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The Return of J. Peterman

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 catalog.

By Phyllis Hanlon

John Peterman ’63Excitement 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.

No, 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.

The 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 notes that some college literature professors listed the catalog on their syllabus as required 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 good.

Peterman 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 lessons.

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 and collaboration. 

The success of the J. Peterman catalog led to the establishment of retail stores bearing his name. The spaces he created, again unlike traditional stores, 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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