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Colony Brands’ Baumann guides venerable catalog retailer into the digital age

John Baumann has seen a lot of change in his industry since taking over as Colony Brands' CEO in 1996.

John Baumann has seen a lot of change in his industry since taking over as Colony Brands' CEO in 1996.

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There was a time in America when corner groceries dotted the urban landscape, quarterbacks called their own plays, and family breadwinners worked at the same company for their entire careers.

That hardly happens anymore. Indeed, in an age when the average employee can be expected to work 10 or more jobs in his or her lifetime, John Baumann is an outlier among the outliers.

“From my standpoint, the paper catalog will always be an important part of our business.” — John Baumann, CEO, Colony Brands

The Colony Brands CEO has worked at precisely one company, thank you, and he doesn’t seem to be entertaining any plans to move on. In fact, his tenure at Colony Brands goes all the way back to 1984, when he was a summer intern for the then-Swiss Colony.

“Anytime during my career I’ve had a notion of leaving, that was quickly extinguished because there has been a lot of opportunity here,” said Baumann, who will speak on June 25 at the Madison Concourse Hotel as part of IB’s Icons in Business series. “A lot of good things have happened, and if I look at why I’ve stayed here as long as I have, it’s because I’ve been surrounded by great people and it’s been a very, very supporting culture.”

But while he no doubt has a lot of fond memories to look back on, Baumann can hardly afford to live in the past. His industry is threatened more than most by disruptive technology, and despite the quaint, Old World allure of a brand like The Swiss Colony (which still operates under Colony Brands’ umbrella), the modern world is constantly providing a reality check.

Big online retailers like Amazon.com would no doubt love to carve up old-school catalog retailers like a Christmas fruitcake, but the Monroe-based Colony Brands, which pioneered the food catalog business back in 1926, remains relevant, even as it adjusts to the shifting sands beneath its feet.

And having stability at the top spot (Baumann has been president and CEO of the company since 1996) surely hasn’t hurt. In his IB Icons presentation, Baumann will talk about the history of The Swiss Colony and Colony Brands, the company’s culture, and how that culture has helped the company weather business disruption over the years.

One of the biggest upheavals in the past few years was a rebranding effort in 2010 in which the company changed its name from The Swiss Colony to Colony Brands, Inc. For Baumann, that move was largely geared toward recruiting young talent and staying relevant in the eyes of millennials.

“We’d diversified quite a bit, and we came to the realization that by working under the umbrella name of The Swiss Colony people didn’t really have an understanding of all that we did here,” said Baumann. “In today’s fast-moving, competitive environment, we need to be able to recruit some very talented young people, and those talented young people did not understand what The Swiss Colony was.

“Under our umbrella here, we have 15 different catalogs and Internet retail businesses. We’ve got a manufacturing arm, we’ve got a wholesale arm, we’ve got a consulting arm, and we’ve got an aviation business, so there’s a lot going on here, and putting the name Colony Brands out there just helps us to open up that dialogue a little bit.”

Battling giants

Of course, in an age when online retailers like Amazon are top-of-mind for consumers who crave instant gratification, competing in the Internet and mail-order retail space requires a fair degree of savvy.

“No question about it, Amazon is a giant competitor and they’re very formidable,” said Baumann. “They have a great selection of product, they’re very quick with their shipping, and from a database perspective they really do a bang-up job. … But from a customer service perspective, we’re in pretty good position to give that personal touch to our customers, and we’re very, very easy to access by the phone or Internet. Our employees who work in our call centers have a very good command of our catalog business and the products that we sell, and there’s a certain personal element that we can put into a transaction with a customer that Amazon can’t, and we really have to hang our hat on that to a large degree.”

Baumann says that Colony Brands also sets itself apart from online retailers through the breadth of its offerings. Today, its signature mail-order food brand, The Swiss Colony, makes up only about 10% of its total business.

“That breadth comes in the different catalog brands that we have, which is also another form of differentiation from an Amazon,” said Baumann. “Amazon is basically one gigantic site. We’ve got 15 different catalog retail businesses, all with different brands, all with a little different feel, a little different selling proposition, and that gives us a little separation as well.”

(Continued)

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