When Josie Natori traveled from the Philippines to the U.S. as a 17-year-old in 1964, her intention was to obtain a college education and hopefully a few years of work experience before returning to her homeland. More than a half century later, however, the founder of New York City-based The Natori Company, which designs and sells high-end women’s clothing, still calls America home.
“Clearly I fell in love with the country and have been here for a long, long time,” she said in reflecting on her journey to becoming a self-made millionaire and fashion icon.
Josie Natori, Founder and CEO, The Natori Company:
I’ve always believed that my two biggest assets are: No. 1, I’m a woman, and No. 2, I’m Asian. My philosophy is: Indulgence is a necessity. It’s not a whim. I work hard, I deserve it.
That’s what Natori is based on, on selling to women who really like to take care of themselves, love themselves, work very hard. Whether you’re a housewife or you’re, you know, working in, have the career, it doesn’t matter.
(Josie Natori, in a meeting)
“Okay, great. Get to work!” (laughter)
I knew nothing about the industry, but in many ways, I think ignorance was bliss and so I really approached it instinctively and learned on the job. I really take pride that we are one of the few still family-owned businesses in a very, very tough industry. I couldn’t do it, of course, without the support, without the organization, the team, certainly my family.
(Ken Natori, president, The Natori Company; talking to Josie Natori)
“Because we factored in ordering the fabric and then…”
To my parents’ credit, they never pressured me to join the business and we never really talked about the business that much. I really came in with my own views and was given the leeway to establish new businesses and to address some of these new opportunities.
It’s really been a fabulous thing to be able to have Kenneth here. Kenneth has been able to bring practices into the company that is much-needed. He’s built the e-com business. We feel that even though we’re 40 years old, that the company — the best is yet to come and that, you know, we are doing everything to make sure that the company is relevant to the next generation
(Man in a meeting with Josie Natori)
“You think that one is more?”
(Josie Natori, in a meeting)
Of course, you’re going to hit it there, you’re going to see it.”
I am very fortunate that I come from a family of very strong women, where my grandmother taught me from age 3 that to be independent and never have to depend on anyone and be your own person. And when the opportunity came to go to college in the United States, I told my parents I would like to go to the United States and then I did. I majored in economics and decided to work in Wall Street and had an amazing career of nine years in Wall Street, where I was fortunate enough to be the first woman vice president in investment banking at Merrill Lynch.
(Josie Natori, in a meeting)
“The numbers are, have greatly improved.”
Although my background is in Wall Street and finance, I’ve had to face what every other business owner has to in terms of the growing pains of the business. Being part of the Wells Fargo family to me has been a plus for Natori.
You know, knowing that we have Wells Fargo there and knowing that we trust the people there and that we’re with an established bank has really made life easier for us.
Douglas Powell Taliaferro, regional vice president, Wells Fargo
She’s been a valued client for many, many years and she’s an ideal client for us. We have this mutual respect. We understand her business, we trust and admire the way that she’s run her business and she knows that we’ll be there for her when she needs us.
You can’t be in this business without a strong financial partner, and I think Wells Fargo gives us that. There is a humanity there and there is a caring. To me, Wells Fargo is like family.
Her success, she added, is the result of the opportunity she found in the U.S., coupled with the entrepreneurial spirit her family instilled in her as a young girl growing up in Manila. This was most embodied by witnessing the tireless work ethic of her grandmother, Josefa M. Almeda, who owned several businesses and whose workday often spanned from 4 a.m. to midnight.
“The Philippines is one of the few matriarchal societies in the world — so I was surrounded by women, including my grandmother and my mother, who were very much focused on career,” she said. “My grandmother taught me from age 3 to be independent and to be your own person.”
After earning a degree in economics, obtaining her U.S. citizenship, and spending nearly a decade as a Wall Street banker, Natori took her grandmother’s words of wisdom to heart in 1977, leaving behind her finance career to found The Natori Company with her husband, Ken.
“My husband and I really strategized and thought about a hundred different businesses that we could go into until I decided it had to be something that had to do with the Philippines,” she recalled. “And by luck, I was showing an embroidered blouse made in the Philippines to a buyer who suggested that I turn it into a night shirt, and that’s really how Natori got started.”
Today, the family-owned company sells its products — luxury women’s sleepwear and undergarments, along with other clothing and accessories — at upscale department stores like Bloomingdale’s, Neiman Marcus, Nordstrom, and Saks Fifth Avenue in the U.S. and in more than 20 countries around the world.
“It’s really been an amazing journey for me to build a brand that caters to making a woman feel good about herself 24/7 with what she wears from the inside out, what she surrounds herself with in her home, and just making life a beautiful experience.”
Navigating the financial challenges of a season-to-season industry
While much of Josie Natori’s success in life can be attributed to the self-reliance instilled in her as a young girl by her grandmother, she’s quick to point out that there is an equal importance in fostering relationships — whether that’s been with her family and employees or with the company’s suppliers, retailers, and bankers.
“I really take pride that we are one of the few family-owned businesses in a very tough industry, but I couldn’t do it without the support of our current banking structure with Wells Fargo and their help to figure out and navigate the changes in the industry,” said Natori.
Natori and her son, Ken — who became the company’s president in 2016 — work closely with Julie Acuff and Kevin Gillespie of Wells Fargo Capital Finance and Douglas Taliaferro of Wells Fargo’s Middle Market Banking Group to help manage the company’s many financial needs.
“For The Natori Company, the need to better maximize its working capital availability through accounts receivable financing, also known as ‘factoring,’ was the initial draw to moving its business to Wells Fargo,” said Acuff. “Shortly after — as a result of the competitive advantages that the bank offers to apparel businesses — Natori made Wells Fargo its sole bank for all of its working capital and borrowing needs.”
Through this expanded relationship, Wells Fargo has helped the company grow the business and successfully launch into e-commerce in order to help Natori remain competitive in uncertain retail conditions.
“At Wells Fargo we have a large group that specializes in the apparel and fashion space — an industry with a lot of nuances,” said Taliaferro. “The retail market and fashion industry are ever-changing and retailers are becoming more and more demanding, like longer payment terms and earlier shipment of product during the season. Wells Fargo understands this, and we provide Natori with flexible financing solutions that enable them to adapt to these changes from season to season.”
The company also upgraded its existing retail facilities in New York City with financing from Wells Fargo. And, according to the Natori’s president, this relationship is proving even more valuable to the company as it plots its course for the future.
“We are at a crucial turning point now in terms of the future of the organization — if we really are going to roll the dice in terms of digital and in terms of our direct business — it may require a little bit more risk and a larger capital investment than we’ve been willing to entertain in the past,” said Ken Natori. “Knowing that we have Wells Fargo there on our side, should we choose to get more aggressive in terms of investment, it takes some of that worry away and we know that it gives us more options and more opportunities as we plan our future road map.”
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