If you lined up The Outlet Co.'s specialty store chains side by side and took down the signs that say Phillipsborn, Flair, Touraine or Cherry & Webb, you couldn't tell them apart, admits Outlet President Bruce Sundlun.
The merchandise in one store is indistinguishable from the next, allowing Outlet to run three different chains with one set of buyers and merchandisers.
The exception is Beyda, a branch of Washington's Phillipsborn that breaks the pattern of selling moderately priced ready-to-wear for young working women and housewives by featuring clothes that are almost trendy.
"Beyda doesn't fit," said Sundlun in a recent interview. "We're going to sell Beyda and expand Phillipsborn."
The decision sounds almost automatic the way Sundlun describes it - matter of fact, logical, rational, profitable. Yet a bird in the hand is still a bird in the hand, and selling off a good operation to expand a better one is the sort of decision that corporate executives make with reluctance.
Sundlun has done it twice in the past year.
A television station Outlet owned in Syracuse, N.Y., was sold last fall so Outlet could buy a bigger one. The Federal Communications Commission limits a broadcaster to a maximum of five VHF TV stations, two UHF stations, and seven AM and seven FM radio stations.
With VHF stations in Syracuse, Providence, Orlando, San Antonio and Columbus, Outlet had its quota. But the Syracuse market was a minor one and there were better stations available. So WNYS-TV went on the block, and Sundlun is shopping for a replacement.
Like the sale of WNYS, the proposed disposition of the Beyda shops fits into a grand plan for Outlet, a providence, R.I.-based company with an unlikely combination of retailing and broadcasting operations.
Sundlun, a Washington lawyer, became Outlet president two years ago. He says his goal is to make Outlet a half-billion-dollar-a-year business by 1982 with a $20 million bottom line.
Outlet's fiscal 1976 sales of $148 million produced pre-tax earnings of $10.9 million and a net of $5.37 million. Because of an aggressive acquisitions program - Sundlun was Outlet's acquisitions lawyer before becoming president - sales for the first nine months of fiscal 1977 increased by 41 percent to $140 million and earnings jumped 47 percent, to $3.2 million. Final figures for the year ended Jan. 31 due in a couple weeks.
Sundlun says the company will triple its volume and doubleits triple its volume and double its profits by counterbalancing Outlet's retail and broadcast operations.
The retail operations provide three-quarters of the volume ($116 million in the latest fiscal) year and about one-quater of the profits ($3.2 million), while broadcasting brought in less than one-quarter of the volume, ($30 million but the bulk of the profits ($7.5 million).
Retail acquisitions are relatively cheap and broadcasting buys are very capital intensive, making the return on investment of broadcasting less attractive despite the higher profit margins, Sunlum notes.
The Washington area is a pivotal to Outlet's strategy of counterbalanced growth.
Next month, Sundlun expects to close a deal to buy radio station WTOP from The Washington Post Co. for $6.675 million. WTOP will be Outlet's second AM station, after WDBO in Orlando, and is the first step toward acquiring the full compliment of AM stations allowed by the FCC.
The WTOP deal includes a promise to keep the station's all-news format for at least two years, and Sundlun notes that strong local news operations have enabled other Outlet stations to dominate their markets. The difference between being the number one and number two station in a listening area is millions of dollars a year in advertising revenues, he says, a differences that can justify substantial investments in money and talent.
The local news strength usually is backed by aggressive local advertising sales, forecasting changes in both operations when Outlet takes over WTOP.
Although a highly localized operation is vital for Outlet's broadcasting success, it is antithetical to the company's retailing philosophy.
After acquiring the now-47-store Phillipsborn chain when it was in bankruptcy reorganization. Outlet has returned the Washington retail operation to profitability and integrated it into a centralized operation.
Phillipsborn's offices and warehouse in Forestville are being closed, leaving only a smaller facility in Silver Spring. Buying and merchandising operations already have been moved to the Pawtucket, R.I., headquarters of the Outlet retail divisions, where, Sundlun notes, a team of buyers can just as easily run 100 stores as a dozen.