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Brown Jordan International changes CEOs but keeps its direction

Brown Jordan International named James R. Malone as vice chairman, president and chief executive officer, replacing Bruce R. Albertson, who left to pursue other interests. The designer, manufacturer and marketer of outdoor furniture remains dedicated to its current direction and programs.

"BJI is at a key and exciting point in its development," said Earl W. Powell, chairman and CEO of BJI parent company Trivest Partners. "Having Jim on board provides the experience, leadership and vision required to effectively capitalize upon and develop BJI's many market opportunities."

Malone said BJI will "remain dedicated and focused on the core strategies of its contract, specialty retail and national account channels throughout this transition. Initiatives such as Elegant Out-doors will continue to be at the forefront of our efforts as we continue to develop this new retail channel."

Bill Echols, president of BJI's retail and contract divisions, agreed with that view. "On the specialty side of the business, I see us continuing down exactly the same path we're on now," Echols said. "Our board, Trivest and Jim are all 100% behind the initiatives we've got, especially our Elegant Outdoors initiative."

BJI's recent announcement about its plans to open a prototype Elegant Outdoors store in Houston by March 1, 2005, caused concern among some retailers. One wondered whether specialty retailers should start manufacturing since it appeared another manufacturer was going to compete for retail dollars; he noted Summer Classics and Woodard already are involved. Another said he found the alternatives interesting, but thought vendors should remain flexible because retailers find it "harder to buy so much upfront." Other retailers took a wait-and-see approach.

Financial concerns and a constant stream of employee changes have characterized the company over the three and a half years since WinsLoew Furniture acquired Brown Jordan International, then the parent company of Brown Jordan and Casual Living Worldwide. Soon after Albertson replaced Bobby Tesney as CEO in 2002, the name WinsLoew was changed to Brown Jordan International to build on its high-end reputation and its headquarters moved to Pompano Beach, Fla. Several key executives left the company.

Reached after the most recent departing key executive announcement, Albertson said he felt he had been successful as an agent of change. During his term, BJI developed a business equation that competitors would have a hard time matching, he said. "I really enjoyed my time in the industry," Albertson said. "I met a lot of really fine people and made a lot of good friends inside Brown Jordan as well."

One such long-time friend is Chris Carmicle, president, national accounts division. "On the national accounts side, we have decided we are really going to continue our focus on better product development — bringing better products in at great price points, focusing on shipping on time," he said "It was no secret we had to spend a lot of our last year and a half recovering from the exodus of former management. We have recovered.

"We are getting ready to begin shipping a fabulous year in our national accounts division and we're going to continue to build on that momentum for future growth for the 2006 summer," Carmicle said. "So the strategies that are in place, we're going to just further implement."

Malone described a trade magazine editor's recent description of Albertson as controversial as "an unfair shot." Then he added, "I would accept it as a positive as Bruce being a change agent, certainly internally with Brown Jordan, and I would argue that he represented a big change in the industry. Change is always controversial; too often that is taken as a negative and I think that would be unfair, at least in my experience in dealing with Bruce."

Malone did not want to be referred to as a change agent or a turnaround expert, despite the experience he brings. "I would prefer to say we help underperforming companies and we help companies at different levels of transformation," Malone said. "I've got to tell you I think this company is an absolute gem and has wonderful people, products and a great strategy. I hope I can add a little bit of value to it and be of help to everybody.

"Each individual CEO has their own style and specific ways of doing things," Malone added. "I guess mine is a pretty inclusive way. Strategically, I like the business heads, such as Chris and Bill, being able to run their shows. My job is to help them have the appropriate resources and to get out of their way and let them use their God-given and time-learned talents. That's not a specific answer, but it's truthfully my style and my enthusiasm for the opportunity we have here."

Echols said the majority of BJI-related rumors that circulated within the industry over the last couple of years had no basis in fact. "We can't address every one of them and we can't stop people from talking, but our message is: We're still committed to the industry, the company is strong, our plan is still our plan and if people think that our direction will change just because there's was a change in the CEO, they've made a big mistake.

"The company has a clearer direction today than anybody else in the marketplace," Echols said. "We have a vision of how we can improve the industry, make our dealers financially stronger and more viable as a marketplace where consumers go to shop. I think we have a plan and a strategy for how to attract more consumers into the products we sell, manufacture and distribute. Brown Jordan, I think, has been a leader and will continue to be a leader."

Financial health check

In answer to questions about BJI's financial health, Malone said its financial picture continues to improve since the restructuring last spring.

"Certainly our industry is no different than a lot of the U.S. economy; it has been a slow comeback subsequent to our national tragedy a couple of years ago," Malone said. "That is happening to our industry and it's certainly happening in our company. We're tracking behind our bottom-line plan, but we're tracking ahead of our top-line plan.

"We have absolutely zero interest in diminishing the size or the presence of this company," Malone said. "To the contrary, we believe the industry as a whole presents huge internal growth, internal profit improvement capabilities and external capabilities — both on an vertical basis and on a share basis."

"We're going to continue to focus on improving our performance as a company, but our strategy remains clear," Echols said. "I think our focus will stay in the direction that it has been to continue to grow the business and to provide not just attractive furniture to the market but to provide better business ideas and plans for the markets we serve."

Asked if he would be visible during trade shows, Malone said he walked the floors during the Casual Market in Chicago, attended the industry party BJI co-hosted and the Apollo Awards banquet. "I view my industry visibility role as being supportive of our guys who live, breathe, eat, sleep and know the industry," Malone said. Not coming from the industry, Malone plans to reach out to longtime players in and outside the company and to BJI's dealers to help them be more profitable.

Dealers' feedback about BJI's cruise incentive program, based only on the early-buy period was taken into consideration as it was restructured for January 2006. "What we did was listen to our dealers and we went to an annual program so they have a full year to qualify."

BJI is leaning toward the official July 13–15 premarket in Chicago "and trying to support what the industry wants us to do," Echols said. But BJI will wait to decide until all the details are finalized.

Former BJI president and CEO Bruce Albertson said he has enjoyed his time in the industry and considered himself an 'agent of change.'

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