Mervyn Mandelbaum: His way

He built Superba into America’s number one tie company, selling it to PVH in 2006 for about $180 million. On his retirement, this widely admired industry icon shares a few success secrets.

Are you really retiring? Why? Yes, it’s time. PVH neckwear has an amazing team of people in place and it’s their turn. That said, I feel I’m one of the most fortunate people in the world: I always dreamed of running a neckwear business since I was a young boy working for my dad’s tie company in South Africa. And I’ve managed to live my dream.

How? I came over in 1977 and joined the Don Loper division of Superba in LA. They had great people but no leadership and I grew with them. I remember I’d tacked to my wall a list of the top 100 department stores at the time: we were in two or three of them. In the space of two years, we landed 92 out of the hundred. At that point, I knew we’d become the best in the world. When they asked me to buy into the company, I said I’d do it only if they’d move headquarters from Rochester to LA.

But what really accounted for Superba’s success? The success formula included passion, people, Italian design (our team still spends 100 nights a year in Como), domestic production (we still have 130 people making ties in LA), and a little luck. The success of our Stringbean (skinny) ties in 1980 is what made us.

What did you learn working with your dad, Solly Mandelbaum? Always be honest, no matter the consequences. (Unfortunately in today’s world, it seems only the consequences count.) The other lesson is one I’ve always taken to heart: if you manage your cash flow, the profit will take care of itself.

Other advice for young people: believe in what you’re doing and stay focused. Yes you need to multi-task, but don’t spread yourself too thin.

How is tie business these days? What could make it better? It’s surprisingly good. For the past few months, ties have been outperforming other categories of menswear at retail and AUR’s are inching up, bringing more sanity to the business. But more importantly, after a number of false alarms, I believe the narrow tie is about to explode. Would I bet my life on it? No. But if the odds were 20 to 1 last year, I’d say they’re 3 or 4 to 1 right now.

To improve business, we need to move away from a numbers mentality and focus on the creative. I can throw around numbers with the best of them but that’s not what this business is about. We’ve got to inject newness and refrain from putting the same ideas in every collection.

What are your thoughts on price increases and supply shortages out of China? Something’s got to give. Prices on raw silk have more than doubled in the past 15 months and the supply shortage is untenable. I don’t know if they’re hoarding or sitting on it or what, but it can’t be the sole result of India buying more silk for saris…
If I weren’t retiring, this would be a good time to take a sabbatical!

What were your best years? What will you do next? For me, the ultimate was the period [during which] I got to work with my two daughters: the 12 years Danielle was there and the four years Jackie worked with us. Jeannette and I plan to enjoy our five grandchildren (ages 15 months to 7 years) and travel: we’ve done surprisingly little leisure travel and I’d love to revisit South Africa and make it to Australia and New Zealand.

Will you still wear ties, now that you’re retired? I’ve never walked into this building (LA office) without a necktie. At the moment, I’m wearing a Robert Graham purple paisley tie with a lilac shirt and suit with purple deco stripe. I’m a little superstitious and wearing ties seems to have worked for me. Why risk it now?

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