Frankfort, Lew

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Frankfort, Lew


Chief Executive Officer of Coach

B orn March 19, 1946, in New York, NY; son of apolice officer and a homemaker; married Bob bie, c. 1976; children: Tamara, Alana, Sam. Education: Hunter College, B.A., 1967; Columbia University, M.B.A., 1969.

Addresses: HomeNew York, NY. Office—Coach Inc., 516 W. 34th St., New York, NY 10001-1394.


C ommissioner, New York City Agency for ChildDevelopment, 1973-79; Coach Leatherware, Inc., vice president for business development, 1979-85, president, 1985-93, chair and chief executive officer, 1995—; also held various positions with the Sara Lee Corporation, Coach’s parent company, 1985-2000, including chief executive officer of Coach Leatherware and Champion Products, 1991, chief executive officer of Sara Lee Accessories, 1991-94, and Sara Lee Corporation senior vice president, 1994-2000.


L ew Frankfort has spent much of his career withCoach Leatherware, Inc., the premium accesso- ries brand, and has turned the company into a dominant force in American fashion. Board chair and chief executive officer (CEO) since 1995, he was also one of the highest paid CEOs in the United States who did not run a Wall Street firm such as an investment bank. Few criticized his exorbitant salary, however, for Coach loyalists and investors alike were thrilled with both the product and the company’s performance. Frankfort, noted New York Times retail-sector writers Michael Barbaro and Eric Dash, “has transformed Coach, once a niche player, into an international megabrand peddling luxury leather purses, flip-flops, and backpacks. He also pioneered an entirely new retailing category, known as affordable luxury. It was Coach, after all, that made it permissible, if not compulsory, for women to own not just one $250 handbag but several.”

Frankfort was born on March 19, 1946, and grew up in the New York City borough of the Bronx. His father was a New York City police officer, and his mother was a homemaker. In his earliest years, Frankfort suffered from a speech impediment that garbled his words, but it abated by the time he began kindergarten. He was a political science major at Hunter College and, after graduating in 1967, went on to a graduate business degree at Columbia University. For a time, he took the standard route for recent M.B.A.holders, with a job at an investment bank, but he soon realized he wanted a career that offered more meaningful work. Turning to the public sector, he was hired by the administration of New York’s mayor, John V. Lindsay, and in 1973 he rose to become commissioner of the city’s Agency for Child Development. He stayed on through the next mayoral administration but began searching for a new job when he was passed over for a promotion when a new mayor was elected in 1977.

Frankfort’s public-service experience impressed Miles Cahn, the longtime head of Coach Leatherware. The company was founded in New York City in 1941 as a small leather-goods manufacturer whose workers produced mainly wallets and billfolds by hand. Cahn began at the company a few years later and eventually took over; he also added a new line of distinctive women’s handbags made from leather specially treated in the same way that baseball mitts are and which grow supple with age. Cahn hired Frankfort as vice president for business development at Coach. In this new role, Frankfort began a profitable mail-order business and opened the company’s first freestanding retail stores.

Coach was sold to the Sara Lee Corporation in 1985, and Frankfort became president of the Coach division. He held various other titles over the next decade, including chief executive officer of Coach Leatherware and Champion Products, chief executive officer of Sara Lee Accessories, senior vice president with Sara Lee, and president and chief executive officer of the Sara Lee Champion, Intimates & Accessories group. Frankfort focused, however, primarily on Coach, and in the late 1980s, the brand began to enjoy stronger sales thanks to his efforts. Despite the fact that the handbags never went on sale, certain Coach styles reached near-ubiquitous status by the early 1990s and even enjoyed a cult cache in Japan.

Frankfort was made chair and chief executive officer of Coach Leatherware in 1995, taking on the task of revitalizing a brand that had become so popular that sales had peaked and then began to decline, as younger, fashion-conscious buyers began favoring handbags from new designers such as Kate Spade. In 1996, he hired Reed Krakoff as the new president and creative director for Coach, who had successfully retooled the apparel brand Tommy Hil-figer USA. Krakoff created new lines, some made from a combination of fabric and leather that were more affordable; came up with a “C” logo that gave the brand’s image a fresh, updated look; and opened new stores with a sleek new design.

Sara Lee spun off Coach into a publicly traded company in 2000, traded under the ticker symbol COH. Under Frankfort, Coach had continued to post impressive sales despite the fluctuations in consumer tastes over the years. This transition and market strength occurred at the same time that expensive designer It bags began to emerge as the must-have accessory of the season, but Coach still held on to an impressive market share of the high-end leather-goods business. Furthermore, as an independent, publicly traded company, it posted terrific earnings, rising from $64 million to $494 million between 2001 and 2006. During that same period, the price of its stock soared from $6 to $51.

Frankfort is believed to be the highest-paid CEO outside of Wall Street’s banking and investment-firm ranks. In 2006, he earned $44.4 million, which put him in the same salary range as the heads of Citigroup and Goldman Sachs; that figure was also double the amount earned by Ralph Lauren himself. But as Frankfort pointed out in press interviews, about 90 percent of his pay was tied to Coach’s stock performance, and had it not performed well for its investors, he would have wound up in the lowest pay rankings for American CEOs.

Married and the father of three grown children, Frankfort has houses in New Jersey and the Long Island summer resort of the Hamptons, and in 2004 he bought a coveted corner apartment in the Beresford, a famous building on Central Park West. The four-story apartment is located in one of the Beresford’s three distinctive towers. Recalling his humble origins as the son of a cop, he is candid in some interviews about a recurring nightmare that occasionally disrupts his sleep—that he lives on a hill overlooking the Bronx streets of his childhood, and “with one misstep,” he told Business Week’s Robert Berner, “I would slide and my house would slide right back into the Bronx.”



BusinessWeek, June 9, 2003, pp. 86-87; March 29, 2004, p. 98; January 24, 2007.

Forbes, September 3, 2001, p. 86.

Investor’s Business Daily, January 26, 2004, p. A3.

New York Times, April 8, 2007.

WWD, November 18, 2002, p. 18.


BusinessWeek Online, January 24, 2007.

—Carol Brennan