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Shaking up Oaktree.

Derek Tucker walked into an Oaktree clothing store at the Galleria Mall in St. Louis on a Saturday afternoon last December and found his sales team swamped with holiday shoppers. A consummate salesman himself, Tucker was not about to let a sale slip by. "He took off his jacket put it behind the counter and just started helping out," recalls assistant store manager John Brickler, incredulously.

It was classic Tucker, who got his start in the retail business racking up sales on the selling floor at the age of 17. Now president of the Oaktree menswear stores, the 36-year-old Tucker still knows how to make a sale. Last year, the mall-based chain sold an estimated $185 million." I love making it happen at the store level," he says." I never want to lose sight of what my customers are thinking and doing, or what they want even today."

That innate awareness of what finicky, fashion-conscious customers want has propelled Tucker through the ranks of Edison Brothers Stores Inc. (EBS), Oaktree's $1.5-billion parent company and one of the largest specialty retail concerns in the country. Early on, Tucker developed a reputation as a stellar seller who had his finger on the pulse of the latest apparel trends.

During his 18 years at EBS, Tucker has transferred his skills as a salesclerk and store manager into those of a top-flight merchandiser and buyer. Over the past decade, Tucker has deftly spotted a range of trends - from parachute pants to the Miami Vice look to hip-hop street fashions - and cashed in on them.

As president tucker has engineered the growth of Oaktree from 213 stores to a coast-to-coast chain with 310 outlets now branching into Puerto Rico and Mexico. His approach: create or interpret a fashion trend for the menswear market, and then merchandise it in a slick, high-tech atmosphere at a good price.

But a slow-growth economy, the lack of a clear fashion trend in menswear and a sluggish demand for highly stylized clothes have resulted in three years of lackluster performance for Oaktree. Now Tucker faces his biggest challenge: maintaining Oaktree's share of the $9-billion men's apparel market in a soft retail environment crammed with competition. To do so, he must increase sales by finding the right mix of merchandise to redefine and create a demand for the Oaktree Look of the |90s, a signature style that now fluctuates somewhere between pseudo-Armani dresswear and casual rapper-chic.

A Knack For Fashion

The San Francisco-born Tucker has always had an eye for fashion. Even as a junior high school student, Tucker knew he wanted to get into the rag trade. "On the first day of school, It was always a big deal to wear a certain thing, but I never wanted to wear what everyone else was wearing," he recalls. "I always hooked mine up a little differently." Nowadays, Tucker favors designer suits for work and T-shirts and jeans on weekends.

His interest in clothes and a desire to pursue fashion as a career led the former high school football defensive captain to forgo a four-year athletic scholarship to the Ivy League's Dartmouth University. He enrolled instead at Skyline College, a local two-year junior college in San Bruno. He graduated with an associate's degree in fashion merchandising, the business program for those drawn to a retail career. "Derek knew where he wanted to go," says Rosemary Leach, director of fashion merchandising at Skyline. "He always seemed to have a plan for himself and he knew that he wanted to be a buyer by age 25."

Tucker got the rest of his training on-the-job, working for EBS while attending college. Hired as a part-time salesperson for two weeks during the 1974 Christmas season at a Jeans West store in the San Francisco area, Tucker rang up $1,000 worth of merchandise for just one customer. That January, when all other holiday help was laid off, Tucker had landed a full-time gig.

His climb up the EBS hierarchy, which grooms its senior officers from the store level up, has been on fast-forward ever since. Over the next 12 years, Tucker's strong business results paired with good management skills rocketed him from store manager at 19, to buyer at 25, and then president at 32.

"The first time I met him, he had fire in his eyes and a flair for fashion," says Wes Hornsby, assistant vice president and buyer for JW/Jeans West. "He understood what was going on in the streets. You've got to know what the customer wants to do good business, and Derek had it."

That "it" caught the attention of Willard Fonarow, the now retired godfather of EBS merchandising, who brought Tucker into management at the EBS buying office in St. Louis.

A Natural At Spotting Big Trends

Tucker came to Oaktree as a merchandiser in 1980, when the division was targeted to men who wanted stylish, inexpensive suits and dress shirts. Tucker, however, identified a market niche that wasn't being offered in menswear: a coordinated line of casual blazers, pants and shirts in a range of colors and styles that could be found at any Oaktree store throughout the country. "I thought we could capitalize on sportswear. It was hotter, funkier and more fashion-forward," he says. The strategy worked, boosting sales and repositioning the chain in the contemporary men's retail market.

Shortly after being named a buyer for Oaktree, Tucker traveled to the Far East with Karl Michner, then buyer and merchandise manager for Oaktree. Michner, now president of the Edison Menswear Group, had plans to place an order on a new kind of trouser - the parachute pant. The initial order was for 1,200 pairs, but Tucker, taking a major gamble, bumped up the order to 12,000. "We sold 250,000 pairs of those pants in 18 months. But the real beauty," Tucker explains, "is that all the divisions ended up capitalizing on those pants."

That success pushed EBS to rapidly expand Oaktree, opening more than 100 new stores in 18 months, via acquisition and conversion of real estate from closed-out divisions. It also enabled Tucker, still a merchandiser, to take another big gamble: In the late |80s, he locked onto a very different and emerging hip-hop fashion trend. Oversized T-shirts and lows-lung pants fast became the new uniform favored by rap musicians and inner-city youth. Tucker capitalized on the scene early and distinctively: In 1987, he developed the UMEN label for Oaktree, its most successful private label.

"I just had a feeling for garments with graphics and strong images on them and put together the line," he says of UMEN, known by its logo, a trio of hip-hop men. The line's booming popularity has expanded from its initial T-shirts and pants concept to include such diverse logo-emblazoned merchandise as baseball caps and shoes.

Tucker's own popularity continued to grow as well. In 1989, he was named president of Oaktree, then a chain of 213 stores. As head of the division, Tucker further pumped up Oaktree's street - fashion presence, becoming an early supporter of the pioneers of retail hip-hop fashion, L.A.-based Threads 4 Life Corp. d/b/a Cross Colours (No. 10 on the BE INDUSTRIAL/SERVICE 100). "Certain things fit into the Oaktree concept," Tucker says of his initial attraction to Cross Colours. "We got into hip-hop early when we thought it was a fashion-forward idea."

Not only did Tucker place Cross Colours' first million-dollar order, he supported his order by helping the company establish a six-figure line of credit EBS assistant vice president Hornsby says that Tucker stuck his neck out to cut the deal: "Had Derek not done it, it wouldn't have been done." Hornsby makes the point that although African-Americans account for a significant portion of retail buying-including 50% of Oaktree's customer base only a few are in positions significant enough to make an impact

The Cross Colours deal was also a merchandising departure for Oaktree. Its stores were carrying brand labels, something generally not done at EBS. But now that Cross Colours is available everywhere, from department stores to boutiques, Tucker has elected not to buy any new merchandise for his stores this fall. He says Oaktree will continue, however, to retain Threads 4 Life as one of its domestic private-label vendors.

Keeping An Aging Concept Growing And Profitable

Although Oaktree's sales have continued to rise, from an estimated $150 million in 1990 to $185 million in 1992, the hip-hop theme has not panned out as well as expected for the retailer. "Oaktree is not seeing the kind of response they're used to," says Don Spindel, retail analyst for A.G. Edwards Inc., a St. Louis-based investment firm.

The problem, though, is not just Oaktree's. According to analysts, shipments of mens/boys sportswear were up only 4% in 1992.

Jean Palmieri, retail editor for the Daily News Record, an apparel industry trade publication, says all contemporary fashion stores-including the Merry-go-round, De Jaiz and EBS's newer and smaller chain, CODA - are having the same problem: Everyone is searching for clues to a fashion trend.

Spindel agrees, noting that Oaktree in particular, "has struggled to redefine its identity."

Edison menswear president Michner points to the development of two big, but very different fashion influences as the source of Oaktree's problems: the classic, laid-back style of The Gap and the hard-edged hip-hop look of Cross Colours. "It polarized customers," says Michner. "Derek couldn't do both and he got caught spreading himself too thin. Instead of copying The Gap, Derek opted to go after the Cross Colours market, and it wasn't the biggest seller," Michner explains.

If Tucker is to improve Oaktree's sales, he'll need help spotting that next big trend. Palmieri says the latest move among younger buyers is away from contemporary styles and toward traditional fashion. Tucker disagrees and insists the trend will move away from basics and return to a more fashion-forward image.

"We plan on riding the cycle out," he says. "Right now, we're 70% basics and 30% fashion. We want to reverse that and become 70% fashion and 30% basics." Still, Tucker is hedging his bets. "This time there'll be more balance in the lines - something for the fashion customer and something for the guy who sets the trends," he says.

Tucker plans to further expand the popular UMEN line and develop a new line of rugged, outdoorsy menswear called FACTORY, which will include a full range of garments, from outerwear jackets and pants to knits, woven tops and accessories. Oaktree's merchandising and marketing plan will call for clothing to encourage mix-and-matching for multiple sales.

To succeed, Tucker will also need the insight and support of his 30 buyers, merchandisers and marketing executives. During his EBS tenure, Tucker says, executive management has been very supportive of his decisions, even when they couldn't relate to the concept. "This is when management must let the buyer take a risk and do his job," says Tucker.

Correspondingly, as a manager Tucker is supportive of his buyers' decisions, "as long as your facts are straight and you are persistent," says Oaktree's accessories buyer Bea Crowder.

Oaktree's marketing director, Flint Finlinson, notes that Tucker strongly believes in hiring the right people and letting them do their job. "If you've proved yourself, he lets you run your business. He also doesn't hesitate to give credit for your successes," Finlinson says.

After he became president, Tucker continued to wear the hat of general merchandiser, supervising a corporate staff while keeping tabs on 3,000 employees in the stores and overseeing the division's marketing efforts. While most EBS division presidents focus on the administrative aspects of their jobs, Tucker prefers to keep his eyes on the merchandise. "He still wants to put his trademark on the merchandise, just like UMEN," says Hornsby. "When you see UMEN, you see Derek Tucker."

The industrious Tucker got some relief in 1991 when Scott Walker was named general sales manager. And earlier this year, he hired Lloyd Rosser, a 20-year retail buying veteran, as merchandise manager to help revamp Oaktree's buying operations and merchandising departments. The management additions have freed Tucker to concentrate on the big picture: to look for the next hot trend, define it for Oaktree and market that concept to regional and store managers, and ultimately to customers.

But the question remains: Can Oaktree continue to grow and be profitable for EBS? "Oaktree is not going to see the same gains as some of the other Edison concepts," says retail analyst Spindel. He points out that while some EBS concepts are in their growth phase and others in their developing stages, others like Oaktree are fully matured. Given that assessment Oaktree's prospects are clear - and limited. "I estimate the chain has the potential to grow by 15% over the next several years and peak at around 350 stores," Spindel says. "It will have fairly modest same-store growth in the mid-single digits. Oaktree will have satisfactory, but not spectacular growth ahead - it's not a racehorse anymore."

But mature stores like Oaktree can generate sales and cash that can be used for newer concepts-and serve as a profit center for EBS. Current plans involve the opening of a few new stores per year over the next five years, including 10 new units in 1993, according to Tucker.

To bump up profit margins, Tucker is moving away from promotional merchandising - "buy one, get one free" concepts - and increasing retail prices as new merchandise comes into the stores. "Our strategy is simple," he says. "Give them what they want and they will pay regular price for it." Early forecasts are showing strong sales on such newer items as wider leg pants, novelty shirts and suits - and a slowdown on basics. if this trend continues, it will validate Tucker's merchandising strategy and revamped focus.

While Tucker would like to find the next Cross Colours vendor, he says he is "not interested in building it." He does, however, search trade shows and conventions, malls and streets, casting his keen eye on what's new, what's next, what's hot. His expeditions take him around the world, from Detroit to the Dutch capital of Amsterdam.

A bachelor with a passion for Harley-Davidson custom-made motorcycles, Porsches and Jaguars, Tucker has no aspirations for owning his own retail company. Instead, he would like to move EBS into another line of business by creating a private label manufacturing company to supply EBS's chains. For now, though, he remains focused on his own division.

The next 18 months will be critical for Tucker and Oaktree. If his past is any measure of his determination, Tucker will step up to the plate - dressed to kill - and get the job done.
COPYRIGHT 1993 Earl G. Graves Publishing Co., Inc.
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Title Annotation:Derek Tucker, president of Oaktree men's clothing chain
Author:Whigham-Desir, Marjorie
Publication:Black Enterprise
Date:Oct 1, 1993
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