George Goldfarb

George Goldfarb

This Duluth native is a hometown hero, building the Maurices apparel chain into a North American retail powerhouse.

You could call it the house that George Goldfarb built. Located in downtown Duluth just off Interstate 35 near City Hall, the headquarters for women’s clothing retailer Maurices was the largest commercial development in the city when it was finished in 2016. As president and CEO in 2012, Goldfarb got the ball rolling on the building that replaced a cramped warren of offices kludged together in various buildings.

“I felt so strongly that our people deserved it,” Goldfarb says of the 200,000-square-foot building. That sentiment reflects his general attitude about Maurices: “I love the people, I love the company, and I love the brand.”

Goldfarb has been sharing that attitude since 1985, when the Duluth native and University of Minnesota Duluth accounting grad joined Maurices to help direct its finance operations. He climbed the ladder to the C-suite, serving as CFO, COO, and co-president before being named president and CEO in 2011. Goldfarb steered the company through challenges and strengthened its durable retail success. When he joined, the Duluth-born apparel chain had about 400 stores and $250 million in revenue. When he retired in the spring of 2021, the revenue figure exceeded $1 billion. As of May, Maurices operates 891 stores across the U.S. and Canada—three of which are Evsie stores, a recently introduced brand for girls ages 7 to 14.

“Our special sauce is really the smaller markets,” says Goldfarb, who continues to serve on the board. There is less competition in these markets, and Maurices understands its customers. He says the core customer is a 30-something woman, though the broad selection of moderately priced apparel and accessories “resonates for that 20-something to 50-something.”

He notes periods when Maurices lacked focus. For example, in 1999, he says, “we had a vision of becoming Abercrombie & Fitch.” Maurices shifted to “a narrow and deep assortment concept that was destined for failure in our small markets,” Goldfarb says. In those communities, he adds, “you have to have a lot of SKUs,” because people don’t want to dress alike. The company ended up closing nearly 200 stores; 1999 was the only year Maurices lost money.

Goldfarb hadn’t joined the C-suite yet, but he experienced the “turmoil and frustration across the ranks.” During that time, “I learned so much about the importance of culture.” For Goldfarb, that culture is an expression of connection and recognition.

A Maurices Timeline

1931 Maurice and Ella Labovitz open a retail store in downtown Duluth selling men’s and women’s clothing.

1955 The founders’ son, Joel, takes over operations and begins to expand Maurices in smaller Midwestern cities such as Wausau, Wisconsin.

1978 The Labovitz family sells its 200-store chain to American Retail Group, the U.S. arm of Netherlands-based global retailer C&A Brenninkmeijer.

2005 Maurices is purchased by New Jersey-based Dressbarn (later renamed Ascena Retail Group).

2019 Maurices is acquired by U.K. private equity firm OpCapita.

“If you tagged anyone here, no matter if they’d been here for 20 years or 20 days, they would all say the same thing: ‘He knows my name, he asks me how I’m doing,’ ” says Maurices chief human resources and communications officer Sue Ross, who worked with Goldfarb for decades. “There is just such a feeling of care that he exudes. It’s authentic and it never wavers.” That’s been true in good and bad times, Ross notes. During Covid’s early days, when Maurices furloughed staff and associates, Goldfarb voluntarily drew no salary for several months.

Goldfarb has been committed to keeping Maurices in Duluth. In 2005, Maurices was acquired by New Jersey-based Ascena Retail Group, whose brands included Dressbarn and Lane Bryant. Goldfarb notes that Ascena didn’t push for a move to the East Coast. “Being headquartered in this smaller market helps in dealing with the stores and in executing the vision,” Goldfarb says. “They got that. This couldn’t be done in New York City.”

Joining Ascena offered Maurices several advantages. “Scale was one,” Goldfarb says. Sharing ideas was another. “Adding plus sizes was something we’d taken from Dressbarn.” Maurices began carrying plus-size women’s apparel in 2007, about the same time it dropped men’s lines. “Men’s business is a tough business,” he says. “The plus business is a great business, and it complemented the core assortment already in the store.” During Goldfarb’s leadership, Maurices also has shed many national brands, which can be less profitable than private label. Currently, about 90 to 95% of the stores’ products are Maurices’ own lines.

With Goldfarb as CEO, Maurices went from success to success. In 2012, it expanded into Canada; two years later, it opened its 900th store. In 2015, it reached another milestone, achieving $1 billion in sales.

“There is just such a feeling of care that he exudes. It’s authentic.”

—Sue Ross, chief human resources and communications officer, Maurices

That same year, Ascena had acquired Ann Inc., parent of the Ann Taylor and Loft chains. “That was a big purchase for them,” Goldfarb notes, and it absorbed more of Ascena’s time and resources. Ascena made Goldfarb CEO of both Maurices and Dressbarn; several other Maurices executives split their time between the chains. “We lost focus on the key brand, which was Maurices,” he says. Maurices was Ascena’s largest chain, with 1,012 stores. But starting in 2018, Maurices was forced to close a couple dozen locations.

In 2019, “we were fortunate enough to be recruited by an experienced private equity firm,” Goldfarb says. London-based OpCapita purchased Maurices from Ascena, a deal that Goldfarb helped broker during two years of due diligence and negotiation. OpCapita had turned around German apparel chain NKD and U.K. video-game retailer GAME, and it “believed in our concept and our leadership team, and in the significant growth opportunity,” he says.

Since retiring as CEO, Goldfarb remains active in his hometown, serving on the boards of Essentia Health, utility Allete, and his alma mater. He’s also part of a group working to expand Duluth’s housing stock so that growing employers like Cirrus Aircraft and Essentia Health can attract needed talent.

George Goldfarb’s credos

Culture is more important than strategy. Not that strategy is unimportant. “But if you don’t have the people and the culture to execute the strategy, strategy can do nothing.”

Divine discontent. This means “challenging the status quo—to think of new ideas, grow the business, make your team better. It may mean there are new marketing techniques out there—how do we challenge ourselves to bring in
that expertise? It may mean: Do we have the best people in the roles today?”

“His strong business acumen has been invaluable on our board for the past 11 years,” says Allete president, CEO, and board chair Bethany Owen. “Equally important has been his lifelong service and commitment to our community and our region. George asks incredibly insightful questions and provides important strategic perspective, but always thoughtfully, and always with kindness and compassion. That’s a hallmark of who George is as a leader and as a human being.”

Maurices hasn’t been immune to retail sector challenges that surfaced since the onset of the pandemic. While online sales have increased over the past couple of years, there now are fewer than 900 brick-and-mortar stores. In April, Maurices laid off about 5% of its corporate staff.

But compared to numerous other retailers, the house that George Goldfarb has built still appears to have a solid foundation.

See the other 2023 Minnesota Business Hall of Fame inductees.