Diane Ellis, president and chief operating officer of Brooks Brothers, presented at the URBN Annex April 10 on the success of the 200-year-old company and the “secret sauce” that has kept it alive through adversity over the years.
Brooks Brothers invented the ready-made suit, seersucker and the button-down golf shirt. They have outfitted 39 of the 44 United States presidents, and both Brooks Brothers suits that Abraham Lincoln and John F. Kennedy were assassinated in are on display in the Smithsonian Institute.
“Just the mention of Brooks Brothers sparks the words ‘classic’ and ‘conservative’ into one’s head,” Ellis said. The struggle is the constant reinventing and staying within the “DNA” of the brand.
Other retail companies work from the top down, whereas Brooks Brothers works from the bottom up. Brooks Brothers believes that management should not dictate what consumers should like but should instead adjust to their needs, wants and feedback.
“The consumer is slow to change but ever changing,” Ellis said. A new product is never right the first time it is launched. From this, one can see that their company dynamic is drastically different than any other company to date.
“Folks that are closest to the customer take their input and tailor our assortments. [These folks] are essentially doing the marketing and outreach,” Ellis said. This essentially empowers the employees and promotes positive growth in productivity. Their training of management and employees is extensive, including a customized program by the Wharton School specifically for their managers on the essentials of business.
Within the business, Brooks Brothers has faced constant challenges and learned valuable lessons, including the importance of establishing personal relationships with customers.
The majority of clients have been consumers of the company for over 40 years. These clients have gotten them through tough economic times. Constantly being in contact with the customer “transparently” allows more opportunity for relationships. Ellis said that there can never be over-communication and that it’s important to know when to listen.
“If you don’t understand what happens at the front line of retail, then you don’t understand what happens in retail. Appreciation of customer touch time is invaluable. The voice of the customer is the most important voice, and if you don’t spend time listening, you won’t grasp the concept,” Ellis said.
Henry Brooks founded the brand in New York in 1818. Brooks had suits custom made in England for his friends, but he had customers who couldn’t wait for a custom suit to come in from England, thus sparking the invention of the ready-made suit. From that point on, the mission statement on the Brooks Brothers website, “to enhance the lives both within and beyond the communities we serve,” has stood the test of time.
To date, there are 500 stores in 18 countries, with a new store opening in Moscow. All their manufacturing is done in the United States, which Ellis said mainly appeals to Generation X.
Ellis was a musical theater major who dropped out despite having a full scholarship. She got started in retail, became a sales associate, and from there eventually found herself in management. She said that once people have hands-on experience with customers, they see the good, the bad and the ugly, and this gave her a good sense of reality in management. Ellis said she hopes that she brought discipline to the company in terms of process and strategy, but essentially she said the company has taught her more than she has really given in return.