In a year that many retailers would rather forget, Talbots Inc. (TLB) stood out as clearly as its trademark bright-red doors. Sales of its classic outfits for women soared 21% through November. And with a staggering 70% of its clothes selling at full price--even as the department stores offered deep discounts--company earnings should rise 85% in the fiscal year ending in January.
So perhaps it's only fitting that CEO Arnold B. Zetcher, the man responsible for this outsize performance, is hardly a typical retailer. In an industry notorious for job-hopping, Zetcher, 60, has been at the helm of Talbots since 1988. And in contrast to his more flamboyant colleagues, Zetcher is mild-mannered and almost maddeningly methodical. He spent months tinkering with the prototype of Talbots.com, for instance. It was his idea to substitute a shopping bag for the usual shopping cart icon, and to feature those red doors on the "splash page." The online store, which opened in late 1999, has been profitable from the start.
Zetcher sees plenty of room for the Talbots brand to grow. He's charging into the underserved market for larger women. He points out, however, that the most common suggestion he gets is to move Talbots into men's clothes. Zetcher says he sees "significant potential" in the idea, but he isn't about to make a rash decision. After all, when you have a classic formula that works, you tinker with care.