Man of the Cloth

Article excerpt

When apparel maker Haggar Corp. rolled out wrinkle-free slacks that proved immensely popular in late1992, VF Corp.'s Lee unit was caught napping and forced to play catch-up. But it narrowed the gap in a hurry, producing its first lots in 1993, and pumping out some 6 million pairs the following year. Similarly, VF stumbled from the starting gate in 1994 when Sara Lee Corp. launched its new Wonderbra in the U.S. after the cleavageenhancing undergarment exploded in the U.K. Again, however, the $5 billion Wyomissing, PA, company caught up quickly, turning out a knock-off that underpriced the brandname entry and nailed down a solid chunk of market share.

There's a pattern here, one VF has used to great advantage in recent years. Let others-including Sara Lee and $6 billion archrival Levi Strauss & Co.make fashion headlines and take the initial risk of launching new products. Watch carefully to see what consumers are buying and then beat the pants off the competition with superfast distribution and a product that offers more value per dollar.

Sounds pretty fundamental. Indeed, in prizefighting parlance, this "second-to-market" approach might be described as counterpunching. But underpinning the strategy is a complex, computerized tracking system that keeps tabs on what retailers sell and automatically restocks their stores, generally within 72 hours. VF kicked off its first "market-response system"-a complex blend of merchandising, market analysis, satellite data transmission, and just-in-time manufacturing-in 1993, and the company is raising the bar with its MRS 2000 program. Reportedly, Levi Strauss is still working on full 72hour delivery capabilities.

"That's what we do best-figure out what the customer wants and get it to them quickly," says Mackey J. McDonald, who was named president of VF in 1993 and CEO this January, and charged with shepherding its powerhouse brands, including Lee, Wrangler, and Rustler jeanswear, Jantzen swimwear, and Vanity Fair intimate apparel.

"We do not consider ourselves trendsetters," says the CEO, who champions an everyday casual dress policy at the company, declaring that his personal favorite ensemble is a cotton Oxford shirt and-surprise-a pair of relaxed-fit Lee Jeans or corduroys. …