Doug Williams
by Karen Alberg Grossman
Doug Williams
Doug Williams

Few tailored clothing manufacturers have the same history or reputation as Hart Schaffner Marx, which has dressed countless American men for everything from going to offices to attending weddings for well over a century. As the company celebrates its 130th anniversary, MR caught up with CEO Doug Williams to discuss the business’ growth, its relationship with Peerless Clothing, and its philosophy on selling direct to consumers.

Q: So, 130 years in the tailored clothing business is quite a milestone. How are you doing in this casual world with your heritage suit brand?

A: Quite well, fortunately. Our suit business is up high single digits this past year over last year’s double-digit increases. Obviously, Hartmarx is long gone: we divested everything except Hart Schaffner Marx when we acquired the company in 2012. We now have two factories—one in Chicago and one in Cleveland — that we bought two years ago from Hugo Boss. And our overall business is really strong, in both specialty stores and majors like Nordstrom, Bloomingdale’s and Dillard’s. We produce close to 250,000 jackets and 160,000 suit trousers annually.

Hart Schaffner MarxQ: To what factors do you attribute this growth?

A: A few things. First of all, we’ve been pushing the mills for fabric innovation, so a good part of our growth comes from incorporating performance and stretch features into our garments, which is truly exciting. We encourage our mills to look to the outdoor industry for inspiration since the clothing industry can be slow to change. Second, our in-stock programs are very successful: since most stores are carrying less inventory, the key to success is service. Third, our made-to-measure component has been hugely successful, now accounting for 19 percent of our volume and growing, with a turnaround time of three to four weeks. From both retailers and consumers, there is definitely increased interest in customization. Finally, Men’s Wearhouse buying the Joseph Abboud brand wasn’t a bad thing for us, taking out a key competitor in the $695 to $995 retail bracket.

Q: Do you use your two different factories for different purposes?

A: No, both of our factories operate exactly the same, producing the same patented pattern, half-canvas clothing. We totally reengineered the garment production when we bought the Cleveland factory from Hugo Boss. In fact, the reason we bought the factory was because it would have been a real challenge finding skilled sewers with the competence and dexterity we needed. To get 100 sewers we would have had to find and train 300 because only one in three makes the cut. Almost everything we make is domestically produced, although we do have some off-shore separate trouser production and we make our 10-pocket sportcoat offshore.

Hart Schaffner MarxQ: Do you also uses Peerless production?

A: As for our relationship with Peerless, they are an amazing partner on the front end of the business: sales, merchandising and fabric innovation. Because of their size and strength, they’ve been very helpful negotiating with the mills for more innovative fabrics and better pricing.

Q: What are your plans for the next 130 years?

A: I keep focused on one year at a time. Our key goal is to maintain our level of excellence in all our operations and products. We owe this to our customers, to our suppliers and to our 700 exceptional employees.

Q: Do you worry that many of your specialty accounts could be out of business shortly and that your department stores accounts are all closing doors?

A: I don’t worry about our specialty accounts going out of business. We have some of the best partners in the United States. These folks are the best merchants because they know their customers personally. Our job is to help them by making it easier to be a retailer and merchant. Great product, great service, great people. Also, I think there is way too much made about department stores closing doors. The low performing doors should go away and the balance will become stronger based on better focus and knowing the customer. I feel for the brick and mortar retailers constantly being vilified in the press. We all need to get back to making the customer feel that every retail channel is relevant. If you are not interesting to the customer, they will not waste their time with you. Always remember the customer’s most valuable asset is time. Don’t waste it.

Hart Schaffner MarxQ: What is your philosophy on selling consumers direct, either in your own stores or online?

A: Back in the late 1990s, the world shifted from the retailer dictating to the customer when they could interact and make a purchase. Today the customer dictates those terms. Be available when I want to interact, provide me a compelling and relevant experience and I’ll make a decision to invest my time and money with you. We are not here to compete with our customers, but to support how they want to get to the customer.

Q: Are you doing, or going after, international accounts?

A: Authentic Brands Group is a spectacular partner. Their teams are always looking for opportunities for the Hart Schaffner Marx brand to branch out internationally. Our intent is to use our factories to export Made in the USA goods around the world.