Wilsons The Leather Experts Inc. History

7401 Boone Avenue North
Brooklyn Park, Minnesota 55428

Telephone: (763) 391-4000
Toll Free: 800-236-9976
Fax: (763) 391-4906

Public Company
Incorporated: 1996
Employees: 4,350
Sales: $571.54 million (2003)
Stock Exchanges: NASDAQ
Ticker Symbol: WLSN
NAIC: 448320 Luggage and Leather Goods Stores

Company Perspectives:

Wilsons Leather will be the preferred resource for quality leather products. We provide a superior assortment of quality, fashion-right, functional leather apparel and compatible leather accessories. We provide uncompromising value. Our mission is to be the preferred brand for quality leather to suit the unique needs of our targeted customers.

Key Dates:

Berman Brothers Fur Co. is established.
The company's headquarters move to Minneapolis, Minnesota.
Berman Brothers begins its transition from a wholesale to a retail operation.
The company has 19 stores in four states.
Berman Brothers is acquired by W.R. Grace & Company.
Lyle Berman takes Berman Brothers private in $99.3 million leveraged buyout (LBO).
The 163-store chain is sold to Melville Corporation for $230 million.
Bermans merges with Melville subsidiary Wilsons House of Suede, Inc. to become Wilsons The Leather Experts, Inc.
The company acquires and merges with Snyder Leather.
Wilsons acquires and merges with Georgetown Leather Design.
Investor/management group takes Wilsons private for $67.8 million.
Wilsons goes public.
Bentley's Luggage Corp. is acquired.

Company History:

With more than 600 stores in the United States and Canada and an 18 percent market share, Wilsons The Leather Experts Inc. is the leading specialty retailer of men's and women's leather outerwear, apparel, and accessories in the United States. The company distinguishes itself from many of its competitors by designing and contracting out the manufacturing of most of the apparel and accessories sold in its stores.

From Fur Trading to Leather Goods

Berman Brothers Fur Co. was established in 1899 by David, Ephraim, and Alexander Berman. The company was one of the largest hide and raw fur dealers in the upper Midwest in the early part of the century and sold its goods in Europe, the United States, and Canada. Lael Berman, granddaughter of David Berman, wrote in a Corporate Report-Minnesota article in 1976, "The company had survived the fur crash of the '20s and the Depression of the '30s, but by the '40s my father and uncle realized they had to get into something else if they wanted to stay in business."

The next generation of Bermans was faced with increased competition from small-town fur dealers as transportation improved. Instead of traveling to urban areas such as Minneapolis with skinned and stretched hides, trappers could sell whole animals to dealers who came directly to them and then marketed both the meat and the skin. In addition, long-haired furs such as wolf, skunk, raccoon, and red fox had gone out of style and prices for those skins bottomed out.

With the profitability of the fur-dealing business on the decline for urban dealers like Berman Brothers, Nathan and Morris Berman shifted to leather goods. They bought wild game hides, such as antelope, and contracted out the tanning and manufacturing of gloves, jackets, and moccasins. When declining sales forced some of their leather manufacturers to shut down, the company picked up that end of the business as well. In the process, the company was renamed Berman Buckskin.

The backbone of the business for about the next 20 years, according to Nathan Berman in a 1969 Minneapolis Tribune article, was fringed buckskin jackets and shirts. In the 1950s, the bulk of the business was wholesale. The fur trade had included frequent trips throughout North and South Dakota, Montana, and Wyoming: souvenir shops and western-attire shops in those areas were among the first to distribute their leather goods. A display truck helped bump up business, and the brothers picked up wholesale accounts throughout the West and Midwest.

In 1963, the company moved its growing retail operation and factory to a circa 1896, five-story, building located at First Street and Hennepin Avenue--a historic Minneapolis district in the midst of urban renewal--and prospered in the Age of Aquarius. The "hippie" look became chic in the 1960s, and Berman Buckskin cashed in on the fashion trend. Everyone from long-haired college students to straight-looking downtown businessmen came to the store. Dennis Cassano wrote, "A cowbell jangles in your ear as you open the door to a store lined with steer horns and deer antlers, with fur pelts draping the beams, and leather vests and dresses hanging from old wagon wheels suspended from the ceiling."

Retail Expansion Begins: 1960s-70s

While deer hunters still brought in skins for processing and the company still frequented state fairs and sports shows, future growth was clearly tied to the retail end of the business. Retail sales increased from 4 to 25 percent of business from 1967 to 1969. Lyle Berman, Nathan's son, was instrumental in the transition from wholesale to retail.

Lyle Berman joined the family business in 1964 after graduating from the University of Minnesota and for a time served as the only salesman in the retail operation. Banking on its success with young customers, the company opened a store in Madison, Wisconsin, but it failed within its first few years, primarily due to location. The Bermans then turned their sights to high traffic shopping centers and enclosed malls.

By 1976, Berman Buckskin employed some 300 people and operated 19 stores in four states--Minnesota, Wisconsin, Iowa, and Illinois. About 1.5 million 40-page retail catalogs were mailed annually. Sales were near $14 million, up from around $3 million in 1969. The company carried complementary items such as denim shirts and turquoise and silver jewelry in addition to a broad assortment of leather goods that included coats, jackets, vests, gloves, purses, briefcases, wineholders, and pouches. The wholesale business had been phased out, and Bermans had cut back on the manufacturing end of the business.

In 1979, W.R. Grace & Company, a New York-based multibillion-dollar specialty chemical company, bought the Berman family business. Lyle Berman stayed on as president of the 27-store chain and accelerated the expansion. When Grace began to divest some of its properties in the late 1980s, Berman led the management team in a $99.3 million leveraged buyout of the 163 stores.

In November 1988, or only 18 months after the purchase, Berman resold the company for $230 million to a subsidiary of Melville Corporation, a huge New York-based retailer. "One of the most satisfying days of my career was after we sold the company for a second time," Berman said in a March 1990 Corporate Report-Minnesota article by Terry Fiedler. "Because management participated in the buyout, I was able to hand 40 to 45 long-time employees checks from anywhere from $100,000 to $1 million."

Berman, who was also a championship-level poker player, did not stay away from the leather business for long. As part of Ante Corporation, a blind pool investment company, he used his solid reputation in the leather retailing business and longtime personal contacts to forge a merger with G-III Apparel Ltd., a New York importer and manufacturer of leather apparel.

1980s Merger with Wilsons

Wilsons House of Suede, Inc., the Melville subsidiary, was founded as a family business in the late 1940s and made the move to mass marketing in the 1960s. Melville acquired the 42-store chain in 1982. Leather apparel was a highly fragmented industry, and during the late 1980s Melville expanded its market share through opening or acquiring 30 to 60 stores per year. The company also added small regional chains, Leather Loft and Tannery West, to its holdings. When Melville purchased Bermans The Leather Experts, Inc. in 1988 it was merged with Wilsons and became the largest retailer of leather coats and accessories in the United States. Over 500 traditional stores were operated under the new name Wilsons The Leather Experts Inc.

The merger came at a fortuitous time for the leather industry. Movies like Top Gun and the "Indiana Jones" trilogy featured heroes in leather bomber jackets and fueled a decade of peaking sales in the 1980s. Melville purchased another regional chain, Snyder Leather, in 1992. Sales for the year reached $509.2 million, and net income was $23.5 million. Georgetown Leather Design was added in 1993. A total of 631 stores were in operation at the end of the year, which saw overall leather apparel sales peak at $2.7 billion.

Several factors converged in the 1990s to hamper Wilsons' fortunes. Technical advances in leather processing and increased foreign manufacturing resulted in the introduction of a higher-quality, lower-priced product. Mass merchandisers began carrying more leather items in the early 1990s. Overall leather apparel sales declined by $1 billion from 1993 to 1999. This weak consumer market and changing fashion trends yielded a comparable-store sales decline for Wilsons from 1993 to 1995. The company added large-format--4,000 to 6,000 square-foot--stores with a wider selection and price range in 1995, but toward year-end Melville announced that it would sell off the Wilsons chain as part of a major restructuring.

During the early 1990s, Lyle Berman took his poker playing expertise into the management end of the gaming industry. Grand Casinos Inc. was established as an Indian casino management company and grew into one of the largest gambling concerns in the United States. Berman sold $32 million worth of his Grand Casinos stock in February 1996 and bought back his old company from Melville in May. An investor/management group which included Berman and G-III CEO Morris Goldfarb, Wilsons CEO Joel N. Waller, and President David L. Rogers bought the chain for $67.8 million in cash and debt plus a series of warrants.

Wilsons announced plans for a $42 million initial public offering (IPO) in October 1996. Sales for the year improved but restructuring-related write-offs of about $182 million kept the company in the red for 1996, and the company had closed 156 stores. Despite the store closings, Wilsons maintained an estimated 18 percent share of the leather clothing market and 2.8 percent of the leather accessories market as it entered 1997.

Wilsons brought out a reduced IPO in May 1997 and netted $9.2 million. The 1.1 million shares represented 10 percent of the company down from the 28 percent announced in 1996. The company tacked on an option to buy additional shares in the future. According to Jill J. Barshay, in a May 29, 1997 Star Tribune article, the unusual move was made to lure investors to the offering during a difficult market environment.

"De-Seasonalizing" in the Late 1990s

In the late 1990s, Wilsons focused on reducing its extreme seasonality, with 55 percent of its yearly sales made during three months--October, November, and December. The company employed several strategies to offset this cycle. Wilsons opened its first airport store in 1994 and had 17 locations by 1998, including one in London's Gatwick Airport. Sales per square foot at these stores were twice that of mall stores, and peaked in May of each year. Wilsons also expanded its accessories lines, offering wallets, belts, handbags, briefcases, and gloves. These items carried higher profit margins than leather outerwear and sold well throughout the year. By 1999, they constituted nearly one-third of sales.

In 1998, the company bought 40 former Wallet Works outlet stores for $5.2 million. These outlet stores proved less seasonal than traditional mall stores and were used to move excess inventory left over from the holiday season. Capitalizing on its vertical integration, Wilsons also began to offer design and manufacturing services on a wholesale basis in 2000.

While employing these measures to reduce its dependence on fourth-quarter sales, Wilsons also sought to capitalize on its busiest season by operating full-size temporary stores out of vacant mall sites and holiday kiosks from October to December.

Wilsons continued to face a highly competitive market. According to the company, J.C. Penney was its most significant competitor. While many major department stores, specialty retailers, mass merchandisers, and discounters carried leather goods, Wilsons set itself apart through its brand names. The company segmented its products by age and lifestyle, offering urban, outdoors, and casual lines, including a line designed by tennis star Venus Williams. It also inked a licensing deal with NASCAR and Dale Earnhardt Inc. to create logo-bearing jackets.

The efforts to garner more sales in the first three quarters of the year appeared to be paying off in the waning years of the twentieth century. Sales increased from $422.6 million in 1996 to $619.9 million in 2000, and net income rose from $14.8 million to $40.4 million in the period.

In 2001, Wilsons acquired Bentley's Luggage Corp. for $34 million in cash. This move into the travel segment of the leather industry was yet another attempt to reduce seasonality. Wilsons launched a 25-store test of the travel store format, opening stores under the El Portal, Bentley's, and California Luggage Outlet names that year.

The events of September 11, 2001 proved devastating to the travel industry as a whole and to Wilsons' foray into retail travel accessories. The travel stores lost $26.4 million in 2001, precipitating what CEO Joel Waller called "the most challenging year in our history." Wilsons closed its 135 travel-product stores late that year and restated its balance sheet, but its difficulties continued. Sales declined to $571.5 million in 2002 (ended February 1, 2003), when the chain reported a whopping $80.9 million net loss.

The 2000s: Back to Basics

In his 2002 letter to shareholders, CEO Waller reflected on Wilsons "back to basics" strategy, wherein the company would refocus on its core customers, 26- to 37-year-olds, and emphasize traditional, classically styled, merchandise. Given that comparable store sales had declined in 2001 and 2002, the retailer also sought to increase productivity, even if that meant closing unprofitable locations. Comparable store sales continued to decline in the first half of fiscal 2003, albeit at a slower rate than the previous year. Overall sales also declined slightly as the company worked to reverse its downward trend.

Principal Subsidiaries: Wilsons Center, Inc.; Rosedale Wilsons, Inc.; River Hills Wilsons, Inc.; Wilsons Leather Direct Inc.; Wilsons Leather of Alabama Inc.; Wilsons Leather of Arkansas Inc.; Wilsons Leather of Connecticut Inc.; Wilsons Leather of Delaware Inc.; Wilsons Leather of Airports Inc.; Chicago O'Hare Leather Concessions Joint Venture Inc.; Airport Leather Concessions LLC; Houston Airport Leather Concessions LLC; Wilsons Leather of Florida Inc.; Wilsons Leather of Georgia Inc.; Wilsons Leather of Indiana Inc.; Wilsons Leather of Iowa Inc.; Wilsons Leather of Louisiana Inc; Wilsons Leather of Maryland Inc.; Wilsons Leather of Massachusetts Inc.; Wilsons Leather of Michigan Inc.; Wilsons Leather of Mississippi Inc.; Wilsons Leather of Missouri Inc.; Wilsons Leather of New Jersey Inc.; Wilsons Leather of New York Inc.; Wilsons Leather of North Carolina Inc.; Wilsons Leather of Ohio Inc.; Wilsons Leather of Pennsylvania Inc.; Wilsons Leather of Rhode Island Inc.; Wilsons Leather of South Carolina Inc.; Wilsons Leather of Tennessee Inc.; Wilsons Leather of Texas Inc.; Wilsons Leather of Vermont Inc.; Wilsons Leather of Virginia Inc.; Wilsons Leather of West Virginia Inc.; Wilsons Leather of Wisconsin Inc.; Wilsons Leather Holdings Inc.; Wilsons International Inc.; Wilsons Leather of Canada Ltd.; Wilsons Leather of Hong Kong Ltd.; Wilsons (UK) Limited; Wilsons Leather Gatsland Limited; Wilsons Leather Gatsair Limited; WWT, Inc.; El Portal Group, Inc.; Travel Supplies.com, LLC; Bentley's Luggage Corp.; Florida Luggage Corp.

Principal Competitors: J.C. Penney Company, Inc.; G-III Apparel Group Ltd.

Further Reading:

  • Apgar, Sally, "Berman Buys Leather Retailer Wilsons--For 2nd Time," Star Tribune (Minneapolis), May 29, 1996, p. 1D.
  • Barshay, Jill J., "Wilsons Raises $9.2 million in IPO, Selling 10% of Firm," Star Tribune (Minneapolis), May 29, 1997, pp. 1D, 2D.
  • Berman, Lael, "Hide 'n' Chic," Corporate Report-Minnesota, August 1976, pp. 51-53.
  • Burrows, Dan, "Wilsons Net Plummets; Travel, Weather Cited," WWD, March 6, 2002, p. 24.
  • Cassano, Dennis, "Berman Buckskin Gallops Ahead on Western Trail," Minneapolis Tribune, November 10, 1969.
  • Earley, Sandra, "Wilsons' Leadership May Buy Out Chain," Minneapolis/St. Paul CityBusiness, November 3-9, 1995, pp. 1, 40.
  • Fiedler, Terry, "Blind Faith," Corporate Report-Minnesota, March 1990, pp. 39-42.
  • Friedman, Arthur, "Wilson: Making Itself The Brand," WWD, September 28, 1999, p. 12.
  • Kafka, Peter, "Berman Group to Buy Wilsons Back," Minneapolis/St. Paul CityBusiness, March 22, 1996, p. 2.
  • ------, "Men in Black Leather," Corporate Report-Minnesota, September 1997, p. 66.
  • Karr, Arnold J., "Wilsons Hit With $51.6 m Loss," WWD, August 26, 2002, p. 12.
  • Lipke, David, "Wilsons Signs Deal to Rev Up NASCAR," Daily News Record, April 21, 2002, p. 10.
  • McCartney, Jim, "Leather Retailer Survives Crash of Bomber Jackets by Diversifying," Knight Ridder/Tribune Business News, June 16, 1998.
  • Melcher, Richard A., Dale Kurschner, and Ronald Grover, "You Gotta Know When to Hold 'Em," Business Week, September 9, 1996, pp. 66, 68.
  • Parets, Robyn Taylor, "Grand Casinos' Lyle Berman," Investor's Business Daily, March 19, 1996.
  • Palmieri, Jean, "CEO Joel Waller Keeps Wilsons The Leather Experts True to Its Name," Daily News Record, July 13, 1998, p. 18.
  • Romero, Elena, "Wilsons at 100 Seeks Fountain of Youth Sales," Daily News Record, December 28, 1998, p. 1A.
  • "Wealthiest Minnesotans," Corporate Report-Minnesota, May 1991, p. 74.
  • "Wilsons to Close its Travel Stores," Chain Store Age Executive Fax, November 22, 2002, p. 2.

Source: International Directory of Company Histories, Vol. 58. St. James Press, 2004.