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A Fallen Retail Star Shops for a New Outfit

Kathy Bronstein, who was fired as CEO of apparel merchandiser Wet Seal, wants to get back in the game. But is the industry ready for her?

October 26, 2003|Leslie Earnest | Times Staff Writer

Kathy Bronstein steered her way through Bloomingdale's at the Fashion Island shopping center in Newport Beach, running her hands along velour sweat suits, pleated miniskirts and ribbed T-shirts.

"Nice jacket, nothing different," she said, examining a $350 coat before burying her fingers in a furry vest. "Fur vests -- yawn, yawn. Basically, it's the same thing as last year."

Bronstein wasn't bored. The former chief executive of teen-apparel retailer Wet Seal Inc. was just monitoring the merchandise -- and plotting to get back in the game.

Eight months after she was abruptly fired as the company's sales were sinking, Bronstein is looking for work. Enough already with the beach walks, Pilates classes and brownie baking.

"I'm looking for a small business that I could purchase, build and take public," Bronstein, 52, said. "I need that excitement and passion. I need the thrill of figuring it out."

But does retail need Kathy Bronstein? She had a strong reputation as a merchant and was credited with building her old company, based in Foothill Ranch in Orange County, into a chain of 600 Wet Seal, Arden B and Zutopia stores. But she left on a nasty, well-publicized down note, which could drag behind her like a dead weight.

People who have been fired "carry all that baggage" when they try to shift to a new career, said Jeffrey Christian, founder of Christian & Timbers, an executive search firm. And sometimes, he added, displaced executives need to settle for "a smaller win" in the next job.

There are, of course, scores of ousted executives who have bounced back, such as Debby Hopkins, who was Lucent Technologies Inc.'s chief financial officer and is now head of corporate strategy at Citigroup Inc.

Others, including former Mattel Inc. CEO Jill Barad and Warnaco Group Inc. chief Linda Wachner, have not resurfaced -- though both secured multimillion-dollar severance packages and probably don't need to.

"Firing doesn't have the stigma it used to have," said Judy Rosener, a professor at UC Irvine's Graduate School of Management, who said she met recently with Bronstein and talked about what her next move might be. "It's the way in which she was fired that makes her story dramatic. People are fired all over the place, and they all go back."

Bronstein did leave with a healthy financial cushion. As Wet Seal's chief, she was one of the highest-paid female executives in Southern California. In 2002, her salary rose 21% to more than $1 million. She also earned a $228,000 bonus, $80,777 in lieu of vacation and a $10,000 automobile allowance.

To sever ties, Wet Seal recently agreed to pay her more than $3 million in compensation and allowed her to exercise stock options worth millions more.

Money, however, isn't Bronstein's main motivator. She represents a breed of career women who are unwilling to slide into oblivion after having held supercharged jobs, Rosener said, noting: "Psychologically, not to have a card with a title on it, that's hard."

Bronstein, a divorced mother with an 11-year-old girl, has learned plenty about herself in the months since she was unceremoniously dumped by the company where she had worked for 18 years, 11 of them as chief executive.

On Feb. 6, the day she was fired, Wet Seal Chairman Irv Teitelbaum told her that "he thought my management style was not conducive to a positive business trend," Bronstein said during a recent interview at her Newport Beach home.

"We spoke about it briefly. I asked him for further explanation, and he said there really wasn't any further explanation. He gave me the opportunity to say goodbye to the executives and said he felt it would be best if I left immediately."

She did. Wet Seal was struggling -- 2002 earnings had plummeted 86%, while same-store sales -- a key measure of growth -- had dropped 5.6%. Still, Bronstein said, she was stunned:

"I came home. I cried. I talked to my family. I talked to my ex-husband. And that was it. There wasn't a whole lot I could do."

She did try to retrieve her two dogs, Sassy and Snickers, whom she had taken to doggie "boot camp" in Malibu two days before for three weeks of training.

"I immediately called the boot camp and said, ' "Can I get my dogs back? I just got fired from my job of 18 years.' And they said, 'No, it really wouldn't be a good thing,' " Bronstein recalled. "When you really need your dogs the most, when you really need that emotional support, they weren't here."

Wet Seal has declined to say specifically why Bronstein was fired. Reached for comment, Teitelbaum said: "I have absolutely nothing to say on this issue."

The Corporate Ladder

It didn't take Bronstein long to scale Wet Seal's corporate ladder once she made the leap in 1985 from San Diego apparel retailer Fashion Conspiracy. Seven years after she was hired as general merchandise manager, she was named chief executive of Wet Seal, which had recently gone public.

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