Alex and Ani…at a Crossroads?

Alex and Ani has always been an unconventional company built around unconventional people. Rhode Islander Carolyn Rafaelian had a nice business selling bangles to department stores when she recruited local politico and businessman Giovanni Feroce to be her company’s CEO. After some growing pains—just about every original employee left—he turned the company into a juggernaut; he told me it’s a billion-dollar business. The odd-couple pairing of former military man Feroce and unrepentant new-ager Rafaelian was mentioned in just about every article written about it.

Feroce has since left, and when I interviewed him in March, he stressed that he viewed his alma mater as a lifestyle brand, not just a jewelry business. Its Super Bowl commercial puzzled observers by not showing any product, but Feroce said that was deliberate, as the company is building its name. It’s already bought vineyards and launched a perfume line. Feroce talked about Alex and Ani chairs—even cars.

Scoff if you will, but the brand might be better positioned to do this than most, as it has something of a personality. And that personality is Rafaelian’s, who told BloombergBusinessweek she uses numerology to determine when to open stores and has recruited shamans to bless the stores. While that may not appeal to every consumer, certainly enough respond to it that it’s become part of its positioning. “[All our] different entities all with the same DNA and footprint, which is me,” she said. The closest comparison I can think of is Ben and Jerry’s, whose image as smiling benevolent hippies undoubtedly played a role in that brand’s success. 

Yet, for all the undeniable cleverness of its marketing and positioning, Alex and Ani, like Pandora, had the right product—lower-end charms and bangles—at the right time—when the millennial generation was making its presence felt at the nation’s malls. Its products can also be individualized—important for today’s consumer—and invite repeat purchases.

Pandora stumbled badly when it tried to branch out beyond charms into watches and sunglasses—which, among other things, aren’t as customizable as beads. That could also happen to Alex and Ani. The same customer who likes its low-priced jewelry may not also want to buy its wine, chairs, or perfume.

As Businessweek says, the company’s had something of a “charmed life” so far. But now it’s at a crossroads. It’s considering an IPO, it’s continuing to expand, and, of course, it’s looking for a new chief executive. Given that it has received backing from private equity, it should be able to attract some top talent, though it would have to be the kind of person comfortable with numerology.   

Transforming groovy new-age brand Alex and Ani to a publicly listed lifestyle powerhouse will inevitably mean future growing pains. We’ll all be watching the next chapter of what’s already been a remarkable and improbable story.

JCK News Director