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Joy at Work

William Taufic

The great ones make it look easy. Fred Astaire never broke a sweat, Cary Grant never lost his cool, and Audrey Hepburn never seemed rehearsed. You could say the same for the business world, where those who achieve and maintain success have a way of making everything seem effortless. All it takes is long hours, talent, knowing how to both lead and be part of a team, and a finely honed sense of perspective — a balancing act that New Canaan resident Joy Herfel, who is the president of Polo Ralph Lauren Menswear, accomplishes with unerring grace. “I’m pretty low profile,” she says modestly. “There really is only Ralph here. There’s one voice, there’s one vision and a lot of good people who help make it happen.”

has built her way in terms of her position,” says Ralph Lauren, “and she now is very highly thought of throughout our industry. She’s the perfect example of what I think of as a working woman who’s done a great job with her life — in terms of her importance, her success — and someone who, at the same time, has kept her sensibility very clear. And when I see her in New Canaan occasionally with her kids in the back of the station wagon, she’s very much a mom. Always, always charming, and not uptight in any way. She’s a home run.”

The legendary Ralph Lauren style, which has entered into the public consciousness through not only his timeless fashions but also all those sophisticated and sumptuous print ads, envelops you like a well-cut jacket the minute you step off the elevator into the company’s two-story lobby. With its dark paneling, muted lighting, sporting prints and massive leather chairs, you could easily be in a gentleman’s club in the days between the wars; the only anachronistic hint that no manservant will silently pad up with your drink on a silver tray is the large flat-screen TV in the corner, showing the Fall 2008 women’s wear collection on an endless loop. We met Joy Herfel here (she works in a different part of the building) because — as she explained — should her meeting run long, the lobby would be “good people- watching.” It was.

In slim, cream-colored wool trousers and turtleneck, Joy looks remarkably like someone in a Ralph Lauren ad as well as a top-flight executive. Her spacious corner office is a casual and bright environment, decorated with modern blond wood-and-glass furniture (Ralph Lauren, of course), family photos and a live tree in a huge blue-and-white jardinière. “You want a laugh?” she asks, looking closely at the pattern on the jardinière. “I have those pants at home, and those sheets.” The windows overlook the kind of Manhattan view that should be accompanied by “Rhapsody in Blue,” and she remembers feeling a little like Jimmy Stewart in Rear Window when she first moved in, peering down into office life across the street. Now she doesn’t even notice — there’s just too much to do; she goes flat out from the moment she gets off the 6:20 train every morning.

She joined Polo as a retail analyst in 1989 and quickly moved up the proverbial ladder. (“We noticed her right away,” says Ralph Lauren.) “In each step I took in my career, I wouldn’t say, I want this: I want to run sales, I want to run merchandise, I want to run a division some day,” she says. “I just wanted to come in and do a great job every day, do the best job I knew how to do. And there were people here who guided me, taught me real significant things along the way. By some grace of God, each one of those people came at a unique time. Whether it was Ralph, Roger Farah [the chief operating officer] or my current boss, they each brought a totally different perspective. They made me a better executive, and a better person.”

“We all want to get our two cents in about our Joy,” says Jacki Nemerov, the executive vice president of Polo Ralph Lauren to whom Joy reports. “Joy is one of those people who seems to find more than twenty-four hours in a day. She has an amazing ability to juggle and balance so many things … a demanding career, a busy travel schedule and a rich family life.”

In 1998 Joy was promoted from vice president of sales and merchandising to president of Polo Ralph Lauren Menswear (the company is structured with various divisional presidents). This means she is responsible for wholesale distribution of menswear to department and specialty stores in the United States, Canada and Mexico, and the distribution of Polo Ralph Lauren Golf and Tennis for both men and women to resorts and country clubs in the United States. “That’s the part that’s probably the most remarkable,” she says. “When I started with the company, you could pretty much say we were a men’s wholesale company. There were our own stores that we licensed to various people, but we didn’t have anything other than Polo Blue Label. So, radical, radical changes as the company moved forward.

“Ralph’s vision is always the umbrella,” she continues. “What Ralph wants to get done, obviously, is what we all work toward, but the operational expertise, to be able to leverage different strategies, required people that weren’t on board ten years ago. You can’t be a business the size of what we are today — and as global as we are today with a huge presence in Europe and Asia — without changing. I think the company had to, in order to be the most powerful iconic brand in the world today. The reach is tremendous. And when I talk about my vision and my focus at work, I know I can say I have the best head of marketing, the best head of finance, the best salespeople. I have an unbelievable team, and I know I wouldn’t be anywhere near as successful if it weren’t for them.”

“Joy really has worked her way up from the bottom to be one of our most senior leaders,” comments COO Roger Farah. “She’s a superior lady and a superior performer with an amazing combination of skills: merchandising skills, people skills and strong leadership skills. I certainly appreciate all of those, particularly the role she takes within the company. She’s always enthusiastic, she’s always a contributor in terms of corporate-wide initiatives, and she’s thirsty for knowledge. And to do all that and raise little children at the same time? She’s Superwoman as far as I’m concerned.”

Joy Herfel grew up in Pound Ridge and Bedford, in what she describes as a very traditional family. (“My mom still can’t believe all four of her daughters work,” she says with a grin.) She was always attracted to fashion — with three sisters, an interest in clothes was somewhat of a given — but she never thought she’d wind up in the fashion industry until the accelerated business degree program at SUNY Oneonta, which offered a final year at the Fashion Institute of Technology. Her parents were not about to let her traipse off to “Sin City,” so she commuted to FIT, then got her start in the B. Altman’s training program.

Joy’s father was a film and television director who, when her career began to take off, gave her a deceptively simple piece of advice that would shape the way she has conducted her life: Find a way, he said, to separate job and family.

“He claimed that he could never separate the two,” she reflects. “But I thought he did a brilliant job of it. That was the most impressionable thing that anyone ever said to me: Find a way. I think a lot about priorities and that balance — how to have a successful career and raise a family well — and I guess I’ll never know whether I’ve been totally successful until my kids are grown. If they’re happy and fulfilled, that will be the ultimate test of whether I’ve done the right thing. And I have a huge support structure: great child care, my family’s in the area, Tom’s family is right in town.” She smiles. “So far I’ve been fortunate that it’s all worked.”

Joy is married to New Canaan native Thomas Cronin, who is director of marketing for Remy Cointreau USA. The Cronins (Joy uses her maiden name for business) have lived in New Canaan since 1997 and have three children: Tommy, eleven, Andrew, nine, and Caroline, six. Joy is an avid skier, and the family skis in Vermont, where they have a house. Last year they all took up golf, which turned out to be a more time-consuming pursuit than imagined. “A game can take five hours!” Joy laughs. “Caroline would catch grasshoppers, the other two would be hitting balls, or one would be in the woods trying to find the balls.”

For fifteen years Joy drove into the city, rain, shine or snow, and just recently she started commuting by train. “What a wake-up call that was,” she exclaims. “The same faces every day — it’s like Groundhog Day — but it’s a great place to work, which you can’t do in a car.” The trick to being in the office every morning by 7:30, she claims, is an unvarying eight hours of sleep; she’s in bed by 9:30 and jokes that her kids stay up later than she does. “I wake up and it’s go, go, go,” she says. “People who work for me would say that they get most of their e-mails from me at about 6:30 in the morning. I know what I’m going to do when I walk in the door, and I know what they all have to do.”

Most nights Joy is back on the train by 7:00 and home by 8:15. “I try to save the weekends for family,” she says, “but it’s hard because I have so many markets now with so many different brands under me. The golf division opens on a different schedule as the specialty division, the department stores open on a different calendar, and we just launched American Living with J.C. Penney and that’s on a different market schedule.” (Specialty stores include Neiman Marcus, Bergdorf Goodman’s and Richard’s of Greenwich; department stores include Saks Fifth Avenue, Dillard’s and Bloomingdale’s.)

No designer at the top of an international design company marketing lifestyle products in four distinct and highly successful categories — apparel, home, accessories and fragrance — designs every single item on which his name appears. “But Ralph touches everything,” says Joy. “There are critical points. In menswear, the world that I’m involved in, they start with conceptual photos and conceptual walls, where, literally, a room four times the size of this will have the inspiration on it. It could be like this room,” she says with an expansive gesture. “It could be Jamaica, it could be a very island-y feel with the blues and the whites, like this — it’s a style. A lot of the props and the visual pictures are also what tell the story, so if you go to a Polo store it’s not just about the clothes.”

Every detail, from the button on a shirt cuff to the display layout of a Ralph Lauren store, is planned and rehearsed and analyzed and tweaked. “We spend a lot of time on how it all works,” Joy says, “with an army of masterminds who are progressively involved in every point of distribution that we have. From the initial conception to a product line coming out, we’re plotting.” The out-of-town tryouts, so to speak, take place at the company’s major distribution center in Greensboro, North Carolina, where a 2,000-square-foot test store has been constructed in the middle of the warehouse. “My team goes down, and we take full top-of-the-line production and put it in and merchandise it,” she explains. “Then we go in and walk the space, every season before the goods ship. No, you have to change that; no, that doesn’t look quite right. Ralph has such a strong point of view on how each collection should be expressed, and he’s constantly challenging me — and us — on how to do that. I’ve never met anyone more driven, more passionate, or more of a visionary.”

Wayne Meichner is president of the Polo Ralph Lauren retail division and responsible for the sixty-four “owned and operated” Ralph Lauren stores in the United States, sixteen in Europe, one in Japan; and the eleven Rugby stores. Wayne was with Saks Fifth Avenue for twenty-three years before joining Polo some five years ago. “I always worked with the Ralph Lauren people, including Joy,” he says. “I had a great respect for the brand — but an even greater respect, quite frankly, for the people within the company, which is attributable to Ralph and what he’s built. It’s a creatively driven company and it’s had success, and as a result it’s a fun place to work. That energy and that happiness you see in the company is genuine.

“And Joy is a real partner when you have to make a decision about distribution,” he says. “Who she may want to be selling to, if we have a store there and what it may mean to us. What would opening a Ralph Lauren store mean to her accounts? If you look at Fairfield County, there was no real distribution besides what we sell through wholesale; our first store was in New Canaan.” (Ralph Lauren is opening a Greenwich store in fall 2009.) “But we sell Darien Sport Shop, we sell Mitchell’s, and those decisions need to be balanced. You don’t want to dilute a luxury brand.”

 “There are so many components of our lines,” says Joy Herfel, “whether it’s men’s or women’s. I can put on jodhpurs and riding boots one day and be all dressed up and glamorous the next day. I think that’s the beauty of the brand. It all still feels like Ralph Lauren but it’s got a really wide bandwidth and that’s the fun of it.” Confirming what one senses from the very atmosphere of the building and from those who work there, she concludes: “There’s an emotional connection here with the product — it’s not just a job. It’s just so much easier to put everything you have into your career when you believe in what you’re doing.”