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Jennifer Marks

The Way to Go

January 30, 2009

As this super recession unwinds, I keep thinking about a comment billionaire investor Wilbur Ross made in 2005 to contributing editor Brent Felgner.


Ross had just lost a tussle with fellow billionaire investor Carl Icahn for the assets of WestPoint Stevens, was out shopping the world for textiles mills and, as he sat for an interview, reflected upon the impact the loss of manufacturing would ultimately have on the United States.


“I don’t believe that an economy that’s based on flipping hamburgers, trading stocks and suing each other can…sustain a high standard of living,” he said.


It struck me as right when I first read it, and over the past several months as the financial tsunami has washed over almost every business in the land, I’ve thought about it frequently.


It came to mind again today when I ran across a piece Fortune ran last month titled “8 really, really scary predictions.” Ross was one of the eight moguls weighing in with their prescriptions for the future. Here’s what he had to say:


“If president Obama promptly and decisively resolves these problems, whether or not he adopts my recommendations, and restores public confidence, he can end the recession by early 2010. If not, the economy will languish for a long time.”


These days Ross is buying distressed financial companies.


As for the home textiles industry, there are some suppliers out there with the wherewithal and the moxie to look toward putting some deals together, even now. And as suppliers continue to shed employees, some of the seasoned ones will come bouncing back with entrepreneurial business models to address an evolving market.


And at retail, after all the dust has settled and more stores have closed, something else is going to come in to occupy the space. It probably won’t be just one thing coming in; it could be several. It could be a smaller operator moving aggressively onto the cleared field. It could be a new consumer-direct model. It could be an off-shore retailer jumping the pond. It’s probably going to be something so simple we all slap our foreheads in frustration for not having thought of it first.


Which brings me to another remark that’s been rattling around in my head this week. I interviewed Beanstalk Group ceo Michael Stone last week about the licensing agency’s new project for HGTV. We were discussing the current retail environment and its impact on licensing agreements. He said he’s concentrating on having product ready to hit the market in 2010 when, one hopes, the economy begins rebounding.


“I tell our people not to let deals die on the vine in 2009 because of aggressive financial requirements. Focus on getting product to the markets.”


That sounds like a good way to go to me.