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John Peterman

John Peterman
The many lives of J. Peterman
by Robin Rusch
April 5, 2004

Co-founder and CEO of the J. Peterman Company from 1987 to 1999, John Peterman became a household name when he was portrayed as a character on the American sitcom “Seinfeld.”

Yet despite three years of free exposure to 50 million viewers and a reported peak of US$ 75M in annual sales, Peterman sold his brand in bankruptcy in 1999. When the company that bought the brand itself went out of business in 2001, Peterman bought the name back with the help of John O’Hurley, the actor who played J. Peterman on “Seinfeld.”

This circuitous turn of events seems perfectly suited to the serendipitous hero, whose two alter egos – J. Peterman, the character from the apparel and furnishings catalog, and O’Hurley, the “fake” Peterman – allowed him to perpetuate the myth and mirth surrounding the brand.

 
 

We sat down for a cup of coffee with the man behind the brand. Dressed in a flannel shirt, blue jeans, and black cowboy boots, with a pair of round glasses perched on the end of his nose, the once second baseman for the Pittsburgh Pirates thoughtfully discussed the brand’s ups and downs with a touch of his catalog’s characteristic adventurer’s voice and no hint of the buffoonish boorishness of the “Seinfeld” character.

I was on the redeye coming back from the West Coast. I got in the office in the morning and they said, ‘You were on “Seinfeld” last night.’ I said ‘No I was on an airplane.’ So I saw the [video] tape and that was the first I heard about the J. Peterman character on ‘Seinfeld.’

So there was a great churning discussion about ‘Oh this guy’s a buffoon. He’s preposterous. He’s a coward. He’s not at all like you.'

I said, ‘Well it’s probably good he’s not like me because then no one would watch it. He’s all of those things but he is funny. And let’s see, 50 million people see the name every week so I think it’s okay.’

Well, the Soup Nazi (another real-life based character portrayed on the ‘Seinfeld’ show) was on at the same time and he didn’t like being the Soup Nazi so he sued them. So the attorneys went to the producer and said you know if you are going to go forward with J. Peterman, maybe you better call him and ask him. So I used to get the script about six weeks in advance, and I’d just sign off and send it back.

I thought it was pretty funny. And it didn’t offend me at all.

The interesting part was that most of the people watching ‘Seinfeld’ didn’t realize we were a real company. Our customers got the inside joke but they didn’t buy any more because of it. ‘Seinfeld’ never affected our business. It didn’t hurt us but it didn’t help us.

When [actor John O’Hurley] and I walk down the street here, people walk up to him and say ‘Hey, J. Peterman, how are you doing?’ I just keep my hands in my pockets.

J. Peterman in the nineties got a cancer. And we didn’t realize that the cancer was a proliferation of products. More products. More people. More inventory. More overhead. More products means less special products. And the idea was to grow, grow, grow.

Had I been smart, back then, I would have slashed the number of products, slashed the overhead and taken the company back to a profitable position of probably $45 to 50 million.

Simplistically that’s what should have happened. I didn’t do that because I didn’t realize what the cancer was. It’s easier to analyze the battle when the battle is over than when you’re in it and someone is shooting at you.

I’ve taken it back now to where each item is special. They are the things that are going to take you back to another time and place; they are special.

If I had to define a Peterman item it would be romantic – not in the hold hands, kissing sense, but in the romance of travel to another time and place that is more interesting than where you are today. It would have to be unique, authentic – it would have to come through an authentic past. It would have to be interesting or wondrous as in ‘I wonder where Peterman found this.’ And they’d have to be of excellent quality. Those are the terms that would define a Peterman product.

It’s not something you could teach in a classroom. I have a merchandiser with me who started out with the old company and she’s back out there. She’s resilient. She’ll find [an item], and I say, ‘It’s very nice but it’s not Peterman’ and I’d explain what’s not Peterman about it.

Then I’ll say ‘Isn’t this great?’ and she’ll say ‘Now what do you see in that?’ And so I’ll have to explain; it’s a process. A lot of this cannot be articulated, which is a problem. It’s my eye.

[With the ‘new’ J. Peterman Company, we] haven’t changed the concept at all. I think that if your concept is good then you shouldn’t change it. We’ve always stuck to who J. Peterman is and what the brand is and what it stands for.

We don’t own any of our own stores and we’re not going to. We’re in over a 100 retail stores around the country with our furniture – that’s the licensing. As we license other products, they’ll be in the retail stores. And that’s how we’ll penetrate the retail market.

I’ll do licensing under two main criteria. Number one is that I control the product. Total control of the product and total control of the creative. J. Peterman must speak – the brand must speak – with one voice no matter what the product. And I’m not about to have my name put on product that’s crap.

There’s a distinction between J. Peterman the brand and John Peterman the man. John Peterman is not the brand. J. Peterman the brand has fought in three world wars, he’s 200 years old, certainly been around and done stuff. And the fact that I’ve done as much as I have and traveled as much… still, I’m separate from the brand. I’m not Martha (Stewart).

There’s a couple of [people] who understand Peterman and have a good eye. There’s a transition period but many companies go on when the founder dies or gets out. Even if [the brand is] named after the founder. In fact, the brand might even grow quicker. Sometimes you get in the way.

One thing I do is take advantage of living life. Rarely have I lived a [straight] line. It’s like a heart monitor. Up and down. Very happy, very sad. But if you never experience the bottom, you’ll never appreciate the top. And we’ve got to understand that just like the heart monitor, as long as it’s going up and down like that, you’re alive. When it straight lines, you’re not alive.

 
  
As told to Robin Rusch.
     
 
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