Dorrit J. Bern
Chief Executive Officer of Charming Shoppes
Born c. 1950; married Steve Bern (a business consultant); children: Chad, Collier, Tyler. Education: University of Washington, B.S. (business), 1972.
Addresses: Home —Barrington, IL. Office —Charming Shoppes, 450 Winks Lane, Bensalem, PA 19020.
Buyer for The Bon Marché and Joske's, both divisions of the now-defunct Allied Department Stores, 1970s; divisional vice president of misses/junior sportswear, dresses, outerwear, petite and large size sportswear and dresses and maternity, Sears, Roebuck … Co., 1987; group vice president of Women's Apparel and Home Fashions, Sears, Roe-buck … Co., 1993; vice chairman of the board, Charming Shoppes, 1995–97; CEO, president, Charming Shoppes, 1995—; chairman of the board, Charming Shoppes, 1997—.
Member: Fashion Group International; America's Women Business Leaders Committee of 200; board of directors, Southern Co.
Awards: Pennsylvania's Best 50 Women in Business Award, 1997; Women of Distinction Award from the Philadelphia Business Journal , National Association of Women's Business Owners and Forum for Executive Women, 1998; Greater Philadelphia Ernst … Young Entrepreneur of the Year Award, 2001; Moore College of Art and Design Visionary Woman Award,
When Dorrit J. Bern took over Charming Shoppes in 1995, the retailer, which operated the nationwide Fashion Bug stores, was hemorrhaging money to the tune of $100 million per year. "This company was so desperate—just a moment away from bankruptcy—that it wasn't anything that anyone else wanted, " Bern acknowledged to Chain Store Age. Bern welcomed the challenge and after a massive restructuring returned the retailer to profitability in two years' time. Realizing the growing market for plus-size fashions, Bern then used the company's healthy balance sheets to purchase plus-size competitors Lane Bryant and Catherine's Plus Sizes, turning Charming Shoppes into the nation's leading plus-size retailer with 40 percent of the market share. Revenues, which stood at $1 billion in 1995, hit $3 billion in 2005.
A native of Spokane, Washington, Bern was born in the early 1950s and was named after the Dorrit family from the Charles Dickens novel Little Dorrit.
Bern's mother worked for the retail clothing chain Grayson-Robinson's. On Sunday afternoons, while her mother did the payroll, Bern entertained herself by re-arranging the store displays. Bern's mother also spent time as a buyer for The Bon Marché, Seattle's oldest and largest department store. She took Bern along on business trips to New York's garment center. "When other people went to summer camp, I went to Seventh Avenue with my mother on market trips, " Bern recalled to the Seattle Times ' Sylvia Wieland Nogaki.
In 1972, Bern earned a business degree from the University of Washington, then worked as an assistant golf pro at a country club for a while before following in her mother's footsteps and becoming a buyer for The Bon Marché and its sister company, Dallas-based Joske's. In 1987, Sears, Roebuck … Co., looking to revamp its fledgling women's fashion division, lured Bern aboard and made her a divisional vice president overseeing women's wear. Known for its Craftsman tools and DieHard batteries, Sears had a hard time luring women into its stores. To remedy the situation, Sears launched the "Softer Side of Sears" campaign in the early 1990s; Bern played a key role in the campaign's success, ultimately turning Sears into a player in the women's retail market. By 1993, Bern was group vice president of Women's Apparel and Home Fashions.
Bern's work impressed top executives at the fledgling Charming Shoppes. The company offered Bern its chief executive officer position in a deal that included a million-dollar annual salary, stock options, and a million-dollar signing bonus. Bern said no because she did not want to relocate her family—her three sons and husband were thriving in the Chicago area. Eventually, Charming Shoppes struck a deal allowing Bern to commute from the family home in Barrington, Illinois, to its Bensalem, Pennsylvania, headquarters. Charming Shoppes agreed to pay her weekly airfare and pay for an apartment for use during the workweek. "It was a job made in heaven, " Bern quipped to Wall Street Journal Online reporter Joann S. Lublin. "All I had to do was save the company."
In August of 1995, Bern began her pre-dawn Monday morning flights to Charming Shoppes headquarters. She replaced most of the company's top management, then fiddled with the manufacturing process. To keep costs down, Fashion Bug used overseas factories but the lag time between order placement and delivery meant that the merchandise was often out of style by the time it arrived and did not sell without markdowns. Bern turned to domestic manufacturers for the newest, hippest items because of their faster turnaround time. Bern also shuttered hundreds of the retailer's stores, laying off about 2, 500 people—nearly one-third of its workforce.
Bern's bold moves put the company on solid ground by 1997 and Bern began looking toward the future. Realizing that plus-size fashions brought in the most revenue at Fashion Bug, Bern decided to expand that niche and acquired the Modern Woman chain in 1999. In 2000, Charming Shoppes bought Catherine's Plus Sizes and in 2001 it purchased Lane Bryant, the premier plus-size shop. These acquisitions gave Charming Shoppes a powerful hold on the plus-size market. In 2003, Charming Shoppes launched Figure , a magazine for plus-size women. In 2005, the company acquired Crosstown Traders Inc., a catalog operation that sells apparel, shoes, and gifts. The acquisitions positioned Charming Shoppes as a three-channel business, selling its merchandise in stores, on e-commerce sites, and through catalogs. Analysts expect sales in plus-size clothing to grow five percent a year, and Charming Shoppes is positioned to gobble up more of the market.
When department stores tried to jump on the plus-size bandwagon by offering lines such as Liz Claiborne Woman, Bern remained unfazed. "Our advantage is that we own this woman, " Bern told Forbes ' Mark Tatge. "We aren't like the department store that still buries the plus sizes on the third floor next to the maternity department." Part of Bern's success comes from catering to her customers. Her store walls, decorated with pictures of attractive, plus-size models, are meant to boost customers' self-esteem.
Over the years, Bern's innovations have moved beyond business concerns. Bern launched the Keeping Kids Warm campaign, which, over a ten-year period, gave away some 50, 000 new coats to needy kids across the United States. Bern also supports Philadelphia's Working Wardrobe, a non-profit that outfits welfare recipients with workplace attire when they re-enter the job market. Bern also writes a "Speaking Woman to Woman" marketing letter several times a year, which is mailed to customers. The letters deal with women's issues, such as domestic abuse, welfare-to-work and voting. Customers respond by writing back and this has opened up a dialogue between Bern and her clients. Bern receives 3, 000 pieces of correspondence a month.
The Greater Philadelphia Chamber of Commerce presented Bern with a 2006 Paradigm Award for her philanthropic efforts. "Dorrit Bern is a positive force in the Greater Philadelphia region, " chamber president Mark S. Schweiker said, according to a PR Newswire report. "She has incredible business savvy and also sets a fine example of how business leaders should give back to the community." The award came with a $50, 000 gift for her to donate to charity.
Bern, herself, is an anomaly in the business world. She is one of about 20 female CEOs running Fortune 1000 companies. Bern regularly travels to business schools across the United States to encourage women entering the field. Her advice, according to Chain Store Age: "Don't be afraid to take the hard jobs that no one else wants." It is advice that has served her well.
Chain Store Age , December 2001, p. 70.
Forbes , March 18, 2002, pp. 82–84.
Philadelphia Inquirer , August 18, 2005, p. C1.
PR Newswire, December 5, 2005.
Seattle Times , April 12, 1994, p. D1.
Women's Wear Daily , January 9, 2006, p. 8.
"Corporate Governance, " Charming Shoppes, http://www.charmingshoppes.com/aboutus/corp/ceo.asp (February 1, 2006).
"Dorrit Bern Turns Retail Operations Around, " Philadelphia Business Journal , http://www.biz journals.com/philadelphia/stories/1998/12/07/focus2.html (February 1, 2006).
"How One CEO Juggles A Job and a Family Miles Apart, " Wall Street Journal Online , http://www.careerjournal.com/columnists/edchoice/19971008-lublin.html (February 1, 2006).
— Lisa Frick