George Feldenkreis — a Cuban refugee who got his start as a small importer of guayaberas in 1967 before taking over New York fashion house Perry Ellis International 32 years later — announced Wednesday that he will step down as the company’s chief executive officer in January 2016. His son, Oscar, will take over day-to-day operations.
Feldenkreis, 79, will continue in his role as chairman of the global retailer, although his title will become executive chairman.
“It’s not a goodbye,” Feldenkreis said in a telephone interview. “I will still be very involved with strategic decisions. But I’m getting to a situation in life where I want to be able to spend some times helping the charities I’m involved in.”
Feldenkreis is a trustee of the University of Miami and sits on the board of directors at the Greater Miami Jewish Federation, the Simon Wiesenthal Center and the American Friends of Rambam Medical Center.
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The company best known for its colorful, casual men’ clothing has struggled to break a profit in recent years as some of its smaller brands failed to grow. The company’s best known fashion lines include Perry Ellis (its premier brand), Original Penguin, Jantzen, Savane, Cubavera and Rafaella.
Perry Ellis missed revenue targets at the end of last year as its supply chain broke down during a slowdown at West Coast ports, and faces a proxy fight from an activist investor based in California. The publicly traded company is a major employer in Florida with more than 1,000 employees.
Results improved in the first quarter of 2015 as the company beat analyst expectations, reporting $266 million in revenue for the quarter, up 3.5 percent. The company’s stock is up 10 percent since the announcement.
Feldenkreis came to Miami in 1961, seeking a visa for his son Oscar. Then came the Bay of Pigs incident. There was no going back.
“For a Cuban refugee that came here with $700, it’s a great American story as far as I’m concerned,” Feldenkreis said. “I’m so proud to be in America. This could only happen in America. Whatever I have achieved, I owe it to this country.”
The financier Carl Icahn, a friend of Feldenkreis for many years, called his accomplishments “incredibly impressive.”
“Although I don’t own Perry Ellis, anyone that bought the stock over the last few years must be extremely pleased with the profit on their investment,” Icahn said in a telephone interview from his office in New York.
Perry Ellis’ stock tumbled to $3.60 per share during the heart of the financial crisis. It now stands at $26.50.
The younger Feldenkreis, who will take over as CEO, has worked at the Doral-based retailer since 1980, becoming president and chief operating officer in 1993.
The retailer also faces a proxy fight from an activist investor, Legion Partners, which plans to run candidates for three open board seats at the next shareholders’ meeting in July. The California-based investment firm has criticized the company’s performance and said that its governance structure does not allow adequate, independent oversight.
Together with the California State Teachers’ Retirement System pension fund, Legion owns 6.3 percent of Perry Ellis stock.
Although Legion has called for the separation of the chairman and CEO role in the past, the firm’s managing partner Chris Kiper said Wednesday that Feldenkreis stepping down as CEO did not go far enough.
“More change at Perry Ellis is required due to the domination of the Feldenkreis family,” Kiper said.
Oscar Feldenkreis countered that the company has made progress by shedding unprofitable brands, opening up its own retail stores, and focusing on sales in Latin America and Europe, as well as e-commerce.
“We’re a much, much more focused company today,” Feldenkreis said. “I think we’ve made a lot of headway and changes over the last two years.”
Feldenkreis has also been nominated for a seat on the company’s board of directors, along with Bruce Klatsky, former chairman and CEO of the Phillips-Van Heusen Corporation, an apparel company, and Michael Rayden, former president and CEO of Tween Brands.