Yale School of Management

Fifth & Pacific's William McComb on Turning Around an Ailing Retail Brand

Becton Distinguished Visitor

William McComb, who transformed Liz Claiborne’s ailing conglomeration of fashion brands into the billion-dollar company now known as Kate Spade, spoke to students at Yale School of Management on April 27 as part of the Becton Fellowship Program.

At age 37, McComb became the president of McNeil Consumer Healthcare, the over-the-counter drug business of Johnson & Johnson, where he was previously in charge of marketing. Moving from running a function, such as marketing, at a large corporation, to general management really means “learning the P&L,” he told students. “You really don’t learn it until you have one yourself, and you own every line item on it.” In 2006, he was hired, as an industry outsider, to take over apparel giant Liz Claiborne, with the brief to devise a strategy to save the then-struggling company.  Liz Claiborne became Fifth and Pacific in 2012.

Professor Ravi Dhar, George Rogers Clark Professor of Management and marketing, and director of the Center for Customer Insights, moderated the discussion, and Senior Becton Fellow Timothy Collins ’82, chair of the Yale SOM Board of Advisors and CEO of Ripplewood Holdings, introduced McComb.

At the beginning of McComb’s tenure, just before the economic downturn of 2008, Liz Claiborne was “a rudderless company,” he said, known more for its acquisitions and less for transitioning those acquired companies into growing businesses. To address this, he said, “we took a bold path forward.” In an unorthodox approach, and in a time when other companies were clinging to a department-store-based business model, McComb shifted Liz Claiborne, which would later become known as Fifth and Pacific, Inc., from a wholesale to a direct-to-consumer company, and shed most of its 46 holdings, ultimately retaining only one: Kate Spade.

“It was unbelievably hard,” he said. “Nobody [in the industry] believed in what we were doing… I was the outsider who saw the pillars collapsing on the industry. Those that had been there for 20, 30, 40 years, all the insiders, nobody could see what was coming until it was too late. And then all of a sudden I went from being the biggest jerk to a genius.”

In the end, the risk was worth taking: surrounded, as he said, by a team with passion for the business and conviction in their strategy, McComb turned what was a $75 million company when he began into one worth $1 billion before he retired in 2014.

“My best advice is always the same,” McComb told students. “While you are here, find your passion, and success will find you. “ 

About the Event

Please join us on Wednesday, April 27 at 11:45 a.m. for a Becton Distinguished Visitor speaker event with William L. McComb, former CEO at Fifth & Pacific Companies, Inc. Advance registration is required.

McComb will be visiting on campus as part of the Becton Fellowship Program, which brings distinguished practitioners from public and private institutions to Yale to elevate discussions within Yale SOM and to strengthen the School’s relationships across all sectors and regions of the world. He will be led in conversation with Professor Ravi Dhar, George Rogers Clark Professor of Management and Marketing & Director of the Center for Customer Insights.


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