Struggling Ralph Lauren Tries to Fashion a Comeback
New CEO, formerly at Old Navy, hopes to revive company by closing stores, trimming management and reducing discounts
His apparel and accessories brand is still the gold standard for the country-club set, but sales have stalled and profits have fallen 50% since 2014. The market value of Ralph Lauren Corp. RL -1.95 % now hovers around $8 billion, down from $16 billion three years ago.
Sitting across from the fashion designer that night last summer was the young executive he hoped could help stem the slide. Stefan Larsson was in some ways an odd choice. He had made his mark selling $10 T-shirts and $30 jeans, first at H&M Hennes & Mauritz HMB 1.30 % AB and then at Gap Inc. GPS 1.97 % ’s Old Navy chain.
Last September, Mr. Larsson was named chief executive of Ralph Lauren, a post that Mr. Lauren, who is 76 years old, had held for the company’s entire 49-year history. His job is to remake the old-school fashion house to better compete with more nimble rivals, while at the same time satisfying a founder who has no intention of stepping back.
In an interview, he said the company will refocus on its core Ralph Lauren, Polo and Lauren labels. Fifty stores, or roughly 10% of the company’s retail footprint, mainly high-end shops, will be closed. And shipments to department stores will be reduced in the hopes that scarcity will translate into more full-price sales. Mr. Larsson also wants to slash six months from production times and strip out three layers of management.
The moves, he said, will result in the elimination of 1,000 jobs, about 8% of the full-time staff.
Slow to reactIndustry executives say the company has been slow to react to changes reshaping the business. Those include the rise of fast-fashion retailers such as H&M, whose short production cycles and low prices have pressured traditional apparel companies, and the shift toward wearing sports apparel in everyday life.
“Athleisure and fast fashion have created a dual headwind for the traditional polo shirt,” said John Kernan, a retail analyst with securities firm Cowen & Co. “There hasn’t been a lot of newness at the brand.”
Mr. Lauren, who declined to be interviewed for this article, said in a written statement: “I am very pleased with Stefan’s vision and the actions he is taking to ensure that we continue to evolve and thrive.”
Mr. Lauren remains the company’s chairman, chief creative officer and its single largest shareholder. He and entities controlled by his family have voting power of more than 82% of the common stock. He is one of the few designers of his generation to still play an active role in his company. And his company is one of the few design houses not to have been gobbled by a conglomerate.
Many fashion houses, including Calvin Klein, Donna Karan and Yves Saint Laurent, for years paired strong business managers with design luminaries. At Ralph Lauren, Roger Farah, the company’s longtime president and chief operating officer, sometimes acted as a business-focused check on Mr. Lauren’s loftier ambitions, according to several former executives.
Mr. Farah stepped back from daily operations to become vice chairman in 2013. He left the company a year later, and now is the co-CEO of Tory Burch LLC.
The company created an office of the chairman, consisting of Mr. Lauren and three other executives. Mr. Lauren began inserting himself into more business decisions, according to the former executives.
In China, the company was trying to remake its image after buying back its license in 2010 from a partner, the former executives said. Mr. Lauren wanted to pull the lower-end Polo brand out of China and only sell luxury items from the company’s Purple Label, where suits cost more than $5,000, they said.
Ralph Lauren closed two-thirds of its Chinese retail distribution and opened high-end stores that didn’t sell the $85 polo shirts customers had come to associate with the brand. Then a corruption crackdown by the government reduced demand for luxury goods, and China’s burgeoning middle class became a driver of the economy.
Sales at Ralph Lauren’s twin flagship stores on New York’s Madison Avenue declined after Mr. Lauren mandated in 2014 that lower-end polo shirts, sweaters and sportswear be moved upstairs to make way for $4,100 watches and $2,500 handbags, named for his wife, Ricky, the former executives said.
The company spokesman said Ralph Lauren closed retail stores in China because many were in subpar locations, and scaled back Polo because the brand had been tarnished by counterfeiting. As for the decrease in sales at the Madison Avenue flagship stores, the spokesman cited an industrywide slump in foot traffic.
Profit fell to $396 million in the fiscal year ended April 2, from $702 million the year before. Sales declined to $7.41 billion, from $7.62 billion. The stock, which closed at $96.33 on Monday, has fallen nearly 30% over the past year.
The company hired search firm Spencer Stuart, which introduced Mr. Lauren to Mr. Larsson, who had revived Old Navy by shortening lead times and stocking trendier fashions.
Mr. Larsson, who grew up in a small town in Sweden, had joined H&M in 1998, when the brand wasn’t as hip as it is today. “The coolest of my friends, they called me and said, ‘After work, Stefan, don’t bring an H&M bag, because you’ll take the whole thing down,’ ” he said.
Mr. Larsson is no stranger to navigating family-dominated companies. At Gap, the founding Fisher family holds a large stake, and at H&M, the founder’s grandson is CEO.
After Ralph Lauren hired him, Mr. Lauren made it clear he had no plans to step aside. “As far as I’m concerned, I’m stepping up, not out,” he said in September.
Mr. Lauren, born Ralph Lifshitz, rose from modest beginnings in the Bronx to become an arbiter of style. Starting in 1967 with a line of neckties, he built a company that now encompasses apparel, home furnishings, fragrances, accessories and restaurants. His goods are sold under a dozen labels at nearly 500 company-owned retail stores and thousands of department stores world-wide.
People who have worked with Mr. Lauren say he considers himself more like a movie director than a designer, with his subject being an old-world, privileged lifestyle. Although that highbrow image creates a halo for the brand, the company makes much of its money selling mesh polo shirts and moderately priced sportswear at factory outlets and department stores, the former executives said.
The company doesn’t break out sales by label, but the wholesale business, mostly sales to department stores, accounted for 45% of revenue last year and nearly two-thirds of operating profit. On the retail side, 272 of the company’s 493 stores are factory outlets.
Mr. Lauren pioneered the tiered strategy, which competitors have copied. Even so, the luxury business remains a focus.
Since 2013, the company has increased the number of high-end Ralph Lauren stores by 29. That drove up expenses without producing enough sales or profit, said Laurent Vasilescu, an analyst with the research arm of Macquarie Group.
Expense problemOverall expenses were 45.8% of sales in the recently completed year, compared with 42.2% two years ago. At PVH Corp. PVH 0.50 % , which owns Calvin Klein and Tommy Hilfiger, expenses have been declining and stood at 41.3% of sales in its most recent year.
“The cost structure hasn’t been competitive,” Mr. Larsson acknowledged. He said stores had been opened in suboptimal locations, were too big and cost too much to build given the sales and profits they generated.
Another culprit was the bloated management structure, he said, which is one reason he is reducing the number of layers between entry-level employees and himself to six, from nine. The reductions will return the executive ranks to roughly 2012 levels.
The office of the chairman has been disbanded to concentrate decision making in the hands of Messrs. Larsson and Lauren. One top executive relinquished her duties in November and another left in May. The third member, Valérie Hermann, who oversees the company’s luxury business, now has additional oversight of women’s collections and accessories.
Mr. Larsson tapped former H&M executives to run global sourcing and business development. The new head of online commerce came from eBay Inc. EBAY 1.02 %
It can take 15 months for products to go from design to store, a window that Mr. Larsson hopes to narrow to nine months by having the design, merchandising, sourcing and marketing teams work together. He plans to test small batches of products that can be produced in eight weeks, and then quickly reorder best sellers—a strategy he used at Old Navy.
Rather than scattering resources across brands, he will focus on the high-end Ralph Lauren line and the lower-end Polo and Lauren brands that are the mainstay of department stores. Smaller labels such as RRL, named for the Colorado ranch that Mr. Lauren owns with his wife, which sells selvedge denim, vintage apparel and other gear, will have to prove they are viable.
He wants the company’s merchandise to focus on pieces such as navy blazers, military jackets and polo shirts that it sees as timeless, but updated for today’s styles. For instance, a Ralph Lauren double-breasted women’s blazer was redesigned to give it a more fitted silhouette and make it narrower in the shoulders and arms. After the changes, it became one of the company’s best-selling jackets.
He also sees an opportunity to sell more handbags and accessories, which carry higher margins. It is an area where the company has struggled and which sets it apart from European luxury houses, which make most of their money on bags and shoes. At Ralph Lauren, handbags and small leather goods account for about 8% of its sales, according to Mr. Vasilescu. That compares with 57% at Kering SA KER 3.44 % ’s Gucci brand.
The new CEO is even considering testing some ideas pioneered by online startups, such as creating a subscription service for shirts and ties and allowing shoppers to rent high-end tuxedos.
Mr. Larsson said he speaks daily to Mr. Lauren, and they make decisions together.
“I’ve taken a partner,” Mr. Lauren said in September, and then joked: “He doesn’t know what he’s in for.”
Write to Suzanne Kapner at Suzanne.Kapner@wsj.com