Linda Joy Wachner
Updated: Jun 2, 2019
Linda was a pioneer for women in business, she redefined the "possible" for women to achieve in the corporate world, and as most pioneers, she paid the price for it.
Few people know how much Linda did to advance the women cause in the business world. She broke every barriers at the time. She had worked at Warnaco before, and decided she should be running it.
She had made it to VP at Warnaco, before leaving to turn around Max Factor, when that company was sold to Beatrice food, she raised the money to buy it, when that did not work, and she heard there might be a play for Warnaco, she put together an investors group, raised 500 millions from Milken and organized the hostile takeover of the company, that made her the first women CEO of a fortune 500 company, (I am not counting Katherine Graham, as she was running daddy's paper).
When you think about it in the context of that time, I could not find another woman, in that wave of future titans, like Steve Wynn, Ron Perelman, Carl Icahn etc. Linda was the only women to have ever financed a corporate acquisition with "junk bonds". She broke into the club by sheer will and resilience.
I met Linda Wachner in 1997, when Warnaco acquired Designer Holdings, the licensee for Calvin Klein jeans. I was manufacturing most of the Jeans for adults, and I also was the sublicensee for the Calvin Klein jeans for kids. The acquisition made her my client and my licensor.
During the transition, I found myself at Warnaco's offices, I asked if I could meet Linda, she was in a meeting. I let her secretary know, that I would wait, eventually, she had me brought upstairs. Her meeting was not over, but she would say hello and goodbye.
"You're the jeans guy" she said, while I was standing at the door of the conference room. "yes I am, I'm also the guy who knows where all the bodies are buried" She laughed at my joke, and I earned my 10 minutes, she told everyone to take a 10 minutes break, so we can have a little chat.
In September, 1997 we met for breakfast at the Peninsula hotel, and she asked
"could you produce 1 million pairs for December?", I immediately said yes, then she added "could you make them for $10.00 instead of $11.50?", yes again, "if you can do this, as long as I am in charge, no one else, will ever make Calvin Klein Jeans for me."
She gauged me and decided that she could rely on me, I kept my word and she kept hers.
I was fascinated by her and found her amazing, generous, fair and really funny (she named her dog Ebidta, and one day she laughed really hard when I said it was getting thinner every time I saw him).
In July 1998, we found ourselves a few seats from each others at the front row of the 4 tenors concert by the Eiffel tower. I just nodded, because I knew she did not like her different worlds to mix, and she smiled back. Later she told me that she was crying during the concert.
On the other hand, she had no patience for mediocrity. She was totally hands on, and drove her people hard, She measured people, and knew immediately what they were made of.
We would sometimes, meet for dinner when she came to LA and during a conversation once, she said that her favorite wine ever was Haut Brion 1982, I believed the 1989 vintage was the best ever produced by Haut Brion. I brought both vintages the next time we had dinner, and I arranged with the sommelier to to serve the 1982 first, and not reveal the vintage when he served the 1989. Linda enjoyed the 1982, confirming it as her favorite. When the 1989 was poured, Linda, almost jump out of her seat. She agreed it was the best Haut Brion, and we had a wonderful dinner.
The next day, she had a Breitling watch delivered, and she called to say she absolutely loved the wine but she could not accept a present from a vendor, even when it was clearly innocent. I never could wear a watch my whole life, so I gave it to my son Stephan.
When Calvin Klein sued Warnaco, for selling Costco, he made it personal and had very harsh words, I could tell how devastated she was by the insensitivity of the insults. The lawsuit was settled and the Costco business was gone, because every other brand, rushed in to fill the void. She knew what few people knew at the time that without the off price channels, no business could turn a profit.
I admired her, but I also really liked her. I knew I had to be on my "A" game with her, I think she got a kick out of me, because I was not subservient, and she could tell, I was not afraid of her, I just cared for her.
In 1998 she bought the CK kids business from me. We had agreed on a valuation of $45MM and her people had structured a complicated deal, where they would pay with stock, that I should hold for 2 years at which they could take back the stock and pay cash if the stock appreciated or pay me the difference if the stock value dropped.
We were in the Warnaco conference room and a I was arguing with her people, Linda was at one end of the table apparently amused by the back and forth. I asked "why can't you just cut me a check?", and before her guy could answer, I heard Linda say "I will cut you a check!, now lets you and I, go have dinner"
In the car, she leans towards me and said "don't think, I forgot the interests cost, but you were a gentleman this afternoon". I had accepted to give a $1.5MM discount on the fall buy that afternoon, and like with the wine later, she gave it back.
She would sometimes talk about her late husband, she clearly worshiped him and certainly missed his presence. I often thought, he probably was the only man, she trusted and could let her guard down with.
After she left Warnaco, I never heard from Linda again. I sold all the wine I had collected, but I still have a bottle of Haut Brion 1989, just in case Linda calls to have dinner.