Brand man's gift for garb

Robin J. Moody

Business Journal staff writer

Gary Peck spent 18 years shaping product lines and boosting apparel profits as an executive at Nike Inc. and Adidas America Inc.

These days, Peck concentrates his substantial energy and expertise on a smaller family of companies, helping them design, develop and manufacture new apparel products and revamp existing lines through his Portland-based consultancy, The S-Group Inc.

Peck's Midas touch has shone at his own enterprise, which will surpass $50 million in revenue this year, thanks to 30 percent annual sales growth it realized during each of the past five years. It employs 50 in offices in Portland, Peru, China and Malaysia.

He started the company because "after 20 years in the business, I saw that what was missing was the ability to take a brand's DNA and make it visible" in all its products.

Peck's story is a powerful illustration of how Portland's homegrown talent pool is shaping the city into the epicenter of the athletic apparel, footwear and equipment industry. Seven-year-old S-Group works with some of the nation's hottest athletic apparel brands, including Lululemon, Life is Good, Lucy Activewear, New Balance and Reef. Services include design, development, production and marketing.

People who have worked with Peck credit his company's success to his business acumen and sense of design -- a rare combination in the apparel world -- plus expansive industry experience.

"He has encyclopedic knowledge of what's happening in the business," said Steve Wynne, who served as chief executive of Adidas America Inc. from 1995 to 2000. "He can also tell you about every fiber in the marketplace."

At S-Group, Peck uses relationships he has built with overseas manufacturers, germinated during years spent building Asian manufacturing networks for Nike and Adidas.

The consultancy was instrumental in helping the homegrown women's apparel retailer Lucy Activewear launch its own branded line of apparel. Peck helped connect Lucy to overseas factories and helped manage production and quality, said former Lucy CEO Mike Edwards.

Hiring the S-Group freed up Lucy's design group for innovation, Edwards added, instead of forcing them to wrestle with the logistics of production.

"There's a cost to do business with the S-Group ... but when your job is to get product to market quickly, it's great to have a resource like that," Edwards said. "Gary brings a lot of credibility to the table."

Although S-Group targets mid- to large-sized companies, Peck and his team recognize Portland is a hotbed for apparel entrepreneurs, and they have selectively chosen to support small but promising local businesses.

Peck serves on the board for the sustainable apparel and accessory company Sameunderneath, for example, and the S-Group works with Airtime Gear, a Beaverton company that makes apparel for emergency professionals.

The group typically seeks an equity stake for its services when it works with smaller companies.

The S-Group recently moved, and now shares space in Old Town with the Center of Excellence, a business accelerator for startups in the apparel, footwear and equipment space.

The two enterprises are not connected, but The S-Group's new digs will undoubtedly give company leaders a "first look" at many of the area's nascent apparel startups.

Born in Capetown, South Africa, Peck studied in the U.S. and earned his bachelor's of textile engineering degree at the Philadelphia College of Textiles and Science. He later attended the University of Oregon to get his master's in business administration. Those who have known Peck throughout his life describe him as upbeat, candid and optimistic.

"He's a ball of energy," said apparel analyst Jennifer Black, who has known Peck for 20 years. "We are very lucky to have him here in Portland, where there's so much going on in the industry."

While Portland's apparel industry -- and The S-Group -- are experiencing their Halcyon Days, the big picture on apparel is gloomier.

"Right now is the toughest time I've seen our industry go though, from the perspective of costs," Peck said.

Energy and labor costs are rising rapidly, he pointed out, and the average consumer is paying up to $100 more a month for gas and electric, clamping down on discretionary purchases.

"The U.S. dollar is in horrible shape compared to other currencies," he said. | 503-219-3438