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Chinni Set to Revive Fortunoff Brand

Uniondale, N.Y. —Stabiliziation and turnaround are the two key immediate challenges for Charles Chinni, newly named chairman and ceo of Fortunoff.

“Fortunoff is an iconic brand — I've referenced them for years during my career at Macy's and JCPenney,” Chinni related. “The big problem is that they were slow to change from a formal lifestyle to a casual lifestyle that consumers were adopting, but the franchise is really solid.”

In a recent letter to vendors as he took the reins of the Fortunoff business, Chinni said “I believe there is no other retailer who has the opportunity to serve a customer and their special occasion needs from their engagement through their wedding and throughout their home environment, like Fortunoff.”

Replenishing inventories, because of the company's Chapter 11 status in recent months, will be an important element of the stabilization as well as letting customers know they are in business.

But while home is a major portion of the company's business, Chinni's immediate challenge is to plan and open Fortunoff fine jewelry departments in the 47-unit Lord & Taylor retail chain that also is owned by NRDC. In early March, NRDC completed the purchase of Fortunoff out of Chapter 11 bankruptcy. The rollout of the jewelry departments into Lord & Taylor is his second priority for the year.

Looking ahead, “we will continue the rollout of the outdoor furniture stores in 2009. There already are 14 outdoor stores — which convert to indoor furniture from September to January — and new stores already are in the capital budget for next year. They have been an incredible success.” NRDC has noted the potential for as many as 300 outdoor units. New outdoor furniture stores and prominent direct business expansion are priorities, he said in the letter.

Another opportunity expressed by NRDC executives before the acquisition became final was the potential to integrate Fortunoff's home business into Lord & Taylor, now strictly an apparel retailer. Years back, Lord & Taylor was an important force in better and high-end home furnishings. “We will develop a plan for this this year.”

The growth initiatives, he noted in the letter, “will be phased in as part of our five-year plan.” He added “we look forward to reestablishing and reinvigorating our partnership. It is important to note that we are now newly capitalized with a $125 million working line of credit and an equity infusion of $50 million.” He added that the Fortunoff team has been directed to contact suppliers personally “to finalize our future partnership strategy on being part of the NRDC growth opportunity.”

Looking at specific home categories, Chinni cited window coverings as especially strong. “I ran the biggest window business in the country at JCPenney. Fortunoff has maintained its major commitment to this business in space, merchandising and product. It has a more upscale customer than Penney — 25% of its window business is in silk.

In bedding, the store's private brand “Hotel Linens” is a big business “and raises the question of whether and how we have the opportunity to do more private label with a celebrity or designer,” noted Chinni who shepherded the Chris Madden home program at Penney. Overall, “we are a full-line designer store, the key designers are a very important part of the home mix, and we give them lots of attention and service.”

As for the full-line stores that now number four, Chinni said “we are reviewing the opportunity for more. We've been successful with them, but didn't keep pace with the changes in lifestyle.” Currently there are full-line units in Westbury, N. Y., White Plains, N. Y., and Woodbridge and Wayne, N.J.

Chinni succeeds Arnold Orlick, who joined the company in 2006 and left earlier this month. Joining Chinni as new to the store's executive ranks is Don Watros, who has been named vice chairman in addition to his current role as NRDC's managing director of retail operations. He joined NRDC in 2006 and was chief administrative officer for Saks Fifth Avenue before that.

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