Succession is all about timing

COME May 9 this year, Josie Cruz Natori, owner and founder of The Natori Company, a multimillion-dollar lingerie business that sells in over 40 countries and employs a thousand people, will be 69 years old. Yet, when asked if she plans to retire in an interview sometime in 2010, she replied, “That’s not in my vocabulary. My father is 91 years old and still working. I have always believed there are no boundaries.” Exemplifying her own mantra, Josie Natori crossed continents, navigated varying careers, and surmounted countless obstacles, to create a global brand, Natori.

A succession story

Hence, it was a surprise when Josie Natori recently announced the promotion of her son, Kenneth, to president of The Natori Company. However, she clarified that she will remain CEO and active design visionary behind the iconic brand. According to her, she will continue to run the design, sales and merchandising, product development and production but she and Kenneth will work more closely on all aspects of the business.

Succession is a process

Kenneth will immediately take control of all finance and operations, while continuing to oversee the firm’s e-commerce, licensing, and public relations and marketing initiatives. He says, “As Josie’s son, I have navigated my role in our family business gently, and have mostly focused on running my direct departments. I have never been more excited about the future of the company and look forward to working with Josie to provide strategy, structure, leadership, and support to the entire company.” He has a strong business background as well as knowledge of PR, marketing and the media.

“I am thrilled to be promoting Kenneth to president. Since he left Wall Street to join the company in 2007, he has learned the business through his work in finance, single-handedly launched e-commerce, dramatically expanded our licensing business in size and breadth, and guided the expansion of our PR/marketing efforts,” says Josie.

A global brand

When the company was established in 1977, the world treated lingerie merely as sleepwear. Natori saw it as fashion. What started as a company selling lingerie has now turned into a lifestyle brand that includes lingerie collections (Natori Black Label, Natori White Label, Natori Underneath, and Josie), the Josie Natori ready-to-wear collection, home, fragrance and eyewear. It has offices in New York, Manila and Paris, and sales in over 40 countries all over the world. In 1986, home furnishings were introduced including bed and bath linens, robes, wraps and towels. In the same year, its fragrance line called Body Applique was also introduced. It included eau de parfum, scented body lotion, bathing gel, body powder, body soap and fragrance candles. In 1990, the company also expanded into a line of evening wear and separates (negligees, peignoirs, camisoles and slippers).

In Wall Street, she met her husband Kenneth Natori, a third-generation Japanese-American investment banker at Smith Barney Harris Upham, whom she eventually married in 1972.

With $150,000 in personal savings, no design training, manufacturing background or garment industry experience, Josie hired a freelance designer and started the venture in her living room. Over the next three years, she built a factory in Philadelphia and received orders from Saks Fifth Avenue, Neiman-Marcus, and Lord & Taylor. Her husband joined the company in 1985 to take charge of its financial side. By 1989, they were employing 900 Filipino craftsmen.

According to “Nation’s Business” (February 1995), friends and family members were key players in the early years of the company. Relatives helped cut the scalloped edges for 1,000 blouses and an uncle, a former surgeon, sewed the labels.

Way back in 1978, Josie recalls the important role her family played in the success of the business. She operated a 300-square-foot showroom then, which by 1983 had expanded to 18,000 square feet. The assassination of Filipino opposition leader Benigno Aquino in 1983 cut off her supply route to and from the Philippines, which almost sank her business, if not for the support of her family. Josie recalls, “By April 1978, we had a 300-square-foot showroom. By 1983, we had 18,000 square feet.

But when Filipino opposition leader Benigno Aquino was assassinated in August 1983, we couldn’t bring goods in or out of the Philippines because of the chaos. We lost a couple million dollars and missed the holiday season. I couldn’t have survived without my family’s help. You need deep pockets and a stomach of steel to make it in this business.”

Natori has been named by Yahoo as a “self-made immigrant millionaire” and furnished the accommodations for Pope Francis during his January 2015 visit to Manila.

“I love my work, but success in fashion is not enough,” says Natori, who sits on the boards of the Asian Cultural Council, the Orchestra of St. Luke’s, the Statue of Liberty-Ellis Island Foundation, Women in Need and the Fashion and Design Council of the Philippines. She is also a member of the CFDA (Council of Fashion Designers of America) and the Committee of 200. In 1988, Natori was honored for her achievements with the Galleon award, presented by Corazon Aquino, then President of the Republic of the Philippines. In 2007, Natori was given the prestigious Lakandula Award by then president Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, considered the highest honor for a Filipino citizen. She also received Fashion Group International’s prestigious Humanitarian Award. “I want to be able to give something back, to make a difference in people’s lives.” To that end, she established facilities in the Philippines to handle 50 percent of all Natori production.

What began with creating lingerie on her living room floor has evolved into a lifestyle. “Natori is a total concept, a way of life,” says Natori. “I just happened to start at the back door with lingerie. Now as the company grows, we grow our sensibility too, taking our concept and making it a whole world. As we say here, Natori is ‘where life meets art’.”

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