Jeff Lotman

Into The Entrepreneurial Mindset
Jeff Lotman
October 27, 2022
Jeff Lotman is the founder and CEO of Global Icons, the world’s largest independent full-service corporate brand licensing agency with offices in Los Angeles, Detroit, London and Hong Kong. He is also the owner of Fred Segal, Los Angeles’ iconic fashion brand. An expert in branding, marketing and licensing, he has built an impressive career as a brand strategist. His clients include Lamborghini, Citroën, Opel, Vespa, Aprilia, USPS, Silk, Twinkies and Horizon Organic.

October marks Global Icons’ 25th anniversary. How did it all start?

My first job was in the food business as a manufacturer for McDonald’s, which lasted for more than 20 years. We were a high-volume, low-cost producer to make the best hamburger for the best price. It was a great business, and McDonald’s was an incredible customer. However, I have always been fascinated with the power of brands and wanted to pursue that area further. When I left manufacturing, I was the COO of a $5 billion/year company with 3000 employees worldwide. I ended up falling into licensing, which I didn’t completely understand initially. At the time, I was trying to acquire the rights to Hollywood celebrity estates for an animation project. I approached two celebrity estate firms that represented James Cagney, Humphrey Bogart, Marlene Dietrich and many more, but they were not willing to give me the rights because it would cut into their profits.

At the time, I didn’t realize that if they gave me those rights, it also meant I’d have the right to re-license the image of Bogart, Cagney, etc. However, when it comes to business, I never take no for an answer. I believe there’s always a way to accomplish something, so I continued my research. I discovered you could get copies of celebrities’ wills by mailing a letter to the Secretary of State, which is how I found the executor of the estate. From there, I contacted the children of each celebrity estate, and they were ecstatic to continue the project and were willing to give me the rights.

James Cagney was my first client and the true reason that Global Icons was started. Marge, who oversaw the estate, said to me that she would only give me the rights to my project if I also represented Cagney. Thus, Global Icons was born because Marge made me do it. From those auspicious beginnings, we went from one to five to 15 clients very quickly.

Back then, collectible plates created by Franklin Mint and other limited-edition products were a big part of the business. However, eBay killed the collectible market about three years later. People all over the country tried to sell the products they had in their storage, which wasn’t worth what they thought; thus, the market collapsed. I had a handful of people working with me at the time, and we decided the best thing to do would be to go after the brand space. So literally, on a Friday, I buried all the dead (as I call it) and started a brand licensing company. Our first client was Elite Modeling, but our first profitable client was Igloo, the cooler company. From there, things quickly took off.
“That personal relationship is stronger than any other visual connection.”

With Global Icons, your focus on a brand’s marketing success. Why choose licensing as a strategy and what is the project you are most proud of?

I recently wrote a book about brand licensing titled “Invisible Marketing: A Hidden Tool for Connecting Consumers through Licensing” because our industry is the most misunderstood industry out there. When I meet someone, I just tell them I work in marketing because most people don’t know about brand licensing. People talk about advertising, print media, television, radio, and all the social media platforms, but you can’t interact with the brand via any of those outlets – you can’t really touch it. Brand licensing breaks that wall; you can connect directly with the customer and put a product in their hands where they can form a relationship. That personal relationship is stronger than any other visual connection. When it’s done well, you won’t know it happened — it’s truly magical.

One of the projects I’m most proud of occurred when Ford was our client. We expanded their brand into garage storage solutions and then to hand tools. Eventually, we branched out to power tools and generators and created an entirely new category for any car brand at this time. We brought the brand to a place where you could touch it in your home; now, when your power goes out, you turn on that Ford generator. You know you can trust it because that’s what Ford is about — dependability and quality you can count on.

Can you share the most interesting story that occurred to you during your career?

When I worked with Ford, we aimed to expand the brand internationally across many categories, including apparel. We ran into a trademark challenge in Europe where Mustang jeans existed years before the Mustang car. As a result, Ford Mustang could not sell T-shirts, hats, or any apparel with the Mustang logo on it. Additionally, when Ford decided to roll out Mustang globally, this became a big issue.

Ford tried to solve this with lawyers for many years but never got anywhere. Then I asked if I could meet the trademark owner to make this thing happen — to try and broker a deal. I flew to Germany and drove two hours to this very small town to meet the head of the company. We discussed our goals and devised a deal that involved sharing the revenue for both of us. Now you can buy Ford Mustang apparel in Europe.
“You can’t build a house on your own.”

What is the one thing you wish someone told you when you first started?

Starting a company from scratch can be very difficult. It’s sort of like building a house; it costs more and takes longer, but if you are patient and stay focused, it can withstand the test of time, as our firm is now 25 years old this year. You also quickly realize that you can’t build a house on your own. Likewise, you can’t run a company by yourself, which is why the people around you are so important. Fortunately, I have a handful of people that are still with me over 20 years later. Honestly, I can’t figure out why, but I am grateful.

What did you learn from your experience as the owner of Fred Segal?

Retail can be very challenging. Through my experience owning Fred Segal, we have learned to understand the customer’s purchase behaviors, ways they engage with the brand online, best practices in retail expansions, and opening a successful store.

Is there a person you are grateful towards who helped you grow into a branding expert?

I’ve been very lucky to have a handful of employees with me for over 20 years. Remember when I said I fell into licensing and had no idea what it was? That changed when I hired Mike Gard, my COO, who was from Paramount Studios, and Bill McClinton, our President, who worked in licensing at Fox and Disney. Today, I am truly fortunate to love what I do and have great clients and brands that I love to work with. In our world, it’s never boring, and every day is different. We could be doing Betty Boop skateboards one day, Lamborghini headphones the next.

How would you describe your ambition today?

Fred Segal has strong global awareness, but it is smaller than people think, and it’s my goal to make that strong brand perception into a reality. To put this in context, if you are in retail anywhere in the world, the odds are high that you know of Fred Segal. And if you’re in fashion retail, there’s a 90% chance you’ve been to a Fred Segal store at some point in your career to see the latest styles. It is for these reasons that Fred Segal has the ability to be a billion-dollar brand, and I am confident we will get there!
“Do or do not. There is no try.”

Is there a motto you live by?

I live by two things, and one is the Yoda philosophy. “Do or do not. There is no try.” The other comes from a joke I heard when I was eight years old, which goes like this:

A woman takes her two children to see a psychiatrist. She says to the psychiatrist, “My children are complete opposites. One is an optimist, and one is a pessimist. I don’t know what to do.”
The doctor tells her, “Come back in a couple of hours, and I’ll let you know what I found out.” The mother leaves.
The doctor proceeds to separate the two kids. He puts the pessimist in a room full of FAO Schwarz toys, which are some of the best toys in the world. The whole room is full of everything you could think of — cars, trains, paint sets etc. Then the doc leaves and puts the optimist in a room full of horse manure.
He comes back an hour later and opens the door with the pessimist, who has not moved an inch. Nothing. He did not touch a toy, a train, a car, a pencil, or anything. The doctor looks at him. “Why didn’t you play with any of these toys?” The boy looks up sheepishly. “Because if I play with them now, I won’t have them when I get home, and I’ll be very sad.” The doctor says that’s interesting. I’ll get back to you.
He walks in and opens the optimist door. A big pile of manure hits the doc in the face. The kid says, “Hi doc. With all this shit around here, there’s gotta be a pony.” That is my philosophy on life, sometimes you must look long and hard, but… there is always a pony somewhere!

What is the biggest challenge that you faced in your professional life?

Some of the biggest challenges I faced professionally was when I stepped into a new industry and bought Fred Segal. For years, I have been looking to buy a company with national brand recognition and potential for licensing growth — Fred Segal was the perfect candidate! I saw Fred Segal as a huge opportunity to leverage Global Icons and begin pursuing licensing deals for retail stores in Dubai, Japan, China, and Canada and for category expansion into apparel, shoes, eyewear, and cannabis.

When the pandemic hit, we, of course, like most retailers, struggled to find the new normal. Luckily, prior to the pandemic, we planned to grow our e-commerce platform and pivoted to new marketing tactics in-store and online, including live shopping. As the retail landscape continues to shift, we are back to opening more stores nationally and internationally. We continue to develop collaborations across homewares, furniture, art, and pet lifestyle brands to raise brand awareness and, of course, grow revenue.

The truth is that I have never worked so hard in my life, but I have never been happier doing it.
“Being honorable and keeping your word.”

Which character traits do you think were most instrumental to your success?

Persistence, believing in myself, and of course, keeping a sense of humor and a level head when a problem occurs. Overall, all of these traits are vital to establishing and maintaining a good reputation — I believe what’s most important is being honorable and keeping your word. I am very proud to say that in our industry, Global Icons and myself have an excellent reputation. As my father used to say, “your greatest asset is your last name, and you need to protect it at all costs.”
“If we are awake, we are available.”

What is your typical workday like?

I wake up between 5:45 am and 6:00 am. I immediately check my emails, which ones are most important, respond to those first, and then see what else needs to be done. Shower, exercise, then get in front of the computer.

If I’m working from home, I start around 7:30 am — from the office around 8:15 am. I tend to have back-to-back Zoom calls every 30 mins until about 4:00 pm or so. Then I’m spent and head home to take a break for a couple of hours. I eat dinner, respond to more emails, and handle what must be dealt with before I go to bed. We have an expression at Global Icons: if we are awake, we are available.

What rules do you follow to become more successful?

1. Trust your instincts.
2. Hire people smarter than you and get out of their way.
3. Try to listen more than you talk, which is hard for me at times.
4. There are no NOs, only NO for today.
Jeff Lotman | globalicons.com | @jlotman
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