Designer Genes

President and CEO Josh Feldman has taken Tori Richard to the top of its game.

For Josh Feldman, it’s still a mystery why his late father Mort Feldman – one of the original founders of Tori Richard Ltd.—asked him, the youngest child, to rush over to Hawai’i in 1994 to help save the family’s resort apparel business.

At the time, many would have seen the younger Feldman, who was 22 and wouldn’t even wear the product, as an unlikely savior. He hadn’t worked in the family business since he was a teenager and even then he had left his shipping department job for a higher-paying one at local restaurant.

Even so, tapping the baby of the family to help restore an ailing company to greatness was a gamble that paid off for the elder Feldman, who was such a risk taker that in the 1970s, he famously let a coin toss decide the price for a large purchase of unprinted Japanese fabrics. Flash forward a couple of decades and Josh Feldman has succeeded his father as the company’s president and CEO and guess what—he’s impeccably attired in a Tori Richard original, a long-sleeve, turquoise and white ocean patterned shirt that hasn’t even hit the market yet.

“When we see Josh, we all want to dress better,” says Gary Hogan, the CEO of Hawaiian Hotels and Resorts and Royal Pacific Air. “He’s pretty humble, but from the sidelines, you can see from the fashion side to everything else, he’s done a phenomenal job at Tori Richard.”

Feldman wears his leadership role well. Friends say he’s got style, he’s got, well you know, verve… that elusive quality that animates art. He’s the spark Tori Richard was lacking as it approached its 40-year point a tired shadow of its former self. He’s the passion that keeps the company relevant as it hurtles toward 2016, which will mark the sixtieth anniversary of what has become one of the world’s most recognizable resort brands. Like most visionaries, Feldman doesn’t like to be weighted down by the past. He’s not the kind of guy who wants to be compared even in a complimentary way to his celebrated father, whom he adored in spite of his artistic obsessions and brief penchant for bedazzled aloha shirts.

“Nepotism always lingers in a family business. That’s a dirty word to me,” Feldman says. “Certainly, I was given opportunities, but it’s what you do with those opportunities that define you. I certainly didn’t grow up hungry, but I’ve been in this business when it was essentially like walking barefoot in the snow.”

Feldman is referring to the existential crisis of his 20s, when he arrived in Honolulu to help repair a business that was suffering from his father’s 15-year absence and the company’s then-CFO advised him to consult a bankruptcy attorney.

“I was a very frightened 22-year-old, who was fighting for the survival of our company, which was failing through no fault but our own,” Feldman says. “My dad did a number of different things and this one was ignored.”

The father-son duo never did meet with a bankruptcy attorney. Instead, they got a family loan, which helped them to make payroll and bought them enough time to figure out how to turn the ailing company around. With a background in art, the younger Feldman gravitated to redeveloping the company’s product and print lines, while at the same time rebuilding its mainland sales office and distribution.

“My father and I were almost in the same situation. He had the wisdom and experience, but he hadn’t used it in 20 years. We learned together,” Feldman says. “When you go through an existential crisis, it forces you to distill what is important to you and to the company. In the end, it all came back to product. You can have the best customer service and the lowest pricing, but if the product isn’t compelling it’s all for naught.”

The company had started as a leader in women’s resort fashion and was rooted in the elder Feldman’s talent for print textile design. By the 1980s, it had morphed into a predominantly menswear dominated company. However, the company stopped evolving when the elder Feldman decided to pursue his dreams of building a boat and retired to New Zealand with his wife June and her son Josh. Without a Feldman at the helm, the business drifted from its core strengths. By the time the two returned, the company’s volume of mainland business had shrunk to about 5 percent with the bulk of its transactions generated in Hawai’i. The younger Feldman quickly focused his attention on cleaning up the men’s line, reintroduced the engineered print and revived its women’s line.

“Nobody had any titles back then, but it was my job to rebuild the product and the mainland sales team where a lot of our business comes from,” says Feldman, who is credited with bolstering the company’s growth rate to more than 600 percent during the course of those important sink or swim years.

The company expanded with its 2006 acquisition of Kahala Sportswear, which was the first company in 1936 to commercially produce Hawaiian shirts, known locally as “Aloha Shirts.” Today, the company’s products are sold in over 2,000 better specialty and department store locations throughout the world.

Despite all the changes, Tori Richard is still headquartered in Hawai’i, where it has 140 employees and 10 company owned retail stores.

“We’ll always be in Hawai’i. We’re a brand partly about Hawai’i so we don’t have a lot of credibility if we aren’t here,” Feldman said. “Tommy Bahamas has been successful, but it’s built on a false construct. We want to be authentic.”

Feldman’s friend Sean Hehir President & CEO of Trinity Investments says he deserves a lot of credit for keeping Tori Richard alive and taking it to the next level in Hawai’i and elsewhere.

“He took over Tori Richard at the lowest point in the firm’s history as a young man with zero business experience, and he turned it around,” Hehir says. “Now, Tori Richard is almost a state treasure. It’s the only luxury brand that we have in the state of Hawai’i that goes out there and competes on a global level.”

Through trial and error, the younger Feldman developed the balanced business style that he is known for today.

“The best way to summarize Josh is that he’s the most balanced person that I know,” Hehir says.

On the one-hand, Feldman is a maven of change. Under his leadership, Tori Richard became the first manufacturer and retailer in Hawai’i to install a $1.1 million commercial photovoltaic system, which supplies 94 percent of the electricity needs for the company’s corporate headquarters and warehouses in Honolulu. His favorite quote is one that has oft been attributed to auto manufacturer Henry Ford, “If I’d asked my customers what they wanted, they’d have said a faster horse.”

While Feldman encourages progress, like the new line of quirky colorful socks the company is debuting this fall, he doesn’t like to take uncalculated risks, especially when it comes to debt.

“If we can’t write a check for it, we can’t afford it,” he said. “A banker once told me that I had a very conservative balance sheet. I said, ‘thank you.’ He said, ‘I didn’t mean it as a compliment.'”

In a rare comparison, Feldman describes his dad as a “true entrepreneur,” and himself as more of a “businessperson.”

“There’s a difference in the level of risk taking,” Feldman says. “Entrepreneurs are inherently ADD (attention deficit disorder). It’s their job to create an entity … it’s a businessperson’s role to run it. I have other interests, but this is my only business.”

Friends like Stephan Jost, the director of the Honolulu Museum of Art, say that Feldman is driven to run his late father’s company well and takes great pride in his staff.

“Take a tour of his workshop and he will know everyone, and says, ‘Oh, this is where John uses this machine to fold these shirts or look what Sally does over here with the fabric,'” Jost says. “He also is aware that while the brand has been around a long time it must be forward looking.”

That’s exactly right, Feldman says. As the company moves into its next 60 years, keeping it relevant will be his number-one priority.

“Hawai’i will look very different, we’re already seeing it evolve in Kaka’ako,” he said. “As that happens, we’ll need to change so that we can continue to reflect the different cultures in Hawai’i. I love that we have a part in creating something that helps people express themselves now and that this is something that we can continue to do in the future.”

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