President and Chief Executive Officer of Liz Claiborne
Born Paul Richard Charron, August 24, 1942, in Schenectady, NY; son of Richard Armand and Helen Marie (Barringer) Charron; married Kathy Lyn Herdt (an interior designer), June 29, 1974; children: Bradley, Ashley. Education: Notre Dame University, B.A, 1964; Harvard University, M.B.A., 1971.
Served as a lieutenant in the U.S. Navy during the Vietnam War, 1964–69; brand manager, Procter & Gamble Corporation, Cincinnati, OH, 1971–78; category manager, General Foods Corporation, White Plains, NY, 1978–81; senior vice president for sales and marketing, Cannon Mills Company, New York and North Carolina, 1981–83; president, chief operating officer, Brown & Bigelow, St. Paul, MN, 1983–87; group vice president, VF Corporation, Wyomissing, PA, 1988–March 1993, executive vice president, March 1993–May 1994; vice chair, chief operating officer, Liz Claiborne Inc., New York, NY, May 1994–February 1995, president and chief executive officer, February 1995—.
Decorated with the Meritorious Service medal, U.S. Department of Defense, for service in Vietnam.
Paul Charron has run Liz Claiborne Inc., the apparel group, since 1995. Charron revitalized the company's fortunes after a sharp downturn when its namesake founder left the business, and it entered a period of unprecedented growth and profit that helped make it the fourth–largest American apparel–maker in its class. A former Navy officer, Charron is known for his pragmatic approach to women's fashions. "The Navy taught me how to operate in a combat zone," he told Forbes's Nancy Rotenier.
Charron was born in Schenectady, New York, in 1942, but grew up in Louisville, Kentucky, where he attended Roman Catholic parochial schools. As his eighth–grade year ended, he chose the city's highly regarded St. Xavier High School, which necessitated an early rise and a two–bus crosstown commute. But its "reputation for athletics and academics really held a lot of allure for me at the time," he told Mark Coomes, a writer for Louisville's Courier–Journal. "As an eighth–grader, I was one of those individuals who needed a little extra discipline to stay focused in the classroom."
Charron went on to another renowned Catholic school, Notre Dame University, from which he graduated in 1964. He planned to earn a law degree and enter Louisville politics someday, but served a stint in the Navy as a communications specialist on board destroyer ships in the South China Sea during the Vietnam War first. After reaching the rank of lieutenant and earning a Meritorious Service medal, Charron was discharged in 1969 and decided to apply to just one graduate business program instead of law school—Harvard's. He won admission and earned his M.B.A. two years later.
Hired by Cincinnati's consumer–brands giant, Procter & Gamble, Charron spent seven years as a brand manager for such products as Dawn dishwashing liquid and Cheer laundry detergent. In 1978 he took a similar job with the General Foods Corporation, and three years later was offered an executive post with towel–maker Cannon Mills as a senior vice president for sales and marketing. Charron spent two years there before heading to the Minneapolis/St. Paul area to run a specialty advertising firm. His first foray into the apparel industry came when he was made a group vice president at the VF Corporation in 1988. The Wyomissing, Pennsylvania, company was the maker of Vanity Fair lingerie, but also had several successful other lines it had acquired through licensing deals.
Just a year after being made VF's executive vice president, Charron left the company when Liz Claiborne, Inc. offered him its recently vacated chief operating officer slot. The move surprised many in the garment industry in and around New York City's Seventh Avenue, for such top posts are usually the preserve of industry veterans. But the Liz Claiborne board had been under pressure from financial analysts to bring in an outsider to help it revive its flagging balance sheet, and Charron had a strong record at VF with its sportswear division. Founded in 1976 by the real Liz Claiborne, the company thrived in the 1980s by cornering the women's career and sportswear markets at a time when competition in the field was scarce. After Claiborne retired to become an environmentalist in 1989, however, the company's fortunes sank, and its moribund designs went unsold in stores. Sales and profits had flatlined for four years straight in the early 1990s.
Within a year, Charron had become chief executive officer (CEO) and president, and worked on reviving the namesake brand's designs. He also okayed an unprecedentedly lavish ad campaign that featured model Niki Taylor, and renovated its free-standing stores. Management turnover was high in the first two years, but Charron brought in seasoned veterans and offered bonuses tied to sales performance. At the time, Liz Claiborne, Inc. had just a few other brands in its stable—the moderately priced department–store staples Russ, Villager, and Crazy Horse. Charron went to work acquiring more prestigious lines via licensing deals, following the success of its nearest rival—the Jones Apparel Group, which had once been on the verge of bankruptcy.
Under Charron, Liz Claiborne, Inc. acquired several more brands, beginning with prestigious handbag maker Dooney & Bourke, and the Dana Buchman, Sigrid Olsen, and Kenneth Cole New York lines of women's clothing. It also snapped up Lucky Brand Dungarees and Laundry, each strong sellers among trendier shoppers. By 2001 the empire was so vast that seven products were manufactured in its plants every second that year. In 2002, the company posted $3.7 billion in sales, a seven–percent growth spike from the previous year—though overall figures for the women's apparel market had declined.
To capture those buyers, Charron firmly believed in giving the customer what she wanted—or, in this case, what she thought she wanted. The company spends some $1.5 million annually on market research, and retains a quiet New York trend–watching company that is staffed by consumer–spending analysts and psychologists. The firm comes up with directional trends for upcoming seasons, and the 250 designers of the 30 Liz Claiborne brands follow the ideas suggested. As Charron explained to Kristin Larson in a WWD interview, "This company has the disadvantage of not having a 'name designer' on premise who tells what the color red is going to be and whether skirts are going to go up or down. That's a tremendous disadvantage, but one of our greatest advantages is that we don't have a 'name designer' on premise to tell us this is the color red and whether skirts are going up or down."
For his track record in turning around the Liz Claiborne brand, Charron is well compensated. The board rewarded him with $4.3 million in salary, bonuses, and stock in 2002. He and his wife, Kathy, have two grow children and live in Darien, Connecticut. "This is what I've always wanted to be—a CEO of a major corporation," he told WWD's Larson. He is proud of the company's turnaround since he took over, with 28 consecutive quarters of sales growth since 1996. "Early on, I said to my management team that they had the opportunity to be a participant in an event that would only happen once or twice in a career—maybe for a lot of people never—and that is the rejuvenation of one of America's great brands," he said in the same interview. "And we did it."
Courier–Journal (Louisville, KY), October 25, 2000, p. 1F.
Crain's New York Business, September 30, 1996, p. 1.
Daily News Record, November 22, 2000, p. 1B.
Forbes, January 13, 1997, p. 96; April 15, 2002, pp. 66–72.
WWD, April 25, 1994, p. 2; February 1, 1995, p. 1; April 22, 2002, p. 10B; March 31, 2003, p. 2; May 23, 2003, p. 11.