A cowboy clothier mounts a comeback

It all started with an ankle-length cowboy coat. John Peterman, a retired minor-league baseball player who had worked in food marketing, walked out of a clothing store in Jackson Hole, Wyo., in 1987 wearing the item that would launch the $50-million J. Peterman catalog company.

Its "Owner's Manual," selling exotic or nostalgic items with watercolor illustrations and literary descriptions - was part catalog and part travelogue. But more people wound up knowing the Peterman name from a regular J. Peterman character on the television sitcom "Seinfeld."

Last year the J. Peterman Company went bankrupt. Now, Mr. Peterman wants to make a comeback. He lays bare the company's rise and fall in a new book, "Peterman Rides Again" (Prentice Hall Press), and this month will launch a Web site he ultimately wants to link to a television show where he'll take viewers on travel adventures and shopping expeditions.

Yes, orders will be taken.

Sitting down in Manhattan during his book tour, John Peterman talked about going from duster - as his 1880s-style cowboy coats are called - to dust.

Why did people take to the duster?

I bought the duster ... because it represented [the] cowboy, and cowboys represented romantic figures. The duster represents a bigger idea, a chord with the public, which is a need for individuality, romance, authenticity, uniqueness.

You are ready to relaunch a company, but somebody else owns the name J. Peterman?

The J. Peterman company was bought at auction; the assets were bought by Paul Harris [an Indianapolis-based clothing chain]. Sometime in the beginning of October, Paul Harris filed for Chapter 11. So J. Peterman the brand name is, right now, in limbo. More important than that - and this sounds egotistical, but it's not at all - that name was based on authenticity, uniqueness, romance, and it had a real person attached to it. So without the real person, the name becomes not as valuable, if valuable at all.

Twenty-two million people know who John Peterman is.

Do you know how many of those people know John Peterman, as opposed to the J. Peterman from Seinfeld?

They know that John Peterman is the real J. Peterman, and they see him as an expert shopper and world traveler, and that's what I am.

How did you make the transition from a marketing career to "expert shopper and world traveler"?

Well, that just evolved. I'd traveled, but I traveled a great deal more once I started the company. Facetiously now, one of the reasons I started the company was because I wanted the toughest job in the world. I wanted to be able to travel to any place in the world that I wanted to go, meet whomever I wanted to meet, and buy whatever I wanted to buy - that's a very hard job.

What did you think of your showing up on "Seinfeld"?

They never asked to do it, they just did it. I found out about it by chance. I said, 50 million people see the name, maybe that's not a bad thing. [After that] I used to sign off on the scripts. Our customers who knew who we were didn't buy any more from us because of "Seinfeld." The other people didn't think we were a real company.

What did you think of the character's portrayal?

Well, let's see. I've never considered myself to be an egotistical, windy bore [like the character on the show]. The strange thing is that in inventing their own little story, they came very close to reality. [My TV character] went to Burma ... and at the same time, I was in Burma and China. They had an episode about buying JFK's golf clubs - we were actually at that auction looking to buy JFK memorabilia.

What happened? Why didn't the business work out?

We hit the top of our niche in the catalog business. The growth opportunities slowed down. I was impatient, and I knew that conceptually there was a far larger market for J. Peterman uniqueness, so we had a 70-store, retail-expansion plan. Had I been smarter, I would have, in 1995, slashed the overhead, slashed the number of products we were developing, and settled the company into a highly profitable, $45 million to $50 million per year company. And then I would have allowed the market to force me to grow rather than trying to push the market.

Why didn't store-based retail work?

We decided that we needed more capital, and nobody's going to give you capital to downsize a business. But there was capital available for a retail expansion. So we expanded into retail rapidly. We opened 10 stores in 1998. The problem was that we needed to build the infrastructure to support it. That made us vulnerable. Sales got soft for everyone in the catalog business at the end of 1998. [And when] the sales got soft, then we couldn't close some new banking relationships.

What would be in a J. Peterman mini-MBA course?

I'm giving talks to MBA students, and the title of the talk is "The Art of Failure." You may think it's [not] easy to fail, especially if you're a national icon, you have exposure on the No. 1 television show in the world, but ... I've proven it can be done. The mistakes I made are mistakes that MBAs and regular business people should not make.

What's the first step in turning an idea into a real business?

Passion. If you have no passion for something, don't do it. You're not going to make any money and you're not going to succeed. Passion gives you energy. And you're going to need it to get over all of the naysayers and people who say, 'That'll never work.' If there's one thing I've learned, it's that if everyone agrees with your idea, you ought to just can the idea, because that means it's not a new idea.

You have inspirational quotes throughout your book. Which of your ideas would you like people to put on an index card and keep by their desks?

Success is the other side of your latest failure.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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