got the graphics on it just after Thanksgiving. We settled on the whole thing around the 10th of December. We moved quickly because it was all working: The name came out of the first round of name generation work that we did, and the graphics came out of the first round of work on graphics.

THL:  But a new name has been on the horizon since JCPenney first became the exclusive U.S. retailer for the Liz Claiborne brand in 2009—so hasn’t this been percolating for a while?

BM: With the strategic shift that’s been going on at the company since 2007, a lot of people have suggested that we should consider changing the name. But it’s my philosophy and belief that you don’t do anything like that impetuously. The Liz Claiborne name had a certain historical meaning with investors and shareholders that I wasn’t willing to abandon so quickly. Even though changing it might have helped telegraph the scope and depth of strategy change going on here two years ago, for me it wasn’t right to do until we actually sold the brand — and I wasn’t sure if that was going to happen, and under what timetable. Yes, for a long time there’s been speculation, there’s been an internal discourse on the name. But not until the final transaction with JCPenney last fall did it become enough of a reality to sit down and put pen to paper on a creative brief and list what this new name would have to accomplish.

THL:  So where did you start?

BM: The first thing we said was that we wanted a name that came out of the consumer vernacular, not one that sounded like a re-coined or invented word. We also wanted a name that would fit all three brands—Juicy, Lucky and Kate—and evoke the common ground between them, the element of New York and Los Angeles. Juicy was built bicoastally, Lucky was always an LA brand, and Kate Spade is a quintessentially New York brand. As much as we are a global company, what we’re selling are these intrinsically American elements. And the name had to be approporiate for a fashion company: There needed to be some chic-ness to it, and not in a contrived way. We didn’t want it to sound like a hedge fund, a Silicon Valley high-tech company or a law firm. Fifth & Pacific is not a consumer brand, but it’s a brand to investors and we wanted it to feel consistent with our consumer brands without stepping on them or overpowering them.

THL:  Did you do any testing or focus groups?

BM: We didn’t focus group the name, because this brand is not going in front of the consumer; we had experts at the table, and we just felt that Fifth & Pacific was right. But we did take our time making sure that the name was clear and available for use—not just here but in all our markets around the world—and that we could get a logical New York Stock Exchange ticker and the right URL.

THL:  What does this new name say about the company?

BM: Number one, it says: This is day one. We’ve gone through a very difficult, laborious turnaround, but this doesn’t feel like an end to that; it feels like the beginning of the new company that we’ve created. Fifth & Pacific embodies the brands—the dressy, uptown, city side and the casual, beachy LA component—and it has a contemporary, progressive, forward-looking feel. It has a future, it has momentum. This is a beginning, not an end.

THL:  Does that include new brands under this new umbrella?

BM: We have so much opportunity—what I call pipeline—within these product lines that for many years to come we’re going to be allocating our capital and expense resources to playing out the full potential of these lifestyle brands. I’ve said that this can be a multibillion-dollar basket of brands; our focus is on growing domestically and tapping the shores of Asia and Europe in a big way. This name change doesn’t impact those moves because we’ve already been making them, but Fifth & Pacific sounds and feels like a lifestyle company, which is what we are.

THL:  It’s been a dramatic and sometimes rocky few years—how have all these big moves positioned the company for growth?

BM: Number one, we have the right portfolio of brands: They’re early stage, they don’t step on each other’s toes, they’re trend-right and they’re hot. Number two, we have the right people in the right jobs—we’ve hired some of the industry’s most talented creative and business people and they’re deployed well. Number three, we finally have the right capital structure. We don’t have significant, onerous interest payments and balloon debts coming due that make investors anxious. When you put those three things together and look at the growth profile and the margin expansion potential that we’ve got, it’s a momentum package. And now we have a name that fits all of that, so that’s the icing on the cake.

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