To understand Emily Woods, the 37-year-old, model-gorgeous, newly appointed chief executive of the preppie, Manhattan-based clothier J. Crew, it helps to know the anecdote current and former employees like to call “the fucking pumpkin story.”
On Halloween a few years ago, the story goes, Ms. Woods asked an assistant to buy a “small pumpkin” for the office. The assistant combed delis in search of the perfect J. Crew pumpkin-well proportioned, robustly hued and, of course, exactly “small.” The young employee eventually settled on a pumpkin not much larger than a softball and presented her find to Ms. Woods.
“You call that a pumpkin?” Ms. Woods reportedly yelled at the assistant, in front of a roomful of J. Crew staff members. “That’s not a fucking pumpkin!”
The pumpkin story tells us a few things about Ms. Woods, whose famously mercurial father, Arthur Cinader, founded J. Crew in 1980, who herself has worked there since she was 22, and who took over the top position at the company in October, when a majority stake was bought by the Texas Pacific Group, a San Francisco and Fort Worth-based private investment partnership, for $540 million. Mr. Cinader has retired at 70, and several employees who chafed under his gruff style are waiting-hoping-that Ms. Woods, free of her father’s long shadow, will bring some light into what, given J. Crew’s image as proselytizer for the sun-splashed, ruddy-cheeked American dream, has been a curiously grim place to work.
Internal management squabbles must be smoothed out if Ms. Woods, who retained a 15 percent interest in the company, is to turn an inefficient and, in recent years, only moderately profitable business into one that satisfies demanding investors. “They’ll be adding up every inch of thread,” said one current J. Crew employee of the new investors. “And Emily has never been told No.”
“It’s not run as efficiently as it can or should be,” said Ms. Woods of J. Crew. “Can this company be more profitable? Yes.”
“Dad and I worked together for 15 years, and it feels strange,” she said, speaking on the telephone from the company’s headquarters on lower Broadway. “I miss him … but I like challenging times, so to me I wouldn’t call it pressure. I’m completely energized to move on.”
So what does the pumpkin story reveal about Ms. Woods, who will be overseeing 600 employees in the New York office and 6,000 worldwide? For one, she has a very precise notion of esthetics; when she envisions a sweater or a pair of chinos, she has firm ideas about the placement of buttons, the lengths of the cuffs and the texture of the fabrics. And she expects her staff to implement those ideas as precisely as she conceived them. Ms. Woods, who based J. Crew’s early designs on the clothes she had in her closet after college-well-worn jeans and big cuddly sweaters-has parlayed this talent into a $800 million-a-year giant whose name has come to denote an echt -WASP ethos. And she established a reputation as tough businesswoman who runs with a fast crowd-she’s married to Hollywood producer Cary Woods, who did Scream and Gummo , and she is pals with Julia Roberts, Uma Thurman, Michael Ovitz and Ronald Perelman.
But the pumpkin story-which several employees confirmed, but which Ms. Woods said she does not remember-also illustrates how Ms. Woods is struggling with the specter of her father, an unpredictable manager known for berating employees in front of their colleagues, and who once yelled at a young J. Crew art director until she passed out at her computer. (Employees’ tales of Mr. Cinader paint him as nothing so much as a Dark Side version of Seinfeld ‘s “Peterman,” the self-enamored, nutty catalogue mogul for whom Elaine toils.)
“I think his leaving is a huge weight off her shoulders,” said a high-level executive at J. Crew. “I’ve noticed a huge difference. She’s being demanding but in a reasonable way, instead of with that edge of craziness we’re used to.”
But by many accounts, Ms. Woods has inherited some of her father’s penchant for dressing down employees, some of whom use words like “humiliating” and “degrading” to describe the episodes. “I do get impatient,” Ms. Woods said of her management style. “It certainly would never be my intention [to humiliate someone].… I’d like to think I’m not harsh, but I am tough and challenging-I don’t think anyone running a large company isn’t.”
“She’s tough and can be intimidating,” said Kelly Hill, an art director who worked contentedly for J. Crew for eight years before leaving to freelance. “That’s one of the downfalls of running a company; not everyone can love you.”
“Working with Emily is straightforward and concise,” said Carol Sharpe, a J. Crew general merchandise manager. “Her dad is more philosophical in his approach.”
Emily C. Meets J. Crew
After an outdoorsy childhood in Montclair, N.J., and New Mexico, Ms. Woods attended the exclusive and artsy Cranbrook Academy of Art in Bloomfield Hills, Mich. She graduated from the University of Denver in 1982, where she majored in marketing, and went to work for the family. Her grandfather Mitchell Cinader had started a Garfield, N.J.-based catalogue company called Popular Club Plan in 1948, to sell clothes and home furnishings, and Arthur Cinader had inherited it. J. Crew was the company’s newly launched, somewhat cheesy sportswear line. Ms. Woods, then Emily Cinader, started out as an assistant buyer but soon took over the design department, gradually transforming the company into an extension of herself. Soon enough, “the J. Crew look” was born. Ms. Woods personally approved each image that appeared in the catalogue (one model in early catalogues looked eerily like Ms. Woods); her design catchword was “American,” meaning, largely, East Coast boarding-school wear. (Angry mail still comes in from catalogue recipients who object to the company’s quasi-Aryan esthetic.)
“Her judgments are very good,” an executive at the company said. “I think that Emily has been brilliant at visually presenting the merchandise. She can take something as dumb as a Shetland sweater and make you buy three.”
In 1988, J. Crew mailed out 35 million catalogues a year; today, it mails more than 80 million. But the Cinaders wanted stores, and, in 1989, J. Crew opened its first retail store at the South Street Seaport. It now has 50, all of which, Ms. Woods claims, are profitable. However, the idea for a store on Madison Avenue, the ultimate retail proving ground, has yet to materialize.
‘Write Like Proust!’
As Ms. Woods’ life style changed, the J. Crew look put on pearls, with new, fancier lines (“Classics” and “The Collection”), leading some employees to complain that Ms. Woods’ increased social status was driving her design sense. “She wants her friends to buy J. Crew,” said an employee. “It’s impaired her judgment on a few things … and has a huge impact on the way she edits the line.”
Ms. Woods responded that J. Crew’s higher-priced lines are doing well. “We will be completely sold out of women’s cashmere before Christmas,” she said. “There was a group or two last spring that were sort of modern-downtown, which did terribly. But it was one or two groups out of 50 groups in six months.”
While Ms. Woods ran the design team, Mr. Cinader crunched the numbers and oversaw the catalogue’s copywriting department. He favored hiring Ivy League graduates-J. Crew still recruits heavily from Harvard and Yale-and goaded his staff to “write like Proust!” Mr. Cinader’s dense, arguably poetic clothing descriptions were dubbed “J. Crew haikus” by his staff. (“Cashmere … spun of cashmere fibers from the necks of goats in Mongolia’s finest herds.”)
Ms. Woods puts work ahead of a traditional family life. Her husband spends a lot of time in Los Angeles, while she stays put in her Chelsea apartment. “He lives in New York and L.A.,” Ms. Woods said. “I’m always here.”
Ms. Woods described her life in New York this way: “I work out a lot. I see a lot of movies. I read a lot. I travel a fair amount, I go out to dinner almost every night and I work … If I go home before 8 or 9, I don’t really know what to do with myself.”
When she is not overseeing clothing designs or catalogue layouts, Ms. Woods analyzes information from J. Crew’s database, which carefully tracks who’s buying what. In recent years, J. Crew has attempted to target specific consumers, like children and college students.
But if Ms. Woods knows her customer inside and out, she seems less attuned to the gripes of her staff. (In the past year, six out of eight of Mr. Cinader’s copywriters have quit.)
“When you’re the daughter of the founder, you get to do things your way,” said Kirk Palmer, a fashion industry headhunter who has recruited several senior executives from J. Crew. “She used to blow people out of the water. It was viewed as a very intense, difficult environment, a yeller-and-screamer-type atmosphere.… But I think she has matured. You don’t hear the same horror stories anymore.”
Asked about the turnover rate, Ms. Woods said, “All of the key people have been here three, five, seven, 10 years.… The people who aren’t comfortable with [my management style] are likely to be the ex-employees.”
Several current and former employees complained of nit-picky office rules-employees must whisper in management’s presence; no jangling jewelry; no food in trash bins for fear of odors. Ms. Woods has been known to order employees to open their mouths and stick out their tongues if she suspects they’re chewing gum.
Responded Ms. Woods: “I have a reputation of, ‘Don’t chew on ice, don’t click your watch on the table consistently during meetings.’ I’m distracted by noises. I know this is my problem, but it makes it hard for me to think at the pace I have to think here … Everyone knows not to come to meetings chewing gum.”
‘Married to J. Crew’
Some employees believe it was a pressing need for capital that drove Ms. Woods and Mr. Cinader to look for new investors, a scenario Ms. Woods disputed.
“I was looking for a financial partner to take the company forward because the shareholders were interested in selling their stake,” she said. “We weren’t doing it to raise capital. My father is 70, and his sister and the other owners were all in their 70’s and 80’s …The family could have continued to own the company and grow on the profits we were making.”
The proper partner came along, Ms. Woods explained, via her husband, Mr. Woods, who in 1995 was talking with Texas Pacific, a $2.5 billion leveraged buyout shop that has invested in Ducati Motor S.p.A. and Del Monte Foods Company, about starting his own production company. “When they learned that he was married to J. Crew, as it were, they said, ‘Well, if there’s ever an opportunity to do any financial venture with those guys … we’d be very interested,'” Ms. Woods said. She flew out to San Francisco to meet the Texas Pacific people. Ms. Woods said she got a good feeling from them in part because “the office is like a J. Crew store: oak floors and maple desks.”
But as talks with Texas Pacific wore on this fall, circumstances turned against the family. The United Parcel Service strike cut into business (Ms. Woods confirmed that after the strike, J. Crew failed to pay some of its suppliers on time), and the warm autumn in the Northeast affected catalogue sales. J. Crew laid off about 10 percent of its staff.
Mr. Cinader and Texas Pacific had agreed to a purchase price of about $560 million for an 85 percent share of the company, to be financed by two bond offerings totaling close to $300 million. But in late September, Moody’s Investors Service gave poor ratings to the bonds, citing the company’s “very high leverage … past operating inefficiencies… and J. Crew’s increased fashion risk as a result of investing in diversified colors and styles …” On Oct. 10, in the wake of the poor ratings and a weak third quarter, the bond sale was delayed and the deal seemed in jeopardy.
Mr. Cinader lowered his asking price by $20 million and Texas Pacific injected an additional $20 million of capital to make the bonds more attractive. On Oct. 14, Moody’s upgraded its rating for one of the two bond offerings, and the deal was soon signed.
But Mr. Cinader had kept most of the staff in the dark, a move Ms. Woods said she disagreed with. “The transaction itself wasn’t communicated well to the people within the company,” she said. “It’s not the way I would have handled it.”
In her first few weeks as head of the company, Ms. Woods has been meeting with the J. Crew staff, trying to make nice, subtly promising a change from her father’s management style. “The communication going forward will be more open and direct,” she said. “Emotionally for people, that’s very exciting.”
Fashion industry analyst Alan Millstein said that although “the mail-order business is fraught with problems” because of unpredictable seasonal sales patterns, J. Crew’s primary strength is Ms. Woods’ reliably staid designs. “On balance, they’ll be the winners of the 90’s because investors don’t want agita . J. Crew is no Donna Karan.”
But in their Sept. 29 report on J. Crew, analysts at Moody’s grasped the complicated nature of Ms. Woods’ relationship to the company. Moody’s noted that she “has been largely responsible for maintaining the brand’s consistent image … which has minimized fashion risk,” but expressed concern over J. Crew’s “reliance on Emily Woods …”
Neither Ms. Woods nor Texas Pacific would disclose the terms of her contract, but she said she plans to stick around for “the next 20 years.”
“Whatever transformations the company goes through in the future,” Ms. Woods said, “I think of it as very much mine.”