I first met Lew Frankfort in the mid 1980s. I was just getting to grips with a move from making leather into a new role with greater focus on marketing and selling it. Coach was a small company then, nearer $50m if I remember correctly, but it was still a good target for a European tannery.
Pittards’ agent in New York at the time was owned by Pearce of Northampton, some of whose specialist materials Coach used in small volumes, and it was they who took me in. Selling volume side leather for mainstream Coach bags against the top US tanners such as Prime and Salz was a battle of a different dimension. Yet even 30 years ago Coach understood the importance of secure supplies of raw material to underpin their growth. Although I was not to find out until later Coach had undertaken a study to look for global tanners who would be able to help them as they grew internationally beyond the supply capabilities of their existing large US tanners.
More than any company I remember Coach taught me the value of identifying and maintaining the core qualities that make a brand successful with the consumer, and understanding the perceived values that the consumer applies to products that satisfy not just utilitarian needs but also emotional and psychological ones.
A man called Fred Freisenham
Early in my time in dealing with Coach our first 80,000 square feet delivery from Leeds got sent back and I had to drive up to Leeds to look at it filling space in the corridor and deal with a furious technical director who considered the leather perfectly suited for purpose. It was hard to see where it failed to meet the specification but the real issue was that Lew Frankfort had a gatekeeper, a man called Fred Freisenham who bought all his leather. Fred was a retired leather goods manufacturer who had been persuaded out of retirement to oversee the quality of the Coach of brand. His distinctive style was to become legendary. While I could not initially fathom his decision to return our first shipment I could see what he was about. The classic Coach leather and the bags were not so hard to copy and it was only when every detail about the leather, the components and the manufacture was perfectly controlled and united could you be sure that it was truly Coach. I soon was to learn that Fred had a subtle accurate touch and understanding of materials that had to be respected, which seemed quite at variance with his quite aggressive treatment of young British sales staff. Yet the Coach brief case I bought in New York in 1987 is still my main bag in use today, without having needed any repair or maintenance, and I know I owe that to Fred.
This dedication to quality always leads to loyalty from customers and Lew Frankfort is a man who believes in doing the research to understand the Coach customer. Very often he enjoyed talking us through his latest research findings. One I remember well was that the average US household that owned a Coach item would actually have at least six products in the house. I found myself asking all my US contacts as I travelled North America and generally found he was right. My wife has always liked Coach – only the full leather bags – so the six figure soon became a major underestimate for our household.
Change and change again
The early nineties saw some delicate manoeuvring and major changes. With Sara Lee Coach slipped into and out of different divisions and Lew Frankfort got elevated and suddenly found himself managing other categories, such as gloves. From the outside it did not look like a comfortable time.
And in opposition to all the market research I had been shown previously a decision was forced on Coach to go overseas with its manufacture; following a trend rushing through all American industry. So within a few years Coach ended up being floated as an individual entity and turned into an organisation more like Nike, with design and marketing in New York, but manufacturing off on an endless globetrotting exercise. Yet despite all this turmoil the brand never seemed to take a miss-step. The quality did not suffer and the consumer loyalty only grew.
There was a fleeting experiment in Europe, soon abandoned when the delights of the Asia offered hotter prospects first in Japan and then in China. Europe has just come back on the table in the last three years as a global brand has to be, well, global.
The Financial Times profiled Lew Frankfort a few years ago and it noted that he liked his new Aston Martin. After bringing Coach from $6m in 1979 to around $5 billion today and making shareholders, many employees and millions of customers very happy he can take a step back with real pride.
Major role for Northampton Alumni
And with one of our alumni, Mike Todd, now looking after all the Coach leather along with other good friends such as John Paintain, Soren Christiansen, and of course Doug Fleckenstein (who can still remember some of those far off days) one still feels Coach has the impetus to grow. Indeed in the now hugely expanded Coach organisation Northampton alumni now have a major role. Alumni working with Mike include David Wright, Steve Perry , Tom Walker, John Paintain.
But it will not be so easy. As raw material gets scarcer in terms of the growing human population more and more the best hides and skins are moving to the top end of luxury and the bottom of the market is being attacked by plastic. Sitting in their special niche of affordable luxury Coach will have to make leathers which are exceptionally clever, and design with wisdom, to maintain their quality and their longstanding customer loyalty. As we know in the leather industry nothing is simple, but quality always wins.
19th February 2013