Wachner, Linda

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Wachner, Linda

Warnaco, Inc./Authentic Fitness Corp.


One of only a handful of women to head a Fortune 500 industrial company, Linda Wachner rose from being a salesperson to owning one of retail's largest clothing conglomerates. Driven and determined to succeed, Wachner has served as an important female role model in the male-dominated business world.

Personal Life

Linda Joy Wachner was born February 3, 1949, in New York City, a late-life daughter of older parents who already had a grown daughter. Her father was a fur buyer. Wachner was introspective and spent much of her time alone going to museums and playing the piano. Afflicted with curvature of the spine, Wachner at the age of 11 spent a year immobilized in a body cast as the first step in a surgical procedure to correct the curvature. Confined to her bed, Wachner wondered if she would ever walk again. Refusing to feel sorry for herself, she considered her future career. She decided that someday she would own her own company and cross the Triborough Bridge in New York in a Cadillac limousine. Since her father and uncle were employed in the garment business, she selected the garment industry as the area to pursue her dream.

After graduating from high school at the age of 16, Wachner attended the University of Buffalo, graduating in 1966 with a bachelor's degree in business administration. During summer vacations and holiday breaks, Wachner worked as a salesperson in department stores. She told Working Woman that through her sales jobs she "got a better understanding of what customers want than most people who go up the corporate ladder. They understand the consumer only by reading market research."

In 1973 she married Seymour Appelbaum, an executive in the clothing industry. Wachner was 24 when she married the 55-year-old Appelbaum. He died 10 years later in 1983. Beginning as market representative and buyer, Wachner steadily rose in the apparel business. In 1975 she was promoted to vice president at Warner's (Warnaco's lingerie division), the first female vice president in the company's 100-year history. Eleven years later, she recalled with pleasure, "I came back and bought the company."

Viewed as a demanding and driven supervisor, Wachner described her management style as "Tough but fair. I'm committed to giving the best value to our investors. I want everybody to see the sunset the way I do, because I think it's terrific. And yes, I push to make sure they see it. But at the end of the day, I have to hope that we operate a well-run company." She has acknowledged to Working Woman that she is "an absolute control freak, though I don't like the word freak." She runs her company from bases in Connecticut, New York City, and Los Angeles, working 18 to 20 hours each day. She may begin the day with a breakfast meeting in New York, but end the day with dinner in Los Angeles. In her rare moments of leisure, Wachner indulges in activities she was denied as a child—skiing, golf, and tennis. In 1986 she was named Woman of the Year by Ms magazine. She is a trustee for Carnegie Hall, the Aspen Institute, and Channel Thirteen/WNET, and serves on the board of overseers at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center.

Career Details

After graduating from college, Wachner immediately landed a $90-per-week position as assistant market representative with Associated Merchandising Corporation, a buying office for department and specialty stores. In 1967, Wachner was hired as an assistant buyer for Foley's, a major Houston department store. Word of young Wachner reached David Unich at Macy's in New York who needed a bra and girdle buyer, and he offered her a job. Wachner moved from Macy's to Warner's, a lingerie division of Warnaco in 1974 during a slump in the market for brassieres. As Wachner told Working Woman, "Women didn't burn their bras as a social protest. It was a fashion protest. They wanted to feel and look like women and wanted bras that let them do just that." Warnaco introduced soft, free form bras, displayed on hangers so customers could see and feel them, a practice that is now widespread throughout the undergarment industry.

From Warner's Wachner moved to Caron International, a yarn and crafts producer. In 1979 Wachner was hired to rejuvenate the U.S. division of Max Factor. Wachner trimmed unnecessary staff, cut unproductive product lines, and introduced two successful fragrances. In her first year she stopped Max Factor's losses and in her second year produced a $5 million profit. In 1982 she was promoted to president and chief operating officer at the age of 36. Having survived two corporate takeovers while at Max Factor, Wachner attempted to buy her successful company for herself. The bid failed, and Wachner promptly resigned from Max Factor. She turned her attention toward a leveraged buyout of Revlon, Inc.'s cosmetic division. Again her bid failed. Finally, in 1986 having recruited investors, she engineered a $550 million hostile takeover of Warnaco, Inc. and became chief executive officer of the Connecticut clothing firm.

Wachner set out with the goal of "making Warnaco the foremost apparel conglomerate in the world." To do this, she abandoned unprofitable products and focused on marketing the company's brand name and designer fashions. Wachner reorganized Warnaco's 16 units into 7 divisions and instituted incentives for her management personnel. Within the first year after the buyout Wachner had shrunk Warnaco's debt by $75 million. Wachner boosted operating earnings more than 35 percent, to in excess of $65 million annually. In 1990 Wachner and a investor group bought the $350 million Authentic Fitness, the company that licenses Speedo swimwear in the United States, from Warnaco. As Authentic's CEO, she is one of only a handful of executives to command two large public corporations. With over $3.6 million a year in salary and bonus, Wachner is one of the top-paid chief executive. As she told Ms, "I risked everything I had to buy [Warnaco]. I put my money down the line. The Warnaco experience has been the proudest of my life."

Social and Economic Impact

Linda Wachner rose to the helm of Warnaco, a Fortune 500 company, in a period of increasing opportunities for women in the traditionally male corporate world. Still, she represents one of few women who have attained a position in the highest levels of management at a major company. Her cash-management style is admired by many, as she has demonstrated a keen understanding of business finance. More symbolically, Wachner also launched a high-stakes leveraged buyout and succeeded. She is the only woman to have done that, ranking her among such leveragedbuyout artists as Ron Perelman, Henry Kravis, and Carl Icahn. To become a member of this exclusive club, she has had to make sacrifices. Her aggressive, brusque manner has drawn complaints from men and women who dislike her unladylike manners. But Wachner, in essence, has only adopted the same business-like style that has allowed to so many men to reach great heights in the corporate world. It is that same style that has allowed her to shatter the glass ceiling that blocked her passage to the top. Defending herself in Ms, Wachner said: "To get a company turned around before it bleeds to death, you have to have a certain posture in the way you go about things. I'm tough, but I'm fair."

As such she has been an inspiration to women everywhere by disproving that gender prevents women from achieving success in the boardroom. Wachner is tough and aggressive and has insisted that she be judged against the highest competition, whether male or female. "I don't like to waste time," she once told Chief Executives magazine. "I'm driven by the need to produce results immediately. However, I do want employees to feel they have a safe haven at both Warnaco and Authentic Fitness . . . I have been difficult at times with people, but I do it to get a result. That's what stockholders pay me for."

Chronology: Linda Wachner

1946: Born.

1966: Received degree in business administration from the University of Buffalo.

1966: Hired as assistant market representative of Associated Merchandising Corp.

1967: Hired as a buyer for Foley's Federated Department Store.

1968: Hired as a buyer for R.H. Macy's lingerie department.

1975: Appointed vice president of Warner's.

1977: Appointed vice president of corporate marketing, Caron International.

1979: Hired as president and CEO for Max Factor & Co.

1984: Became managing director at Adler & Shaykin.

1986: Took over Warnaco, Inc.

Her company Warnaco is one of the largest in the apparel business. Few American consumers have not been exposed to Warnaco's product line, and Wachner has proven to be adept at understanding the needs and desires of her customers. She demonstrates how understanding her customers, learned through her days as a department store salesperson can mean the difference in achieving success in a multimillion-dollar conglomerate such as Warnaco.

Sources of Information

Contact at: Warnaco, Inc./Authentic Fitness Corp.
90 Park Avenue
New York, NY 10016
Business Phone: (212)661–1300


Dobrzynski, Judith H. "Linda Wachner: 1986 The First Woman To Buy and Head a Fortune 1000 Company." Working Woman, November-December 1996, 106-109.

Donlon, J.P. "Queen of Cash Flow." Chief Executive, January-February 1994, 38-42.

Ingham, John N., and Lynne B. Feldman. Contemporary American Business Leaders, New York: Greenwood Press, 1990.

Newsmakers, issue 3. Detroit: Gale Research, 1988.

Who's Who in America, 52nd ed. New Providence, NJ: Marquis, 1997.