Whatever Works: Where Product is King
John Peterman ran some ads for a cowboy duster and built the $70 million J. Peterman catalog business. Mel and Patricia Zeigler discovered a cache of surplus French army shirts, ran small ads and parlayed them into Banana Republic. Ditto Lillian Vernon with personalized women’s belts and handbags.
For Larry Brown, it was … uh … a toe-straightener for six-toed feet.
Brown, 55, started out as a rookie in the Great Old Days of mail order, and has a repertoire of wild and colorful stories to prove it. He says he never chose the mail order business. The mail order business chose him—by way of his mother.
“A kid from the Bronx” who wondered why anyone would waste time in school when they could be making money, he got his first job at age 11, lifting air conditioners for a distributor near his home. He was paid the lordly sum of 25 cents a day.
After leaving the army in the late 1960s, he says, “I went to the garment center where all Bronx Jews go when they don’t know what else to do.” Eventually he finished school, cleaned up his act, and put on a tie to become an account executive at Burlington Industries on Madison Avenue. Where he slowly began to go mad from boredom.
He told his mother he was thinking of quitting Burlington to “bum around” for a couple of years until he figured out what he really wanted to do. “Not a smart thing to say,” Brown remembers. “In those days you didn’t tell a Jewish mother you wanted to be a bum—unless you spelled it ‘doctor’ or ‘lawyer.’ So after getting ‘the look,’ I agreed to go see my big brother Steve, for some sensible career advice.
“Steve was seven years older, and my exact opposite,” Brown recalls. “He was an idea man who liked to hang out in libraries and bookstores. I was a street kid who liked to hang out at the schoolyard and poolroom.”