Lifetime Achievement Award: Dick Braeger

by MR Magazine Staff

An ever-expanding foothold

By Arnold J. Karr

Dick BraegerWhen John Haller was beginning his career at Robert Talbott in 1973, he was building his wardrobe and wanted a pair of black penny loafers. Dick Braeger, who then had the footwear concession at the original Garys store in Marina del Rey, Calif., worked with the young salesman to grant him his wish and noted the young customer’s unusual shoe size, 10EEE.

Many years later, Haller had moved up the ladder at Robert Talbott. Meanwhile, Braeger had built Cole Haan, sold it to Nike and become the principal of Garys, and also a director of Robert Talbott. The two ran into each other again at a Talbott company function.

“I met him at the door and he looked down at my shoes and said, ’10EEE, right?'” Haller recalls. “I was blown away by his terrific memory. Anyone who meets Dick is immediately impressed by his warmth, charm and business acumen.”

Even those who don’t know Braeger, Haller notes, are impressed by what he’s done with Garys, which is “filled with the best retail associates in the country, in a world-class environment of the best-of-the-best product available.”

While it’s taken him in some unexpected directions, Braeger’s passion for the business began with a love for shoes inherited from his father. He worked in a shoe store in the Westwood section of Los Angeles while attending UCLA and, as a graduation present, his boss took him to a shoe show in Chicago. It was his first trip on an airplane.

Just about the only thing Braeger may regret about his first experience as a professional retailer was another graduation gift he received from an associate at Mark’s Boot Shop—a pipe. Now 69, it’s become his trademark, but also the object of his doctor’s ire. The physician has told him that, if he can separate himself from his trademark and lose another 20 pounds on top of the 20 he lost last year, he can avoid heart surgery. He’s understandably eager to do so.

“I just want to stay alive and enjoy what I’ve got. I love my kids and the other people I work with, and I love my new puppy,” he says during a poolside phone interview as he plays with the young canine. “And I’m really very excited about the new expansion.”

Garys already occupies 15,000 square feet at Newport Beach, Calif.’s Fashion Island—between the Garys flagship, Garys Per Donna women’s, Garys Island and Garys Island Home—and will at some point next year add another 10,000 square feet of space at the venerable center, depending on how quickly Pottery Barn moves out.

“I hate the term ‘big and tall,’ but we’re going to do a full-cut shop there,” Braeger says, “and a formal shop too. I’ve already had talks with suppliers and others in the Forum group who do it.”

Mention of Forum immediately moves the toggle switch in his active mind from real estate, an area closely watched by his son Johnny, to merchandise, a subject he can’t stay away from for very long.

“Shoes are my baby,” he comments. “We sell more socks than anyone in the Forum group, 800 to 1000 pairs a month. It’s fun to be able to take something and really work on it.”

He acknowledges that, just as the Garys team excels in hosiery, it underperforms in custom clothing, describing the performance in terms that are nearly as superlative. “We’re one of the worst in the group there,” he says.

Nearly everything Braeger’s done in his career, Garys included, has flowed from footwear. He became a road salesman for E.E. Taylor’s least important line, Cole Haan, covering the western U.S. and Hawaii, and his goal was to sell the best traditional store in every town he visited.

But he had a problem. While a fan of the traditional look so important in menswear in the early 1960s, he was also a born-and-bred Southern Californian with an inherent dislike of heavy shoes and clothing. “I needed lighter weight shoes for my territory,” he remembers. “Bally came along and I wanted to know why I couldn’t get a shoe like that, but they couldn’t make them in Maine like Bally was making them in Switzerland.”

Braeger learned about manufacturing and slowly built lighter, more comfortable shoes into the Cole Haan collection. But when E.E. Taylor faced bankruptcy, he was faced with a more immediate problem than heavy shoes. “George Denney and I were working together and both had young kids,” he says. “We were just trying to keep our jobs and raise a family.”

They were able to do that because a hide broker from New York named Frank Schwab entered the picture and bought the Cole Haan name.

Schwab also taught Braeger a lesson that he has carried with him every day of his life since, one that’s been reinforced by the likes of Nike’s Phil Knight, Polo’s Peter Strom and John Nordstrom.

“Frank said, ‘There’s money everywhere in this country. Let’s just make the best we can make.’ So we did. We made the best penny loafer we could make, even though the calfskin and leather linings we used for them meant they were going to sell for $40 or $50, twice the going rate.”

Braeger’s thinking meshed well with an up and coming traditional fashion retailer, Gary Wasserman. While still a teenager, even before setting up his first official store in Marina del Rey, Wasserman made Braeger his concession footwear supplier based on a handshake and the mutual affection of the two for updated traditional and disdain for what Wasserman calls “dumb old traditional.”

Braeger took a financial interest in the company when it moved to his home turf of Orange County and, while still working at Cole Haan with Denney and luxury footwear expert Franco Fieramosca, acquired the company when Wasserman elected to move east in 1984. (As a Talbott director, Braeger also helped put Wasserman’s freelance design arrangement with Talbott together when he elected to return to California.)

“What I’ve always loved and respected about Dick is that he is as passionate and committed today as he was when we met 43 years ago,” Wasserman notes. “His son Johnny runs the stores today, and his daughter Kari runs the ladies side, but he’s the rudder in the water.”

Garys’ founder says that most traditional stores resisted the change from stolid traditional to classic luxury. “The stores that fought that in most cases aren’t around anymore,” Wasserman points out. “Dick adapted to the new paradigm. The courage to get up or get out—Dick had it, Dick has it.”

He also had the courage to know when to—and when not to—affiliate himself with vendors. He cites Hugo Boss, which has its own shop within Garys at Fashion Island, as the best vendor he’s ever worked with, “regardless of who the president is,” and notes that Prada “was a pain in the ass to get, but once you get them, you don’t have to worry about them.”

One supplier who Garys helped to build peaked at about $2 million with the account, but is now down to about a quarter of that after incessantly expanding its distribution.
“I tell manufacturers, ‘I’ll give you the same exclusive you give me,'” Braeger asserts.
Even as Braeger settled in as the owner of Garys, Cole Haan was booming, growing to nearly $100 million by 1987, up from under $1 million in the partnership’s first year of ownership. The capital requirements were enormous and the principals briefly considered going public. Bear Stearns advised against it, considering the shaky state of the public markets at the time, and instead sought out a firm to acquire the brand. A tug-of-war ensued between Nike and Reebok, with Nike prevailing for about $95 million, and also buying the Bragano brand that Braeger had started as a sideline.

Braeger took more than cash out of the Nike deal. “One thing I learned really clearly from Nike and its culture is that you have to surround yourself with the best people you can find and get the most you can out of them,” he says. “I’ve applied that to Garys too.”
In addition to the pride he has about his children’s talents and achievements and the contributions of menswear buyer Steve Ramenofsky, he scarcely can go five minutes without singing the praises of his team at Garys. “Our strongest asset is our sales staff,” he emphasizes. “We have six or seven people who do more than $1 million for us and one who does more than $2 million.”

He has no desire to take his upscale formula national, or even regional. While Garys has Garys Studio stores in Del Mar and Mission Viejo and total square footage of about 24,000, translating into sales per square foot in excess of $800, his principal location strategy is to be the dominant better store in his trading area.

“What I’m trying not to do is open more locations,” he notes. “If anything, I want to centralize in Newport. We’re not renewing leases in other places. My constant question is, What is the limit to what we can do in Newport?”

Among his most anticipated projects is the opening of a shop within a hotel that will be opened on the grounds of Fashion Island. “We’ll be the only store,” he says with pride and a degree of anticipation.

The words “special,” “specialty” and “specialization” repeatedly creep in Braeger’s conversation. Robert Talbott’s is the only commercial, as opposed to philanthropic, board on which he serves. “It takes a lot of time,” he observes, “and I wasn’t going to do it but it was so special. It’s a slow-moving company, but they don’t make missteps. They have pride and, whether it’s shirts or ties or wine, they want to do the very best.”

He also places a premium on ethical business conduct, noting that, during his days at the helm of Cole Haan, he’d often hear complaints from salespeople about buyers at various stores. “I would just tell them, ‘Do what’s right.'”

Designer Scott Barber pointed out, “Being smart, ethical, warm and being a kindhearted person have helped to get him where he is, and he’s passed those values and traits along to Johnny and Kari and the people in the store too. He’s far too smart to be taken advantage of by people on the outside and, on the inside, people play hard for good coaches.”

Especially those who remember their shoe sizes.