Gymboree Corporation History

500 Howard Street
San Francisco, California 94105

Telephone: (415) 278-7000
Toll Free: 877-449-6932
Fax: (415) 278-7100

Public Company
Incorporated: 1979
Employees: 9,345
Sales: $578.0 million (2004)
Stock Exchanges: NASDAQ
Ticker Symbol: GYMB
NAIC: 448130 Children's and Infants' Clothing Stores

Company Perspectives:

The Gymboree Corporation is a family of specialty retail brands that provide unique, high-quality products. Each of these brands has an important thing in common: they are focused on pleasing every individual customer. Gymboree clothing is designed with colorful, versatile fabrics, whimsical graphics and detailed touches. Coordinating accessories complete every outfit, making Gymboree kids unique from head to toe.

Key Dates:

Joan Barnes opens her first commercial children's workout center.
Some 125 Gymboree franchises are operating in 20 states.
Company goes public.

Mid-1990s:CEO Nancy Pedot and CFO James P. Curley oversee expansion of the chain.
Curley and Pedot announce their departure.
Company adds four new senior management positions; new distribution center opens in Dixon, California.
Lisa Harper is named head of design.
Gymboree sells Zutopia.
Lisa Harper is made chairman.
Corporate offices shift to San Francisco.
Gymboree opens Janeville stores.

Company History:

Based in San Francisco, California, Gymboree Corporation designs, manufactures, and retails unique, high quality apparel and accessories for children and women. The company has retail businesses under the Gymboree, Janie and Jack, and Janeville names. Gymboree operates more than 600 stores in the United States and Canada as well as an online business. The company also operates parent-child developmental play programs for infants through age five. There are more than 530 play and music centers in the United States and 24 other countries, many of which are franchises.


Gymboree's children's recreation and exercise operation represented a relatively meager portion of its income by the 1990s, but it was that business that launched the venture in the 1970s and established a foundation for its future success in the retail industry. The concept of a commercial children's exercise program was inspired by Joan Barnes. Barnes, in her early 20s, had taught modern dance to children in New York City before organizing a children's recreation program for the Jewish Community Center in San Rafael, California. She was serving as the recreation administrator at that center when, in 1975, she came up with the notion of offering exercise classes for babies with their parents. The idea stemmed partly from her personal desire to share physical fitness playtime with her own daughter.

The baby exercise classes were an instant hit. Parents lined up to bring their babies and toddlers to Barnes's exercise sessions. Recognizing the commercial potential of her idea, Barnes left her job with the Jewish Community Center and opened her first commercial children's workout center in 1976. She had little trouble filling her classes with enthusiastic parents. She knew that she was dealing with a viable business concept, moreover, when some of those parents started asking her about opening their own children's exercise centers. After polishing her concept, Barnes did start opening other centers in the late 1970s.

Barnes recognized that her expertise was working with parents and children, not in building a sprawling franchise business. To help her take the concept cross-country, she hired franchise specialist Robert Jacob, who was best known for developing the hugely successful Midas International car-service franchise system. Jacob helped Barnes set up a successful licensing program for Gymboree centers that focused on low start-up costs. Franchisees typically paid Barnes a $20,000 start-up fee, which included about $8,000 worth of equipment and enough money to get the center moving. The franchisees also agreed to pay Barnes 6 percent of their revenue. To help fund the expansion effort, Barnes turned to venture-capital firm Venture Partners, of Menlo, California.

The Gymboree franchise effort was a triumph. By 1984, 125 Gymboree franchises were operating in 20 states and were bringing in more than $1 million in revenue annually. The franchises were typically operated by women, many of whom had training in occupational therapy or education. Classes were usually held in church halls and community buildings, and parents were charged only $4 to $8 per 45-minute session. Classes varied to accommodate children ranging from three months to four years in age, but a typical session included the children hanging from bars to build up arm muscles, popping soap bubbles to develop eye-hand coordination, or walking on inflated logs to improve balance. In addition, the tots could exercise on brightly colored tunnels, slides, and other apparatus, and no class was complete without a visit from a clown-puppet named "Gymbo."

By 1985 Barnes's net worth had sailed past $1 million. As important to her as the financial gain, though, was the success of her idea: "It's a neat feeling to know the same scene is going on in scores of centers at the same time," she said in the May 1984 Money. "It feels like I've given birth to a new experience." Barnes had, indeed, given birth to a viable concept, as evidenced by Gymboree's rapid expansion during the mid-1980s. By 1987, in fact, the Gymboree chain had grown to include more than 350 centers throughout the United States and in ten foreign countries. Those units were generating over $10 million in annual sales. Importantly, the Gymboree name had become known and respected by parents.

Barnes decided in 1986 to start capitalizing on the goodwill that Gymboree had accrued since she had opened the first exercise center in 1976. To that end, she opened the first few Gymboree retail stores: "... because we recognized that we have a unique marketing platform," she said in the November 1987 Chain Store Age Executive. "No one could approach our authenticity, no one could knock off what we do because of the number of children already participating in our Gymboree programs." The first Gymboree stores piggy-backed off of the original Gymboree concept. Approximately 1,000-square-feet in size, they were designed similar to a children's gym, incorporated displays that looked like bleachers, had video screens showing tapes of Gymboree exercise classes, and had pictures of Gymbo the clown throughout.

The first Gymboree store, opened in 1986, was a success. With financial backing from Venture Partners, Barnes opened an additional 15 stores by the end of 1987. The initial idea was to open the stores in areas where Gymboree centers were established (although the company eventually determined that the concept could work in areas without an established customer base). The outlets stocked about 60 percent apparel and 40 percent hard goods and targeted a price range that attracted buyers between the upscale and middle-income markets. Gymboree sustained its unique image and increased profit margins by designing and manufacturing many of its own products, which could not be found in other stores.

New Management: 1989

By 1989 Gymboree was operating 32 retail stores, mostly in malls, in addition to its base of 350 Gymboree franchises. Sales rose to nearly $17 million, although the company posted a net loss of nearly $1 million. It was clear that Gymboree's future was in retailing, rather than in children's fitness. Barnes's influence in operations had steadily declined in proportion to the amount of money infused by her investment partner, U.S. Venture Partners. U.S. Venture Partners believed that the company was failing to reach its potential, so the investment company began installing a new management team that it hoped would take Gymboree to new heights.

In 1989 U.S. Venture Partners brought in Don Cohn to serve as chairman and chief executive of Gymboree. Cohn was the founder of the successful New England Clothing Co. and had served stints with such venerable retailers as Mervyn's, Laura Ashley, I. Magnin, and Ross Stores. Among other moves, Cohn adopted an incentive-based approach to sales by allocating work hours to store employees based on a sliding scale influenced by their performance. He also fired several managers and brought in more experienced retail executives. Cohn also received much of the credit for the company's successful initial public offering in March 1993 that brought $43 million into Gymboree's coffers.

Partly as a result of Cohn's efforts, Gymboree's sales increased to $48.5 million in 1991 and then to a lofty $68 million in 1992 (fiscal year ended January 31, 1993), while net income rose to a healthy $6.9 million. The total number of retail outlets increased to 120 in late 1993, by which time Gymboree was employing more than 2,100 workers. Despite impressive gains, however, Cohn was forced to resign in 1993 to make way for new chief executive Nancy Pedot. In fact, it was Pedot, as the manager of Gymboree's merchandising strategy, who had been largely responsible for the chain's rapid rise during the early 1990s.

Pedot had been hired by Gymboree in 1989 to serve as a general merchandise manager. Previously, she had worked at Mervyn's Inc. as a division merchandise manager. She was effectively handed Gymboree's 32 retail stores and told to fill them with products. She quickly revamped the stores' entire product line and introduced brightly colored, high-quality jumpers, dresses, pants, and tops for newborns to six-year-olds. The Gymboree-brand apparel was a hit and per-store sales surged. She augmented that effort by reducing the number of toys in the product mix and shifting the focus to high-margin clothing items. The change moved Gymboree into a higher price bracket, which paid off in some of the highest profit margins in the industry.

Pedot's appointment as the president and chief executive cemented a near matriarchy at Gymboree, where the six vice-presidents for production, real estate, human resources, stores, merchandising, and franchise operations were all women. Only the chief financial officer of the company, James Curley, was male. Under the direction of that management team, Gymboree sustained the aggressive growth it had achieved in the early 1990s, opening a stream of new Gymboree retail outlets and pushing both sales and profits to record levels. Indeed, revenues in 1993 rose to $130 million and net income doubled to $14.1 million. By late 1994 the Gymboree chain had grown to more than 200 stores throughout the United States.

Gymboree continued to expand during 1995, adding more than 50 new outlets to its chain. At the same time, management began intensifying efforts to whip the sprawling distribution and inventory operations into line. To that end, new purchasing, planning, and distribution managers were hired, and new information systems were implemented. In addition, the company launched a Gymboree mail-order catalog and introduced larger goods including furniture into many of its stores. After posting an average annual growth rate of 63 percent over five years, Gymboree increased revenues in 1994 (fiscal year ended January 31, 1995) to $188 million, about $22.2 million of which was netted as income.

To sustain future growth, in 1995 Gymboree began exploring the possibility of overseas retail expansion. Its exercise franchises were already operating in Taiwan, Mexico, and eight other countries. Pedot identified potential areas for expansion in Europe and announced plans to open overseas retail units in late 1995 or 1996. In addition, the company planned to increase the size of new stores in the United States and to add more merchandise, in keeping with the superstore concept sweeping the retail industry in the mid-1990s. Gymboree was also working to develop its own educational toys and products and to extend its targeted age range to seven year olds. The company hoped to have as many as 500 Gymboree retail outlets operating by 1998.

Facing Challenges: Late 1990s

The late 1990s were turbulent years for retailers in the clothing sector and Gymboree posted a rollercoasteresque earnings chart that led to high turnover rates among corporate leaders.

In 1997 Nancy Pedot was replaced as CEO and president by Gary White, who had been the former COO. Shortly thereafter, James P. Curley stepped down as senior vice-president and CFO. Curley had also served on the board of directors. Under White, the company initiated a stockholder rights plan in March that was meant as protection against hostile takeover. Stock share prices had been on a decline and Gymboree began a $30 million stock buyback in November. The buyback was designed to boost company share prices. White reported that the board's decision to buy back some of its stock, "is consistent with our objectives of enhancing shareholder value and reflects its continuing confidence in Gymboree's business and prospects."

It had become apparent to management that some restructuring of the company was in order and in January 1998, with a new year underway and some lagging holiday sales, Gymboree added four top management positions. The positions were chief information officer, senior vice-president in sourcing and logistics, vice-president-logistics, and a managing directorship based in Hong Kong for sourcing and production. New sales figures in March showed a significant increase, with sales up 20 percent from the prior quarter.

Gymboree entered the Japanese market by adding a new concept store for older children called Kid Cool in the spring of 1998. It remained to be seen whether the concept would prove successful in the Asian market. That summer Gymboree also relocated its distribution center to Dixon, California. The 285,000-square-foot facility was opened in June.

In January 1999 Director of Design and Merchandising Lisa Harper was named vice-president, design. Harper was largely responsible for the creative designs that brought the company record sales. Harper later continued her success at Gymboree and eventually went on to become the company's CEO.

Plagued by erratic sales performance, Gymboree continued to replace its leadership. In February 1999 the company hired Melanie Cox, who had a marketing background, as president. Gary White continued in his post as CEO. Cox began a remerchandising effort in an attempt to boost the chain's image. Changes were made to the interior of the company's retail spaces, and Gymboree closed 12 poorly performing stores. The most notable change was in following style trends in children's apparel rather than relying on Gymboree signature bright color separates.

Despite its recurrent woes, Gymboree was named one of the most family friendly companies by Working Mother magazine. Ken Meyers, vice-president of human resources, commented on the award by saying, "Our policies foster an environment which provides challenge, fun and flexibility in the workplace."

The end of the 1990s also saw company expansion of play and music programs worldwide. Master franchisees were opened in the United Kingdom, Puerto Rico, and Ireland. The company had already established a presence in Australia, Canada, Colombia, France, Indonesia, South Korea, Mexico, Singapore, and Taiwan. In addition, Gymboree had play and music programs pending in Central America, the Middle East, and the Philippines.

Renewed Focus: 2000s

In January 2001 Gymboree sold its Zutopia store chain to the retail outlet The Wet Seal, Inc. The company cited its focus on building shareholder value and expanding its Gymboree brand as the reason for unloading Zutopia.

After a tumultuous series of corporation leaders, the company named Lisa Harper, a longtime Gymboree employee, its CEO and vice-chair. Sales began to rise by November 2001. Other retailers that quarter were not as fortunate and this was noted and rewarded with Gymboree shares gaining on the NASDAQ.

The company had been based in Burlingame, California, since 1980 but considered a move in November 2003. The following spring the company chose a 160,000-square-foot facility on Howard Street in San Francisco as its new home.

Gymboree took a departure from its kidware and considered catering to the mother instead in 2004 when it launched its Janeville concept stores. The stores focused on women in their late 30s. The stores featured a cottage-like atmosphere reminiscent of the Hamptons or Sonoma, California. The company opened ten stores its first year with more to follow at upscale shopping complexes.

Sales at moderate to higher end retail establishments were stagnant during the recession of the early 2000s and Gymboree posted its share of flat sales. Nonetheless, the public demand for quality baby clothes remained, and with further expansion of its other store concepts in Janie and Jack, and Janeville, Gymboree seemed poised for renewed growth in the coming years.

Principal Divisions: Janie and Jack, Inc.; Janeville Stores, Inc.; Gymboree and Play and Music.

Principal Competitors: The Gap, Inc.; Target Corporation; The Children's Place Retail Stores, Inc.; Hanna Anderson Corp.

Further Reading:

  • "As Sales Jump, Gymboree Predicts Profit," San Francisco Chronicle, November, 17, 2000.
  • Bary, Andrew, "Kid Stuff," Barron's, July 18, 1994, p. 17.
  • Burstiner, Marcy, "Retailing's Child Prodigy," San Francisco Business Times, August 20, 1993, p. 4A.
  • Carlsen, Clifford, "Gymboree Toys with Catalog Sales, Overseas Expansion," San Francisco Business Times, October 21, 1994, p. 1.
  • ------, "Shakeup Time in Gymboree's Executive Suite," San Francisco Business Times, January 21, 1994, p. 3.
  • Emert, Carol, "CEO, President Flee Staggering Gymboree," San Francisco Chronicle, February, 16, 2000, p. D1.
  • ------, "Gymboree Hires Marketing Whiz to Balance out Seesawing Sales," San Francisco Chronicle, February 3, 1999, p. D2.
  • ------, "Gymboree Plans Big Makeover," San Francisco Chronicle, July 8, 1999, p. B1.
  • ------, "Gymboree's Pivotal CEO Decides to Step Down," San Francisco Chronicle, February 14, 1997, p. B1.
  • Eng, Sherri, "Market Share of California's Gymboree Rises on Merchandising Strategy," Knight-Ridder/Tribune Business News, February 13, 1994.
  • "Gymboree," Fortune, February 7, 1994, p. 137.
  • "Gymboree Is More Than Just Child's Play; Toddler Activity Classes Grow into Lifestyle Concept Retail Stores," Chain Store Age Executive, November 1987, p. 115.
  • "Gymboree Shares Rise 18% on Revised Sales Forecast, New York Times, August 24, 2001, p. 4.
  • Martin, Michael B., and Leslie Laurence, "Joan Barnes's Workout Centers Help 12-Pound Weaklings Pump Iron," Money, May 1984, p. 21.
  • Mitchell, Russell, "A Children's Retailer That's Growing Up Fast," Business Week, May 23, 1994, p. 95.

Source: International Directory of Company Histories, Vol.69. St. James Press, 2005.