He created a unique, multi-million dollar empire and then
watched it crumble.
But John Peterman '63 is on the comeback trail with a new book and a revived
By Phyllis Hanlon
danced in the room as the stranger strode purposefully through the door, ankle-length
duster flapping around his long, lean legs. The rugged wide-brimmed cowboy
hat rode low on his forehead, revealing only a pair of wire-rimmed glasses
perched at the tip of his nose. An expectant hush enveloped the audience as
this mystery man approached the front of the room and spun
on his heel.
this isn't an excerpt from a J. Peterman Owner's Manual but the stir created
by the "real" John Peterman '63 when he returned to Holy Cross recently to share
his personal experiences in a lecture titled, "The Painful but Essential Art
of Failing." At the invitation of Nancy Baldiga, pre-business advisor and associate
professor of economics, Peterman addressed the pre-business program as part of
the Ciocca Entrepreneurial Seminar Series. Citing the six keywords of his personal
business concept-unique, authentic, romantic,
journey, wondrous and excellent-Peterman launched into the tale of his exploits
from start-up to demise.
Peterman's legendary tale of the duster is well known. Bought in Jackson Hole,
Wyo., on a whim, this coat represents the beginning of a $75 million dollar empire.
But it was not simply the duster that planted the seed for his company. "It
was the concept of individuality and romance, not the product, that prompted
me to start the business," said Peterman.
J. Peterman catalog, better known as an Owner's Manual, exemplified
an eclectic blend of class, individuality and literature. Long, flowing
romantic copy accompanied beautiful watercolor illustrations. Peterman
some college literature professors listed the catalog on their syllabus
reading. "I broke all the rules of a catalogue, but
I didn't know I was breaking them," he said. "I've gone against the grain all
my life." So popular were these catalogs, Peterman noted, some customers would
buy an item every now and then just to remain on the mailing list. In spite of
dire industry predictions, the catalog mailing lists reached a monumental 18
million names before production ceased.
Even though he was brimming with ideas and long on determination
and passion, Peterman admits that he knew very little about financing a company.
An economics major, he confessed that statistics and accounting were his two
worst subjects. His initial efforts to obtain venture capital funding achieved
a 100 percent rejection rate. "I was on the brink of extinction as an entrepreneur
in the beginning," Peterman said. Fortunately, he added, Hambro America charged
to the rescue to the tune of $1.2 million, giving the company the impetus it
needed. More funding followed, sales increased, and life was
continued to earn name recognition as the popular television sitcom Seinfeld added
a J. Peterman character to its cast. "Suddenly, 50 million people knew who J.
Peterman was," he said. Besides the excitement of Hollywood, Peterman fulfilled
a lifelong dream of traveling to exotic locations. His buying trips to such faraway
places as Hong Kong, Bangkok, Malaysia and various European cities brought unique
items to his catalog and satiated
his thirst for adventure.
Throughout his talk, Peterman equated many of his business experiences
to his years on the baseball diamond. With the support and encouragement of
his parents and his own innate determination, Peterman realized his lifelong
dream of playing in the major leagues. Four years as third baseman for Holy
Cross prepared him for a three-year stint with the Pittsburgh Pirates. Although
short-lived, those summer seasons taught him a number of valuable life
Peterman based his business philosophy on some basic baseball principles. He
cited the team of high-priced athletes that George Steinbrenner assembled to
play for the Yankees. "He put together a bunch of stars, but there was no team
work," he said. "Joe Torre later put together good players who demonstrated team
work." Peterman ran his business team with the same concentration on equality
The success of the J. Peterman catalog led to the establishment
of retail stores bearing his name. The spaces he created, again unlike traditional
were reminiscent of "granny's barn." He said, "I wanted to take the feeling
of rummaging through treasures like old trunks and pictures and put that into
the retail stores." Once again, critics shook their heads and Peterman watched
as retail sales reached twice the national average
per square foot of space.
Unfortunately, shortly after the launch of the retail business, his ship began
to sink. "I was trying to go too fast and hit a brick wall," he said. "Revenue
was slipping, the banks began pulling credit lines, and there was a flurry of
activity to save the ship."
Now that the dust has settled, Peterman is ready to climb back into the saddle.
In fact, he already has one foot engaged in the stirrup. He cherishes a life
that has been a merry-go-round comprised of baseball, cowboys, travel and dreams.
In his parting remarks to the group, Peterman emphasized that a business must
be based on concept. "Pricing, finance and marketing are not the only aspects
to consider," Peterman said. "It takes vision, heart and having the courage to
fail." Unafraid of risk, Peterman has lived this philosophy all his life. This
June, the ride resumes when the next installment
of the Owner's Manual is scheduled for release.
Phyllis Hanlon is a free-lance journalist from Charlton, Mass.
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