She's not your typical CEO. She often answers her own phone. She keeps a small greenhouse stocked with orchids in her office. And she is the only woman to head a public company that she neither inherited nor founded but won in a bitter takeover battle.
Linda J. Wachner had spent five years as president and CEO of Max Factor & Co. But managing a corporation wasn't enough--she wanted to own one. In 1985, she and Andrew G. Galef, a California investor who specializes in apparel companies, made a hostile bid for Warnaco Inc. By April, 1986, Wachner had won the lingerie maker and taken it private in a $486 million LBO. Last year, she took it public again.
TOUGH BOSS. Under Wachner, Warnaco's sales grew from $427 million in 1987 to $563 million in 1991. It now owns the licenses for products that range from Valentino-designed nighties to Fruit of the Loom cotton undies. Warnaco also claims 30% of the brassiere market, with brands such as Warner's. Says Wachner: "I want to make Warner's the Coca-Cola of the bra business."
That sort of determination has earned her a reputation as a tough boss who doesn't brook dissent. "Quite frankly, a lot of people complained that Linda was very, very difficult to work for," says Joel Orenstein, Bloomingdale's vice-president and former president of Warnaco's defunct women's division. The hard-as-nails image wouldn't be noticed if she were a man, but Wachner brushes aside the specter of a sexual double standard. "Do I think there are jealousies out there in the world and people who aren't satisfied? Sure," she says. "But it's not against women. If I thought that way, it would slow me down." True to form, Wachner would rather discuss income than women's issues. In 1991, she earned $3 million, which makes her one of the best-paid women executives in the U.S.
Meanwhile, she's having a good time. On a winter day, the 46-year-old widow skips her couture suits and shows up in a red wool sweater and matching leggings, blue ankle boots, and big crystal earrings. A photo in her office shows her house in Aspen, where she "skis remedially" and socializes with billionaire Marvin Davis. But usually Wachner is in the office. "Everybody says: `What are you going to do next?' But as long as I own a percentage of the company, this is where I'll be."