Monday, September 26, 2016

Lands’ End Finally Ousts Polarizing, Disastrous CEO – But Can It Fix Its Own Stupidity?

With today’s departure of its misbegotten, short-lived fashionista CEO, retailer Lands’ End has a chance to right its past wrongs and rise again.  But can it do it?  Will it, for example, follow the path of a resurgent Apple, or that of its former owner, Sears, thought by some to be near bankruptcy? 

Lands’ End retailer was once a successful and popular seller of well-made and comfortably-fitting casual clothing.  It was founded in Chicago initially as a seller of sailing gear and gradually transformed itself into primarily a clothing retailer.  It expanded with a move to southern Wisconsin and became a strong national brand. 

Then disaster struck.  The first blow was its sale to Sears in 2002.  Quality took a sharp dive no doubt as the accountants squeezed the bottom line.  At the time Sears took over I think most of my dress shirts, polo shirts, neckties, and casual pants, and all my socks and underwear, were from Lands’ End.  My wife was also a big customer in clothing for not only herself but for our kids, and household stuff like bedding and towels was mostly from LE.  But with new purchases after the Sears takeover we noticed gradually cheapening fabric, poorer fit, and declining quality.  We began buying less and less.

Finally Sears, struggling itself, released Lands’ End from bondage in April, 2014, spinning it off as once again a stand-alone company.  Then a remarkable thing happened.  The new Board of Directors decided to abandon the company’s deservedly eroding customer base and transform itself into a retailer of “fashion forward” trendy hipster clothing.  It hired an Italian fashionista of the New York City glitterati set to pursue the transformation.  Out were comfortable shirts and shoes and rain gear and in were stiletto heels.  The new CEO, Federica Marchionni, wondered, peering westward and downward across the Hudson River from her Manhattan penthouse, Bellini in hand, just who in the hell would actually wear the clothes Lands’ End was selling.           

Then came the coup de gras for long-suffering Lands’ End.  To signal their bona fides to all the right people – the bicoastal liberal elites and hipster glitterati – the new CEO and the Board decided to enter the Culture Wars.  Lands’ End celebrated one of the most polarizing figures in America – ultraliberal, radical “feminist” and abortion extremist Gloria Steinem, who once is said to have said that a woman needs a man like a fish needs a bicycle.  The special, prominent catalog homage to Steinem was a marvel of incoherent incompetence – celebrating a woman likely to be anathema to its core customers and utterly unfamiliar to the sought-after young urban hipsters.  Negative reaction was swift, and I posted a note about the disaster at the time (link).  In comments to articles all over the web, outraged customers, those still left, vowed to abandon Lands’ End.  Although my family’s purchases were way down from a decade earlier and gradually declining, we were still occasionally buying some things like sheets and jackets.  That came to an abrupt end and we were done with Lands’ End.

In late July, LE reported results for the three-month period February through April of 2016, the first financials after the late-February celebration of Gloria Steinem.  As only two of the three months in that period were after the catalog’s appearance, the full effect of the Steinem glorification and taking sides in the Culture War is not reflected in these numbers.  Here is the bottom line – LE reported a net loss of $5.8 million, compared to a profit of $1.7 million in the year earlier period.  All in all, a disastrous financial report.

Now today, nine months almost to the day after that ill-fated adulatory splash on Gloria Steinem, the hipster, fashionista CEO is out.  She lasted 21 months. 

The Lands’ End stock price also tells a sad tale.  From February 27, 2015, the last trading day of the month that Marchionni took over as CEO, through September 23, 2016, the last trading day before today’s announcement of her departure, Lands’ End stock was down 51%.  In other words, in the short time that the new hipster CEO was in place, Land’s End stock lost more than half its value.  Furthermore, at the close of trading today on the day of the announcement, LE stock dropped another 14%, investors no doubt fearing that the not-yet-reported recent financials are even worse than imagined given the firing of the CEO.  Losing two-thirds of a company’s stock value in 21 months is not easy, but the LE Board has managed to pull it off.

The articles I’ve read in the past year on this ongoing story typically spun the Lands’ End problem as one of rubes in the hinterlands bitterly clinging to their “frumpy duds” and refusing, like truculent children, to follow the lead of a sensible NYC fashion leader who is simply trying to help them improve themselves.  Rarely a mention of the Gloria Steinem contretemps, of course.  Example: a Marchionni-admiring Wall Street Journal article of May, 2016, is subtitled “At the catalog retailer, frumpy duds are out.”  The Board of Directors apparently buys into all this nonsense.

The sorry saga of Lands’ End, damaged first by Sears and then bled further by an incompetent Board and CEO, provides a well-worn cautionary tale for American business.  It’s as Barack Obama, no doubt a role model for the now departed elitist, hipster LE CEO, once said – “don’t do stupid stuff.”  But as Obama has failed to learn over and over and over again, to America’s detriment, that's easier said than done.  The Lands’ End saga shows us, not that we really need yet another demonstration, that not being stupid is, for some people, harder than it looks.  Can the Lands' End Directors fix their own stupidity?  We’ll see.  They could take a promising first step by all resigning.


R Balsamo

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Thursday, September 22, 2016

La Traviata at Michigan’s Harbor Country Opera

You don’t always have to be in a big city to find opera.  The other day we enjoyed a wonderful performance of Verdi’s La Traviata, the world's most popular opera by the world's most popular opera composer, in the sleepy little town of Three Oaks, Michigan.  The hamlet sits amidst corn and bean fields a few miles inland from the Lake Michigan shore in the southwest corner of the state (surprisingly only 90 minutes from downtown Chicago).  The production was the latest offering from Harbor Country Opera.  [“Harbor Country,” for those who might be wondering, is the somewhat fanciful marketing label that the local Chamber of Commerce cooked up for a string of Lake Michigan shore beach towns in the southwest corner of Michigan, an area that contains but a single actual harbor.  Furthermore, Three Oaks is included in this trademarked marketing “region,” despite being seven miles inland.  Whatever.] 

McMurray, Caraman, & Steyer (L to R) in HCO's La Traviata
Harbor Country Opera is a little gem, and its majordomo Bob Swan, an opera singer himself, has been staging productions for quite some time.  In recent years we have taken in, for example, a most enjoyable showing of La Boheme and a wonderful concert by Isola Jones, the famed Met star, accompanied by Bill McMurray and John Concepcion.  That La Boheme was a full production of the opera in the large auditorium of the high school in New Buffalo, the one town in Harbor Country with an actual harbor.  For La Traviata the setting was the small stage at the Acorn Theater, a modest space in a converted factory that once made corset stays from turkey feather quills when whalebone was getting hard to come by.  Fortunately, corsets went out of style before turkeys became hard to come by.  Swan and company put on a production of the major scenes from the opera, with a cast of essentially the three main characters who do most of the singing in the complete opera.  The performers were in full costume, though understandably the set was minimal.  A narrator explained the story line between scenes.  La traviata means "the fallen woman," and the libretto is based on La Dame aux Cam√©lias – The Lady of the Camellias, a play adapted from the novel by Alexandre Dumas, fils.  The camellia flower in bloom is an iconic image for this opera.

The voices were strong and clear, and the acting was convincing.  I don’t know how Swan managed to get performers of this caliber to this rural corner of Michigan, but he did.  Christine Steyer was Violetta, the consumptive courtesan, Emanuel-Cristian Caraman was her paramour Alfredo, and Bill McMurray was Giorgio Germont, Alfredo’s father.  All three have extensive performance resumes, and in fact McMurray appeared in the above-mentioned La Boheme as well as in concert with Isola Jones.  The baritone-soprano complex duet between the elder Germont and Violetta, in which he seeks to convince her to forego her loving relationship with his son for the sake of his family’s reputation, is one of my favorite duets in all of opera.  And the touching “Parigi, o caro” duet between Violetta and Alfredo, in her last moments, was splendidly done.  All in all, a wonderful show from a wonderful cast.  And notably, the bar was stocked with chilled Prosecco, a Venetian sparkling wine appropriately served and enjoyed at an opera that debuted at the storied La Fenice opera house in that very city.

At HCO’s “Broadway Blitz” show earlier this summer, Bob Swan introduced the show and mentioned some recent health trouble.  The other day he looked stronger, a most welcome sign for fans of Harbor Country Opera.  Salut, Mr. Swan.


R Balsamo

Tuesday, September 13, 2016

Lyric Opera Under the Stars – 2016


The opera gods had their way last Friday and stopped the light drizzle just as the concert began.  It turned out to be a beautiful evening under the stars at Chicago's lakefront Millennium Park for the annual Stars of the Lyric Opera concert.  

The concert, though, was a bit more mixed than the weather.  The new regime at the Lyric does not seem overly-enamored with Italian opera, and the concert as well as the new season reflects that (just two of the upcoming season's eight operas are Italian, with not a single Verdi or Puccini; but in fairness the two chosen – Norma and Lucia – are two of the very best). Selections from four of the new season's eight planned operas were performed, highlighted by mezzo Tanja Ariane Baumgartner's appearance in a flaming red dress as Carmen for the habanera, which she sang wonderfully.

Other than the selections from Carmen and Lucia and a crowd sing-along of the stirring Va Pensiero chorus from Nabucco (a highlight of last season), there wasn't much red meat, operatically speaking, on the bill.  No duets or trios, and just how many concerts feature not one but two bass arias?  I was hoping for a selection from the upcoming Berlioz masterpiece Les Troyens (The Trojans), which I have been studying, but no dice, and nothing from Norma.

Nevertheless, a wonderful way to spend a Friday September evening by the lakeshore, gratis, thanks once again to the Lyric Opera.

R Balsamo